Can U.S. skiing be saved?

Human-caused global warming doesn’t turn January into July, and so it’s no surprise we’ve got lots of snow now.  The anti-science crowd keeps confusing precipitation with temperature, seeing almost any snowstorm as evidence we’re not warming (see “Was the “Blizzard of 2009″³ a “global warming type” of record snowfall “” or an opportunity for the media to blow the extreme weather story (again)?“).  In fact, since climate change will keep bringing more precipitation to certain regions, many northern ski areas will probably have lots of snow for the foreseeable future.  But most major U.S. ski resorts would be devastated if we keep on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions (see Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year “” and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!).  This CAP repost looks at some impacts on and actions by the ski industry.  The AP photo is a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine built by Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, MA.

The ski industry could be in big trouble if climate change continues unabated, and leaders in the industry are taking steps to make their resorts more sustainable while educating their guests.

Take Aspen, for instance. The resort is already seeing a gradual increase in frost-free days and warmer nights, according to Mike Kaplan, CEO of Aspen Skiing Company, and aspen trees are dying off in large numbers. A study by the Aspen Global Change Institute forecasts that if global carbon emissions continue to rise, Aspen will warm by 14 degrees by the end of this century””giving it a feel similar to Amarillo, TX.

In Utah, a consultant’s report released by the nonprofit Park City Foundation this fall predicts that the decrease in snowpack caused by global warming could lead to 1,100 jobs lost by 2030 and a $120 million economic loss in Park City alone. The town is home to three ski resorts and represents a share of the $1 billion that ski resorts bring to the state each year.

Ski executives understand the threat and are taking steps. Aspen is increasing its energy efficiency and reliance on renewable energy by installing solar energy systems. And Massachusetts resort Jiminy Peak installed a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine that generates 33 percent of its electricity demands.

Kaplan and others, including Steve Rendle, CEO of The North Face, are keen to get the word out about climate change’s effect on skiing and outdoor sports. They maintain, however, that these efforts are not enough, and they argue for a global and national climate and energy policy, not just out of concern for the planet, but for their businesses, as well. California’s ski industry was one of the first groups to support legislation requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 emission levels by 2020.

Skiers and snowboarders can help lower the carbon footprint of their sport through their choices in gear and travel. Colorado’s Venture Snowboards runs entirely on wind power, and Burton offers snowboards made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood and recycled materials. There’s also vegetable-based snowboard wax and organic skiwear. Used gear can be recycled or donated to the Salvation Army or organizations such as SWAG. If you’re not a regular skier or snowboarder, renting gear from the resort pro shop or a friend is a good choice.

Most people are forced to use SUVs or other gas guzzlers to climb the mountains to resorts, but many ski and snowboard shops such as Emilio’s in New York City run shuttle services straight to the slopes from the city. Some train lines on the East Coast will drop you off in free resort shuttle bus territory. If not, you can carpool, which is now easier to do with Facebook applications and resorts such as California’s Kirkwood, which provides its own carpool service, the K-Pool.

The nonprofit Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition runs an online community that assesses the environmental performance and policies of resorts in the United States and Canada. Concerned skiers, snowboarders, and conservationists can sign up and help keep track of how resorts are faring or search the site to see where to find the closest environmentally responsible resort.

National and global climate policies would take the biggest step toward cutting the emissions that endanger the ski industry. But those who enjoy the sport and want to see it preserved can do something now. They’d be joined by the major players in the business who are already working to keep the slopes covered in powder well into the future.

JR:  Having lived near Aspen for 2 years while working with Amory Lovins, I can attest to the devastation from the bark beetle, even if the media has been slow to make the link to climate change (see “Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?“)

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11 Responses to Can U.S. skiing be saved?

  1. John Mashey says:

    Well, my knees will probably go before the snow melts, but:

    1) Having skied out here in California since 1983, Sierra skiing has certainly become less predictable. In many cases, it’s not the *average* temperature that counts as much as the variability. One can have weeks of cool weather and nice snow … and then a few days’ warm spell melts some, which refreezes into “Sierra cement”, not so nice.

    2) So lately we ski more in British Columbia (Big White, in Lake Okanagan area in middle of of lower BC).

    But, visiting BC is instructive, both good and bad:

    a) Lake Okanagan’s moderating influence is just enough to allow growing some nice grapes for wine. Since wine grapes are high-value, people grow them as far North as they can, and the vineyards have been marching North over the last few decades. It isn’t Napa/Sonoma, but some wines are really pretty nice. A year or so ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a straightforward story about the growth of vineyards there, and how some of the people had (successfully) bet on climate getting warmer, an amusingly different view from some WSJ OpEd that appeared within a week.

    But on the other hand:
    b) Trees and lumber are taken very serious in BC, and one can easily *see* the “progress” of the bark beetles chewing their way North, starting to get into Alberta.
    See B.C. on beetles, and especially the animated historical maps.
    I’ve talked with lumbermen in ski lodges, they knew about GW, and they were not happy.

  2. Stuart says:

    As a former avid skier who still likes to get out on the slopes, I applaud the efforts that the resorts are taking regarding lowering their carbon footprint. As John says above, I think greater variability will be the rule from here on out.

    On a similar note the snowmobile manufacturers here in MN have all jumped into the ATV market in a big way over the last decade – maybe they see the writing on the climate wall (but not the peak oil one).

  3. hoon says:

    “We’re getting into the surf market, because it’s never going to snow again, and the waves are going to get bigger and bigger.” – Yvon Chouinard

  4. Richard Brenne says:

    To lower my carbon footprint, my favorite way to ski is to walk from my home, something I’ve done hundreds of times, including last week here in Portland, Oregon (I wish, for snow, I was in the other Portland) in the comically marginal conditions I also specialize in skiing.

    Three weeks earlier in Portland’s best cold snap in 30 years I skied out on the only section of the Columbia River that had frozen over (actually mostly on jetties jutting out into the river which is the only place the current had slowed enough for ice to form), when the entire Columbia River completely froze over at least six times from 1846 to 1930.

    Last year I skied from the summit of the highest point in Portland, Council Crest, down onto the docks on the Willamette River, over 1000 vertical feet, in Portland’s biggest snowstorm in 40 years.

    The steep West Hills roads I was descending had only half an inch of ice and when I tried to put my skis on edge to turn or stop they’d hit the pavement and I’d lurch forward and almost fall. The only way I could slow myself was by putting my arm in hedges bordering the road and then one ski in the gutter where the accumulated leaves, twigs, litter and hoboes would slow me down.

    You could almost count on having these kind of misadventures (if you were as ridiculously stupid as me) most years a century ago, while I have to jump on these increasingly rare opportunities now. But the Weather Channel’s senior meteorologist Stu Ostro is working on a link between global warming and the increasing formation of previously rare 500 millibar high pressure ridges that often have corresponding cut-off lows like the cold and snow the Eastern 2/3 of the U.S. is now experiencing (if you want some real drama try Siberia where a friend of mine is visiting with his wife – typically 20 degrees F below their usually frigid temperatures). Stu’s working with Stephen Bennett at Scripps and many of us are closely watching what they’re finding – which Joe has referenced here, your one-stop shopping for all things relating to climate change.

    So maybe these increasingly rare events won’t go away completely. And in addition to the very real dangers the increased water vapor and energy in the atmosphere present, some of the drama can be momentarily exciting as well. My daughter, wife, other friends and I go waterfall exploring (we use bomb-proof umbrellas, commercial fishing raingear and boots, etc) during rain-on-snow events and my wife and I almost got drenched on a headlands above the ocean from the fire-hose like spray of a record wave 100 feet above ocean level two months ago! Wow, that gets your attention! (In recent conversations with Chounaird I realize he gets this stuff as much as any captain of industry. First ice-climbing ascents of frozen waterfalls Chounaird made with some other friends of mine in the mid 1970s are unclimbable today – because they’re mostly just waterfalls year-round now.)

    (Also I should bring up that I’ve been doing this kind of stuff for most of half a century and so I know exactly what I’m doing – some of it could be dangerous for those with less experience and alertness.)

    I’ve also skied by riding the Denver to Winter Park ski train, where my wife and I were conductors, and by riding the municipal RTD city bus from Boulder to Eldora Mountain Resort, 21 miles away, where I coached and my daughter raced. I’ve also carpooled with five skiers in a Prius.
    With a rocket box on a roof rack and studless snow tires we proved that the most expert skiers and ski racers never have to even consider riding in an SUV and have more fun relentlessly mocking them.

  5. Anna Haynes says:

    Related – a review paper, Variability and Trends in Spring Runoff in the Western United States – Jessica D. Lundquist, Michael D. Dettinger, Iris T. Stewart, and Daniel R. Cayan
    Content appearing in Wagner, F. (ed.), 2009, Climate warming in western North America—Evidence and environmental effects, University of Utah Press, 63-76.

    …saying that natural variability doesn’t do a good job of explaining the observed Sierra snowpack/runoff changes over the last several decades.

    (via Steve Bloom over at Stoat – thx Steve!)

  6. Anna Haynes says:

    > …we proved that the most expert skiers and ski racers never have to even consider riding in an SUV and have more fun relentlessly mocking them.

    Ah – that explains it.

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    Thanks Anna (#5 and #6) for your great stuff as always.

    The way to reach the public most easily and effectively about climate change is to commuicate what it means to what interests them most, whether they’re Alpine or Nordic skiers, ice or fly fishers, rafters or kayakers, backpackers, hikers or mountain climbers, golfers, wildlife photographers, bird-watchers, gardeners, farmers or eaters.

    The problem is that many if not most Americans don’t appear to be any of the above except the latter. If one’s primary recreational interests are NASCAR or the other most popular American professional sports, TV viewing or video-game playing, it is easy not to get climate change or to care.

    Still, we need to do the best we can in all areas. When my daughter was racing at the J3 Junior Olympics in Aspen in March of 2007, I gave a talk about climate change in the town to a rapt and knowledgeable audience. Each of the days of the Junior Olympics was held in record or near-record high temperatures.

    The J3 Junior Olympics (for 13 and 14-year-olds) are the first year the USSA allows kids to race the most dangerous downhill at speeds in the 60s mph with 40 foot jumps where they kind of turn in the air, etc. They want consistent hardpack (many would say ice) so the course doesn’t get rutted for the later skiers.

    Instead of this hardpack much of the slope was unusually slushy, further endangering the skiers. This event has been so renowned as something of a bloodbath that Warren Miller would set up his cameras to witness the carnage for the amusement of his audiences (something that amuses us parents a little less).

    2007 had the second-warmest March in Colorado, the U.S. and world in the climate record, and at the ski patrol headquarters atop Aspen Highlands the longtime head of patrol handed me binoculars to show me acres of open water on Maroon Lake, shaded by the Maroon Bells and other 14,000 foot mountains at 9,600 feet, which usually wouldn’t have that much open water until May or even June. I slept hearing the Roaring Fork River living up to it’s name with run-off that also wouldn’t be expected until May or June.

    So global warming had increased the likelihood of a record heat wave that further endangered my daughter and all the other racers (fortunately with enough salting no one was seriously hurt and my daughter did great).

    At my talk I quoted the studies led by Mark Serreze, now director of Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center that you refer to. Their worst-case scenario was what you cite, that the climate of Aspen in 2100 would resemble that of Amarillo, Texas (and that of Amarillo must become closer to that of Death Valley’s today, I’d imagine). So then Aspen would have to change it’s trademark name to Scrub Oak or Tumbleweed.

    In Serreze’ (Aspen and Park City hired Serreze and others at NSIDC to do these studies) best-case emissions scenario meant Aspen’s climate would resemble that of present-day Los Alamos, New Mexico (maybe with slightly less radiation), and since Los Alamos, while a few hundred miles further south, is only about 600 feet lower than Aspen’s 7890 foot elevation, this of course isn’t nearly as catastrophic.

    The problem is that from the 2001 IPCC Report projections we’re currently exceeding their worst-case scenario for CO2 emissions.

  8. Richard Brenne says:

    Okay, my last too-long comments (at least on this blog post and today) about skiing and Aspen, subjects I’m obviously too passionate about:

    First, I’ve been to well over 100 ski areas and I always try to get to the ski patrol headquarters and ask both the head of patrol and their chief meteorologist about any changes in decades-long climate data they’re seeing. Keeping in mind that they have a vested interest in not wanting to see global warming that threatens their livelihoods happening, they’ve often told me that what they’re seeing is “scary.”

    Of course they see tremendous natural variability as well. Interestingly there is often one senior ski patroller (never the director or chief meteorologist who are quite conscientious to track avalanche potential, etc) who says, “Global warming is a hoax a bunch of climate scientists just want you to believe,” to which I respond as kindly as possible and with a smile, “Many of the top climate scientists are friends of mine, and it’s interesting that they don’t claim to know more about ski patrolling Aspen Highlands than you do. . .”

    Without finishing the sentence the jury of other patrollers kind of indicts them and they shut up, the closest I’ve come to Woody Allen’s Marshall McLuhan moment from Annie Hall (more often I’m the obnoxious know-it-all in front of him in line that Allen’s humiliating).

    While in my talks at Aspen I applaud the town’s and ski area’s use of wind power and other green efforts, I have to point out that one CEO flying in for the day or weekend in his Gulfstream V largely undoes much of those gains.

    And in the busiest weeks hundreds of such people fly into and out of Aspen airports, because Aspen is where private jets go to breed.

    And often CEOs or other experts fly their private jets into events sponsored by the Aspen or Rocky Mountain Institutes to tell the rest of us how to lower our carbon footprints.

    When Aspen rebuilds the train line into town from nearby (42 miles away, although getting rights of way through ranches worth tens of millions would make a train line to the moon maybe easier) Glenwood Springs, then I’ll be impressed.

  9. Mossy says:

    Anyone who lives in NH or skis in NH, talk to fellow skiers, ski staff, and write or Email the owners, urging them to bombard Republican NH Senator Judd Gregg with information about just how devastating the loss of jobs and tourism from the ski industry would be to New Hampshire!
    And, in any other skiing states with “swing” Senators, act accordingly as well!

  10. gecko says:

    In Lake Placid, New York a local said it seemed that winter was delayed about a month this year.

    Actually, it used to get too cold for snow, which does not seem to be as much of an issue any more.

  11. John Mashey says:

    Re: several earlier comments.
    For many people, especially in the North, +2C OR +3C just means milder winters. Ho hum.

    I strongly urge people to:
    a) Look at the US Global Change Research Program’s report from mid-2009.

    In particular, anyone in the country could read about their specific region here, meaning <10 pages.

    They could look at impacts by sector and pick a few.

    b) This is well-written, well-illustrated book, all available free on the website (I think it costs less to buy the book compared to printing the whole thing, maybe).

    c) For example, let’s take NorthEast (4 pages):

    p.107 shows what NH summers will feel like under various emissions scenarios. Under the higher one, NH has moved to North Carolina.

    p.108 shows what happens to maple sugar, also noting trouble for blueberries and cranberries.

    p.110 Shows ski areas at risk. Under higher emissions scenario, by 2079-2099, there’s a little skiing left in Maine, and a few
    “maybe” places elsewhere.

    I think this is a very useful resource. It’s very concrete, concise and very localized, but also might lead people to look at the larger effects. H/T to Katharine Hayhoe, one of the authors, for pointing it out.