Testing times ahead for skifields, experts say

Other impacts of climate change globally might have just as big an effect on Queenstown's ski industry as dwindling snow, climate specialists say.

''Not to detract from Winter Festival but there is a lot more to it than [just] how much snow falls,'' Victoria University Assoc Prof James Renwick says.

One scientific paper suggests that by the 2040s, maximum snow depth could range between 90% and 102% of present levels but by the 2090s this could drop to between 46% and 74%.

This translated into estimates of ski days from 125 days in 2010 to 99 to 126 in the 2040s and dropping to 52 to 110 in the 2090s, the paper said.

''We'll survive till mid-century but things will get stickier by end of the century,'' Canterbury University Assoc Prof Ian Owens says.

The issue was discussed last night at a Queenstown Winter Festival event: ''Queenstown 2040: Where will the snow be?''

As well as featuring climate specialists Prof Owen and Prof Renwick, mechanical engineering specialist Prof Susan Krumdieck and Queenstown snow expert Hamish McCrostie were scheduled to speak.

Prof Renwick said in an interview that by 2040 the temperature in New Zealand was predicted to rise by 0.5degC to 1degC.

In general, for every 1degC increase the snowline would rise about 150m.

''That raises the snow line a bit but later in the century the snow line will go up quite a bit.''

The Southern Alps were expected to get wetter but how much fell as rain or snow depended on the temperature.

''If it gets warmer, it's more likely to fall as rain and less as snow.''

The other issue to consider was the effects of international climate change on world economies, including food and fuel shortages during the next 50 years which could make air travel very expensive.

''The numbers of tourists coming here could go way down.''

However, as New Zealand was not expected to be as affected by climate change, it could look more attractive to those who did travel, he said.

''There will be snow here a lot longer than in Australia.''

Prof Owens cautioned in an interview snowfall predictions in the paper under-predicted temperatures.

At the moment there was no good evidence that the amount of snow which could fall in the period to 2040 would change very much, Prof Owens said.

Coronet Peak ski area manager Ross Copland said last winter was New Zealand's warmest on record and it was felt on the ski fields, which got only 180cm of snow compared with the annual average of 200cm.

He said the industry's bigger concern and ''imminent reality'' was the end of cheap fossil fuels and carbon taxes.

''That could happen at a faster rate and could put New Zealand and its tourism industry at significant risk.''