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May 2011

Adapting to Climate Change

New data on climate change paints a potentially scary picture for ski areas.

Written by Allen Best | 0 comment

The rains that drenched Los Angeles just before Christmas were nearly biblical in their dimensions. Outside the city, on Mt. Baldy, 27 inches of precipitation fell in three days. The storm ended in prodigious snow, leaving the resort in wonderful condition for Christmas—if only people could get there. They did, but it took Herculean efforts by county crews, as the deluge had washed away roads. It was, by any measure, an extreme weather event.

Evidence of global warming? It’s hard to say. Climate scientists are quick to warn against making too much of individual events. Hurricane Katrina wasn’t evidence of global warming, and last year’s snowstorm that strangled Washington, D.C., didn’t disprove it, either. The fingerprints of human-caused greenhouse gases for specific weather events are hard to pick up at this point.

But climate models that calculate the influence of increasing heat in this greenhouse clearly point toward more extreme weather in the future. Droughts will deepen, and deluges will become more intense. Storms, somewhat unpredictable now, will become far less predictable yet.

“We’re headed toward an increasingly variable world, with an upward temperature trend,” says Frank Lowenstein, global climate adaptation strategy leader with The Nature Conservancy.

“The question we should be asking is not whether it is climate change,” says Lowenstein, of the rains that drenched the West at Christmas. “It is indicative of the world to come, and the question is what should we be doing differently, those of us who make a living based on snow.”

Ski areas and some towns have started to ask just those sorts of questions. When calculating installation of lifts, Whistler Blackcomb is thinking about where snowlines will be in 30 years. Aspen is thinking about water requirements for snowmaking, as one study projected a five-fold increase in snowmaking needs by century’s end.

Park City Mountain Resort has also started fussing over the margins of certainty. Among the options: move operations higher up the mountain. “It’ll be fairly expensive. They are now putting that into their operating plans,” says Mark Williams, one of the Colorado-based researchers who helped draw up glimpses of what Park City’s climate might look like in 2050 and 2075.

“During the next 20 years we’re just going to be seeing a little change around the edges: snow falls a little later in fall, melts a little earlier in spring, and we will start to see rain falling at the base area, kind of like it did at Vail and Steamboat this winter,” says Brian Lazar, of Stratus Consulting in Boulder, Colo. “Winter won’t be dramatically different until after 2030.” But, he adds, models show “things really do start changing by 2050.”

While much uncertainty remains, tools such as Climate Wizard now allow ski areas more refined images of what the future may look like. Climate Wizard is an interactive web-based tool (www.climate­ created by The Nature Conservancy to get a firmer grasp on how global warming will impact coral reefs, wetlands and other elements of the natural world. To do so, the organization had experts draw on 16 global circulation models prepared by climate modelers from around the world, six of them from institutions in North America. The models seek to show how the heat-trapping gases in the troposphere will change climates.

Climate Wizard has both global and local powers. It allows users to study temperature and precipitation maps for anywhere in the world for the last 50 years. It also gives projections of how temperatures and precipitation will change in the next 40 to 70 years, depending upon whether emissions begin to stabilize, continue much as they are, or accelerate even more.

The website allow users to quickly evaluate the information based on the level of consensus, or what is called the ensemble. Consensus has developed more strongly around temperature increases than about precipitation levels. “We have been developing Climate Wizard for a number of years, and we are now starting to push into a number of realms where it can deliver real value,” says Lowenstein.

Many scientists are confident that changes lie ahead. Even if we figure out how to stop polluting the atmosphere, emissions already accumulated will become more potent. The International Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 report, found strong confidence of a link between increased greenhouse gases and the upward-creeping global temperatures of the last 50 years.

Unlike water vapor, the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide takes centuries to dissipate. Some of the existing greenhouse gases, for example, can be traced back to coal fires at the start of the Industrial Age. That’s terribly important, because it means that even if emissions get reduced substantially in the next 50 years, changes will be afoot. It’s kind of like a two-packs-a-day cigarette habit that comes back to haunt somebody 20 years after they quit smoking.

That’s why ski areas should be incorporating climatic shifts into their long-term planning, says Lowenstein. Adap- tation is crucial.

In a sense, ski areas have already been adapting to climate variability and changes. For example, ski season in New England already lasts longer than it did 30 years ago. “It’s not because we have better snow. I can assure you of that,” says Lowenstein, a skier who lives in Massachusetts. It is, he adds, entirely because of increased snowmaking. With warmer temperatures, more snowmaking yet will be necessary, but snowmaking will become more difficult.

Consider Aspen, high and cold, which is expected to be less immediately impacted by global warming. Yet a study several years ago suggested that snowmaking will need to be expanded five-fold by century’s end.

In Europe, says Lowenstein, ski areas have become more conscious of slope development, calculating how to make slopes skiable with less snow, as opposed to slopes that nobody wants to ski because they are boring.

In North America, he believes ski areas are still thinking in terms of safety, liability, and exciting appeal to consumers—all of them important. “But I don’t think many of them are thinking about how much snow do I need to ski this in a snow-starved future.”

Lowenstein stresses the increased variability of future weather generally, not just in terms of warmer temperatures. Temperatures will be warmer, yes, but there will also be more extreme weather, and with very little predictability.

That has vast implications. “The question of increased variability is something that ski areas really need to wrestle with,” he says. “It’s everything from larger culverts on the sides of roads to what kind of financial reserves you will need.”

Even by mid-century, warmer temperatures suggest huge shifts. To approximate the impact of coming temper- atures, Lowenstein showed a slide at the January meeting of the National Ski Areas Association in Snowbird, Utah. To reflect the warming expected by 2050, imagine Crested Butte Mountain Resort being in the location of New Mexico’s Ski Apache, and somewhere in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico’s Chihuahua province by 2080.

To help ski areas understand the power of these new tools, The Nature Conservancy did climate projections for 23 ski areas across North America. These scenarios may not be bankable, but they suggest the tools other ski areas can tap as they assemble long-range plans.

And the tools continue to improve. By the end of this year, The Nature Conservancy hopes to use temporal downscaling techniques to deliver a better sense of possible temperatures and precipitation on any given day, in any given year. For example, how many days will the temperature exceed 50 degrees, on average, compared to the present? Current figures are more coarse, averaged over a year. The new tool will provide a more clear picture of the future.

“There will be a fairly high level of uncertainty around these, but as modeling improves, the accuracy will improve,” says Lowenstein. “These techniques are advancing extremely fast.”

Areas are beginning to acknowledge the possibilities. Whistler Blackcomb has started considering the shifting climate in long-range plans. Luckily, says Arthur DeJong, the environmental coordinator, the terrain is like an ice cream cone, with most of the best skiing on top, and plenty of undeveloped areas available for expansion. As such, Whistler doesn’t expect to experience much difficulty in adapting to mid-century, mid-range warming.

But if emissions of greenhouse gases accelerate and the worst fears of some climate scientists materialize later in the century, there’s relatively little that can be done, he says. “It’s almost like, ‘get a gun and don’t worry about snow.’ You will be worrying about food,” he says.

Assuming less extreme temperatures, Whistler has also begun thinking about how it might offer more warm-weather activities. The mountain has a lot of hiking, and of course, it has its magnificent new Peak2Peak Gondola.

Aspen was first among ski towns and resorts to formally explore the implications of climate change with its Canary Initiative, which was launched in 2005. Part of the effort included hiring Mark Williams and Brian Lazar to project climatic changes. Their work showed less immediate shifts than some had expected, but still dramatic changes, including the need for a five-fold increase in snowmaking by 2100.

Based on their work in Colorado, the two researchers were hired by Powdr Corp. to do two separate projections for Park City Mountain Resort and Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor.

Mt. Bachelor exemplifies the slow changes expected through 2030—and the potentially devastating shift by late this century. Rain-on-snow events currently occur four to six times per season on the lower portion of the mountain. By 2030, that might increase by one per winter. By 2050, assuming a moderate-warming scenario, another 5 to 7 rain-on-snow events might occur each season. If emissions continue to accelerate, however, more rain can be expected. In the worst-case emissions scenario, Bachelor would lose all of its snowpack.

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, widely believed to be the main driver of rising temperatures, are currently at 391 parts per million (ppm), and until slowed by the recession, were increasing 1.5 ppm to 3 ppm annually.

For their work, Lazar and Williams chose three commonly-used scenarios. All three assume at least 450 ppm by 2030. In the best-case scenario for 2100, the emissions will be only 540 ppm, while the mid-range assumes 700 ppm, and the worst case foresees 930 ppm.

For both Bachelor and Park City, the two researchers employed three statistical tools using these CO2 projections. If all three tools yield similar conclusions, that points to a more confident projection, says Lazar. They did.

In 2075, assuming middle-to-more-extreme emissions scenarios, Park City’s base lift, Payday, may or may not have snow, even in mid-winter. Depths could be only 20 to 37 percent of the average historical season maximum. Even with the more modest increase in greenhouse gas emissions, spring break could be a puddle.

Their 2009 study also included an economic analysis of how reduced snowpack may affect the economy of Park City and surrounding Summit County. Brent Giles, director of environmental affairs for Powdr Corp, and director of mountain operations for Park City Mountain Resort, says Powdr “wanted the community to see how that was going to affect the economy.”

A 31-year veteran of the ski industry, Giles notes changes in snow quality already. “It just seems like we’re getting more wet-snow events than what we used to see,” he says. “It used to be all this fine powder, and now it’s getting a little wetter, a little heavier.”

He believes that the evidence and projections make a compelling case for new business practices, which Powdr Corp. has tried to implement with renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. At Park City, the ski company has reduced its electrical consumption by 2.7 million kilowatt hours per year, at a savings of $150,000. In Utah, 86 percent of electricity comes from burning coal.

Whistler Blackcomb has also pruned electrical use, but DeJong notes there are limits. “We can’t conserve our way out of the carbon problem,” he says. “It’s the first thing we need to do, but we have also have to embrace any possible renewable energy integration that we possibly can.”

After several years of planning, Whistler Blackcomb two years ago came up with a big winner: harnessing the power of Fitzsimmons Creek, the largest waterway within the ski area. Power production is equal to Whistler Blackcomb’s annual energy consumption.

Geraldine Link, public policy director for NSAA, says that reducing energy use and installing renewable energy are both important goals. “But at the same time, adaptation is reality,” she adds.

Auden Schendler, the evangelist of carbon reduction for the Aspen Skiing Co, argues that neither adaptation nor mitigation by ski areas and ski towns are enough. He contends that the ski industry needs to use its prominence to argue for more dramatic shifts in federal policy governing carbon emissions. The NSAA testified before a Congressional committee two years ago on this point, as did the Aspen Skiing Co. itself. Schendler says an even louder, steadier voice is needed. Otherwise, entire late-century seasons could be washouts, not just a week in early December.