Inaccurate report is damaging for Scottish ski resorts '“ and climate research

On 7 February, the BBC reported on its website that Scotland's ski centres were 'reliant on artificial snow.' This was a reference to the fact that three of the five Scottish resorts '“ Glencoe, CairnGorm and the Lecht '“ were trialling hi-tech snowmaking gizmos called Snowfactories, with a view to making them permanent fixtures if it turns out they do what they're supposed to (ie make enough artificial snow over a relatively small area so that limited skiing is still possible even when there is insufficient natural snow elsewhere on the mountain).

The Lecht ski centre, near Tomintoul PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Lecht ski centre, near Tomintoul PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish skiing would have been somewhat flummoxed by this melodramatic statement from the Beeb, coinciding as it did with absolutely stellar (natural) snow conditions across the Highlands. On the very same day that the BBC report went live, the folks at Glencoe were reporting “really good quality snow on groomed runs” and were able to open every area of the mountain apart from the Flypaper. Over at CairnGorm, meanwhile, they were boasting about “lovely powdery snow conditions on a hard base,” while at the Lecht they were celebrating “great conditions on the entire hill.” The early morning pictures posted on CairnGorm’s social media feeds made the place look like Narnia.

This wasn’t a freak occurrence, either, but part of an ongoing good news story for the industry. Just a few days earlier, on 2 February, Scotland’s ski centres announced that they had already clocked up more “skier days” in the 2017/18 winter than in the whole of the previous season, and that they were “hot on the heels of the very successful winter of 2014-15.”

If there was a news story about Snowfactories to be written on 7 February, then, it was surely an ironic one: “Scotland’s ski centres have absolutely no need whatsoever for their new snowmaking gear as Mother Nature delivers apocalyptic quantities of the white stuff.”

So how did an enormous organisation like the BBC, with the kind of resources a newspaper like The Scotsman could only ever dream of, manage to produce something so completely out-of-kilter with the facts on the ground?

To be fair to Auntie, the problem in this case lies primarily with the source material they were using for their story – a newly published report from the Climate Coalition (“the UK’s largest group of people dedicated to action against climate change”) which set out to highlight how various sports, including golf, cricket and football, stand to suffer from the effects of man-made global warming.

The line in the report that caused all the trouble stated that Glencoe, CairnGorm and the Lecht were “spending more than half their operating budgets on artificial snow factories [sic] after a particularly bad 2016/17 season.”

This, as the resorts were quick to point out, was what Mr T would call jibber-jabber. A joint statement from the Association of Scottish Ski Areas and Ski-Scotland said: “A recent report prepared for the Climate Coalition by the Priestley International Centre for Climate claimed that three of Scotland’s main ski resorts were spending more than half their operating budgets on artificial snow factories following the poor 2016/17 season. This information is incorrect and its widespread reporting and repetition undermines the reputation both of the ski companies involved and the Scottish snowsports industry.”

It went on: “To the best of our knowledge, no academic or researcher from the Priestley Centre has been in touch with any of Scotland’s five mountain ski resorts.”

Ooft.That doesn’t look great for the Priestley Centre. Neither does the fact that the source used to support the erroneous “half their operating budgets” claim is a Scotsman story that doesn’t mention money once – we simply reported the fact that the three resorts were planning to trial Snowfactories this season.

Fortunately, to save the researchers at the Priestley Centre having to actually do any research themselves, the press release from the ski centres went on to explain what was really going on:

“It is a matter of fact that only two TechnoAlpin Snowfactories have been brought to Scotland this winter. One, heavily subsidised by the manufacturer, was trialled early in the season at CairnGorm Mountain and is currently at the Lecht 2090 ski centre. The other was leased by Glencoe Mountain and may become permanent if the crowdfunding initiative proves successful.”

What’s particularly disheartening about all this is that, broadly-speaking, the folks at the Priestley Centre, the Climate Coalition and the BBC are correct: climate change will, at some point in the future, have an adverse impact on snowsports in this country, and this is just one of many reasons we should be doing whatever we can to lessen its effects. When they present information on this critical issue, though, these organisations need to repay the trust we place in them, reflect the resources at their disposal, and do it properly. No more “fake news” own goals please.