FEATURE: Climate change casualty

By on May 6, 2015

What the ski industry stands to lose


First tracks are a coveted, cherished and committed feat pursued by skiers and snowboarders alike. They are what drives them set the early morning alarm clock that disturbs a heavy winter slumber. They give them courage to pull back the covers and brave the frigid temperatures outside the comfort of a warm bed. They suggest maybe one less beer the night before. First tracks silence the voice that says, Stay in bed, relax. The mountain will be there tomorrow.

But, what if it isnt? What if our first tracks become our last?

The mountain will remain, but its snow-covered peaks will melt from white to brown. As this winters final snowflake evaporates back into the atmosphere, the question remains will it return again?

This winter, skiers and snowboarders across the globe loaded onto chairlifts with feelings of doubt, angst and worry. How many more mornings will they be able to chase these elusive first tracks? In todays warming climate, the symptoms are clear shorter winters with late snow accumulation and early melt, the compromised ability to make machine-fed snow, decreased average snow pack and fewer annual skier visits. The patient in this case is the ski industry, suffering through the symptoms and awaiting its diagnosis. Could this illness indeed be climate change? Is human activity and our consumptive nature to blame? What is the prognosis; the future of the ski industry?

Winter is on borrowed time.

Feature---IntroImage_ChairliftThe Symptoms

The United Nations Environment Programme has identified the ski industry as one of the most vulnerable industries to climate change worldwide. As average winter temperatures rise, resorts struggle to keep chairlifts turning and money coming through the ticket window. Each resort is unique in its size, consumer base and elevation. As snowfall events warm into rainfall events, resorts must rely on cool nighttime temperatures, and the financial and water resources to make their own snow. Resorts at higher elevations are spared some of the more debilitating warm temperatures, but still face a similar decision.

Do they employ a more proactive business strategy one that recognizes the threat of climate change and actively fights against it, prioritizing future generations of skiers and snowboarders and ensuring a sustainable business plan? Or do they follow the reactive route and build more golf courses and mountain bike trails in an effort to ease the sting of shorter winters and transition to summer-focused activities and economic opportunities?

Winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century under current energy consumption an greenhouse gas emission levels, according to a 2012 report for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters. Across the United States, winter temperatures have warmed 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1895. The report states that snow depths could decline in the West by 25 to 100 percent. The length of the snow season in the Northeast could be cut in half. Milder winters will impact local and national economies, including small resort operations and individual businesses associated with the snow sports industry.

Feature---Euro-2As the final flakes melt away and resorts begin to shut down their chairlifts for the last time, skiers and snowboarders put away their winter gear with a burdening apprehension. What will next season hold? This winter was bad, but next season could be even worse. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 600 U.S. ski areas have closed since 1950 for reasons including decreased snowfall. Only 302 ski areas have opened across the country in that same amount of time. In the last 50 years, the average length of the ski season decreased by an entire week. Worldwide, nearly 95 percent of ski areas rely on snowmaking to offset the lack of natural snow.

Nowhere is the tangible evidence associated with climate change more apparent than within the ski industry. Professional skier Bode Miller recently announced his lack of faith in the future of the ski industry. After his breathtaking crash during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Beaver Creek, Colo., in February, Miller told NBC Sports that he would not invest in the ski industry due to climate changes influence on shorter, warmer winters.

Millers comment struck a chord with many, including Courtney Skinner, an avid skier, climber and mountaineer from Pinedale. Skinner says after spending his younger years ski racing, climbing Mt. Everest and conducting research in the Antarctic, he tends to agree with Millers sentiments. Skinner witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand from all corners of the globe. He reminisces about his days on Everest watching the glacier fields recede from year to year.

Like many, Skinner knows that you do not have to be a climate scientist to understand the impacts of climate change. All you have to do is strap on a pair of skis and get out on the mountain. The proof is obvious winters are becoming a bit of an endangered thing.

Jeff Deems, research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulders National Snow & Ice Data Center, studies snow hydrology, or the science of how snow moves and forms.

“We know that if you change the atmosphere, you change the snowpack, Deems said. For example, low-elevation snowpacks are relatively warm just a couple of degrees below freezing. These snowpack temperatures tend to stay rather warm throughout the winter, so minimally warmer atmospheric temperatures turn a substantial fraction of snowfall episodes into rainfall events.”

Feature---Infographic1On Jan. 16, NASA and NOAA officially announced 2014 as the warmest year on record. According to Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist in the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, warmer atmospheric temperatures translate into higher moisture content in the air. This added moisture can fuel stronger mid-winter storms. Trenberths explanation refutes one of the common arguments used by climate change deniers. Deniers like to use examples like Bostons record-breaking snowfall this past winter as an indication that climate change does not exist. In reality, these large mid-winter storms actually serve as definitive proof that the climate is changing.

Scientists like Dr. Jim White, professor of geological sciences and environmental studies, and director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, estimate that some low-elevation resorts will lose their snowpack altogether while others will exist with a snowpack limited to the top quarter of their mountains, pushing resort infrastructure uphill.

“And then you’ve got to figure out whats your business plan? White asked. How much can you charge, given the fact that your mountain is smaller?”

According to White, the effects of climate change are felt more than 50 years after the cause. It takes almost 75 years for a certain carbon dioxide level to reflect itself in the atmosphere.

If cause and effect are not immediate, it is hard to provoke action, White said.

The Diagnosis

Organizations like Protect Our Winters, or POW, a California-based environmental non-profit organization, have taken the warnings of climate scientists like Trenberth and White to heart. According to POWs mission statement, the climatic symptoms are clear and the prognosis is dismal. Without immediate action, the future of skiing and snowboarding is in jeopardy.

POW works to raise awareness about climate change and advocates for sustainable initiatives and policies through the collective power of the winter sports community. Founder and professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones harnesses the support of his fellow professional winter athletes to advocate for climate legislation, education and responsible environmental stewardship.

“I am not an environmental saint, but I have a voice in this world and I can make a difference,” Jones said.

Feature---GreekPeakPOW works with fellow skiers, snowboarders, professional athletes, ski resorts, schools and corporate sponsors to help reduce climate changes effects on winter sports and mountain economies. Jones and his partners recognize that climate change could mean the end of winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, and the end of their passion and livelihood. Serving as a collective front, POW leverages athlete reputation, science and experience to try to encourage elected officials to take action on the issue of climate change. The group also works to influence and educate skiers and snowboarders across the globe.

After watching his favorite mountains suffer from reduced snowfall and diminishing glacial fields, Jones decided to do something to help reverse warming trends and protect winters future. Chris Steinkamp, executive director of POW, remembers the day in 2007 when Jones walked into the Teton Gravity Research (TGR) headquarters in Wilson with a plan to start the organization that is today known as POW.

He came back from a trip one day saying he couldnt believe how climate change was affecting these places hes going back to year after year, Steinkamp said. I was in advertising at the time, so I helped build the strategy around his idea.

Today, Steinkamp serves as the organizations logistical leader, overseeing the day-to-day operations. Steinkamp said POWs 2012 collaborative report with the NRDC really changed the national dialog about winter. Steinkamp claims that before the reports release, skiing was perceived more as a leisure sport for the wealthy, but the science and statistics found within the report really helped showcase how skiing serves as a critical economic driver. According to the report, the winter sports industry contributes around $1.4 billion in state and local taxes, $1.7 billion in federal taxes and supports more than 211,900 jobs.

“It proved we didnt just care about winter because we were skiers,” Steinkamp said.

The report came in response to pressure from politicians in Washington, D.C. who wanted to see actual numbers relating to the impacts of climate change on the winter sports industry. Politicians wanted to know exactly how climate change would affect their states ski resorts, recreation industry and tourism.

Feature---DogSledToursBilling and insurance

Nationwide, the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry, which includes skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, has lost more than $1 billion in aggregated revenue between low- and high-snowfall years over the past decade, according to the NRDC & POW report. Between 13,000 and 27,000 associated jobs were lost during this same time period. Decreased snowpack, rising average winter temperatures and economic instability resulted in more than 15 million fewer skier visits to U.S. resorts over the last 10 years.

The winter sports industry benefits more than three-quarters of the nation economically. Climate change stands to negatively impact nearly 211,900 American workers within the winter sports industry, according to the NRDC & POW report. Ski resorts bear the brunt of climate change impacts, but the effects trickle down to rental shops, restaurants, hotels, ski apparel stores, gas stations, grocery stores and bars as well.

POW established a network of partner ski resorts that are actively incorporating more sustainable business practices. This network, known as the Mountain Collective, includes resorts like Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Aspen Snowmass, which is one of four mountains owned by Aspen Skiing Company. Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen, recently announced a plan to work with a coal mine in Somerset, Colo. The black of dirty coal may seem like a far stretch from the white of pristine ski slopes, but when combined through innovative thinking, sustainable progress can be made.

In what seems like a partnership of strange bedfellows, Aspen Skiing Company recognized a unique business opportunity that would benefit both parties. Aspens Coal Mine Methane Project works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by coal by capturing waste methane from Oxbows Elk Creek Mine. The project captures methane seeping from the mine and converts it into electricity, thus preventing a heat-trapping gas from entering the atmosphere. The project harnesses enough energy from waste methane to generate 24 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually enough to power all four of the companys mountain resorts.

With support from POW, resorts like Aspen Skiing Company are making efforts to reverse the hypocrisy of ski resorts powering their operations with coal a large contributor to climate change.

Not surprising however, is the fact that many ski resorts and related industries are slow to join POWs mission. Most resorts have been shy to talk about climate change or address the issue in mainstream media because talking about a warming planet means talking about the end of skiing a move that could be detrimental to business and large corporate interests.

Feature---Infographic2Aspen Skiing Company is one of the few not-so-shy resort companies. Matt Hamilton, sustainability manager and executive director of The Environment Foundation at Aspen, laughs when asked about climate changes threat to quality skiing, economic profits, customer satisfaction and even his own job.

“If that’s what were concerned about, then were in trouble, Hamilton said. Climate change has a much bigger impact on certain life force-driving factors like water availability and the hydrological cycle.”

Aspen leverages their reputable brand to encourage elected officials to take action on the issue of climate change. As an economic powerhouse in the ski industry, Aspen Skiing Co. is able to show politicians in Washington, D.C. how shorter, warmer winters will impact resort operations, as well as employment rates and added tourism revenue to the state of Colorado using hard data and dollar signs.

The company uses the Aspen name locally to influence their clients, customers and neighbors, in the hope that many will become more aware of climate change and be persuaded to invest in their love of skiing. The company claims that their number one priority is to use the snow sports community as a lever to drive policy change.

In doing so, Aspen Skiing Co. joined forces with a coalition of businesses known as BICEP Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy. This group of like-minded businesses, which includes Burton Snowboards, Ben & Jerrys and Starbucks, works to affect climate policy in order to reduce risks to winter sports businesses, to water resources, supply chains, snowpack and winter in general. Through extensive lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, BICEP hopes to extend their impact beyond their home states of Colorado, Vermont and Washington to a more national scale.

Specifically, Aspen has invested in several sustainable initiatives including a micro-hydroelectric plant on Aspen Mountain, 170 kilowatts of installed solar power, local food sourcing and light bulb retrofits. The company is also increasing corporate philanthropy to programs and causes that match Aspens environmental values, including clean energy legislation, open space preservation and energy efficiency.

“We are unique in the sense that we let our principles guide our work,” Hamilton said. “We go beyond trying to make a profit.”

Within the ski industry, Aspen leads by example, showing other resorts that they cannot reject the consensus of the global scientific community on climate change. But smaller resorts cannot afford to let environmental principles guide their business practices. They lack flexible capital and must focus on keeping their resorts afloat.

Ski resorts, in general, have been shy about talking about climate change because it suggests that ski days are numbered, Hamilton said. Talking about the end of skiing is a bummer and a buzz kill one that is detrimental to the business, he said.

Paul Ulrich has worked 17 years in the oil and gas industry. He said climate change forces companies to evaluate their business strategy. It is a matter of short-term profits versus long-term sustainability, Ulrich said.

The reactive business strategy promotes investing in golf courses, mountain biking and summer recreation to offset the effects of a diminished ski season. It is a far stretch from the more proactive approach like that of Aspen Skiing Company, and it boils down to a difference in business strategy.

Scientists like Deems, Trenberth and White are seeing less snow accumulation in the early ski season months of November and December.
Winter snowfall is starting later, but the ski season [resort opening date] has not changed, because ski resorts depend on certain prime vacation times like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Presidents Day to make money and make their enterprise viable, Deems said.

Many resorts make their own snow to ensure a Thanksgiving Day opening, even when there is little natural snow on the ground, but with warmer nighttime temperatures, artificial snow is increasingly hard to make. Larger ski companies like Aspen and Vail Resorts are better suited to withstand climatic and economic fluctuations from season to season. Deep pockets of investors and wealthy clientele ensure income stability to offset years of low snowfall and fewer skier visits.

Feature---CowboyBarJHThe prognosis

Clearly, scientists agree on the symptoms, but it seems the ski industry is slow to accept their diagnosis. Perhaps the industry will remain in the waiting room indefinitely, waiting to hear the doctors verdict. But before the healing process can begin, the world must first agree upon the illness plaguing the planet.

Step number one is to say Ive got a problem, White said.

Using climate models, scientists like White have been better able to conceptualize the problem and make predictions based on current energy consumption trends and greenhouse gas emission levels. Those predictions spell a dismal future for winter sports.

It seems the ski industry has more than a problem it has a death sentence.

As global atmospheric temperatures rise and the precious white flakes melt away, the ski industry finds itself in an unsettling position. A choice must be made. Do resorts chase short-term profits and ignore the warnings of climate scientists? Do they carry on with business as usual, masking the consequences of climate change in the hopes that customers wont be scared away from buying next years season pass?

Or do resorts take the long-term business approach and become more active in the fight against climate change and more influential in climate legislation, in an effort to preserve a more sustainable future for the industry?

One of the best ways to raise awareness about climate change is to get people out on the ski slopes where the impacts are more obvious, more intrusive and clear, according to Gina McCarthy, head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Skiing has the unique ability of helping people connect with the land in a very personal and passionate way. Days spent carving turns in the snow and enjoying time outdoors with family and friends help remind people of the fleeting nature of winter the precious and finite reality of snow. This healthy reminder is the ski industrys greatest hope for garnering social motivation around environmental activism.


About Kendall Brunette

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