Contrary to what some have said, those who professionally study the changing climate do not foresee an end to snow. Or winter. Or skiing. At least not everywhere, nor in a set amount of time—the next 25 to 30 years—that matters to many North American ski area managers.
They do see, however, continued increases in both day and nighttime temperatures that might threaten the livelihood of some ski areas, especially those at lower elevations, which could have a ripple effect on the industry.
“Nobody is talking about the end of snow—in Colorado, in California, or in any of the ski markets in North America,” says Dr. Daniel Scott, executive director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “It’s (whether) you have enough on the ski hill to have a reliable business that is the question.”
Scott says that gloom-and-doom headlines about climate change ending skiing in places like Colorado by mid-century weren’t based on any real science. But he acknowledges that rising temperatures are, in fact, a real problem for ski area operators in low-elevation, high-risk locations that are already on the margins.
U.S. temperatures have increased an average 1.3° F to 1.9° F since 1895, with most of that increase since 1970, according to the National Climate Assessment. Nighttime minimum temperatures have been rising, too. The increase has not been uniform. But over time, November and December nights have become just a little warmer in most places, a trend evident in data sets such as that maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (see http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/).
This has already narrowed the windows of opportunity available to snowmaking crews. Those windows will narrow even more as global temperatures continue to rise, according to dozens of computer climate models, with a minimum increase of 2 degrees already locked into the atmospheric system during coming decades. As rain increasingly replaces snow, even operators in the highest, coldest locations will face mounting challenges, such as providing enough snow for a Thanksgiving opening.
Conversely, some ski areas—higher, colder, and with the best snowmaking equipment —may actually thrive in coming decades, picking up business at the expense of resorts in these marginal locations. There will likely be winners and losers.
Still, even the winners won’t escape some of the fallout from rising temperatures. The new-skier/rider pipeline could suffer if smaller ski areas are lost. Such low-elevation ski areas have long developed new skiers and riders and fed them to larger resorts. If those areas go out of business or, at a minimum, face greater challenges, the whole industry can expect to shrink.
Measuring the Warmup
Just how serious a threat does climate change represent? The pace of warming slowed during the last decade, but old temperature records continued to tumble. In a general way, the more inland you go, the greater the rate of increased heat.
This has muddled consequences. A resort in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, for example, might have a slower rate of temperature increase than one at 13,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. But the resort in the Cascades may already be closer to the edge, in terms of temperature, snowfall reliability, and financial security. It might not take that much to push it over. At the same time, climate models predict more modest changes for ski areas in the Southeast. Changes will not be uniform, nor will the consequences.
More-detailed information is on the way. Working with researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Loyola Marymount University, and the University of Innsbruck, Scott has been using high-resolution climate change and hydrological modeling, together with a snowmaking operations model, to provide a sharper image of near-term climate change risk at more than 350 ski areas across the United States. He expects the results to be available soon—and of broad interest.
“There is a growing need for the ski industry and ski tourism destinations to understand and report their climate risk,” he says. “This study will provide the first system-wide perspective on marketplace risks and opportunities, as well as insights into changing competitiveness and climate change adaptation needs at the community scale.”
How much temperatures rise depends upon how much humanity can throttle down emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. If the world goes about its business as it has, according to mainstream scientists, we can broadly expect a 4°F increase by mid century. With reduced emissions, we might contain the increase to 2°F.
These projections come from climate modeling. The models represent a vast but still imperfect knowledge about how atmospheric processes work. They plumb the depths of what is known about past climates, both as recorded by instruments and before that as reflected in so-called climate proxies such as sediments in lake beds or even the trace elements of gases found in the ice cores extracted from the glaciers of Antarctica. (Ice cores from Greenland even reflect the beginning of smelting by the Romans in Great Britain.) When calibrated for what is known about the past, the computerized models then project forward in an effort to reflect the increasing blanket of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The dozens of models have been consistent in their predictions of rising heat, particularly in places like the American Southwest, but more ambiguous about precipitation. Mountainous terrain makes prediction even trickier.
Based on the models and his studies, Scott says that the winter of 2011-12 can be expected to become the norm by mid century. That is a sobering thought: It was the fourth warmest winter recorded in the United States to that time. Not one state had below-average cold—from Montana to Maine to North Carolina, temperatures were above average. Not surprisingly, snow cover was the third-smallest since recording began 46 years before, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Skier days that winter slid 15 percent, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
Snowfall volatility is another product of a warming atmosphere. Studies have shown that swings in snowfall have increased over the last 60 years. Ski area managers have always dealt with variability, of course, but that variability has increased—and, according to the climate models, will increase more as weather swings more wildly between droughts and epic snowstorms—and, at some point, buckets of rain.
Unlike some reports, which assume only natural snow, Scott’s factors in snowmaking. This will help some ski areas adapt to the climatic shift. There are limits, however. Scott assumes that snowmaking technology, despite repeated advances since it was introduced in the 1950s, cannot circumvent temperature requirements. The most critical issue: it takes a wet-bulb temperature of 28.6°F to make snow given current technology.
This wet-bulb temperature matters entirely. Scott and colleagues examined the 19 Winter Olympic Games sites through the prism of rising temperatures. Of those 19, only 10 or 11 will remain climatically suitable to host the Olympics in the 2050s, even under a low-emissions scenario. If emissions continue at their current, high rate, only six of the 19 former Olympic venues will have snow by the 2080s.
That sounds dire—and it is. Yet Scott insists upon attention to nuances of climate change. A host of reasons will determine how much warmer temperatures will affect each ski area.
The coming El Niño winter might be a barometer of that wet, warmer future. El Niño typically produces above-average snow but also above-average heat, and this is predicted to be the strongest El Niño in 15 or 30 years.
New Hampshire offers another glimpse of the changing climate. A report co-authored by Dr. Cameron Wake, a professor of climate and sustainability at the University of New Hampshire, found the climate in northern New Hampshire has both warmed and become wetter during the last century, especially since 1970. The most dramatic increases in temperatures have occurred in fall and winter. The rate of increase in these seasons has been roughly double the average annual increase —not just in New Hampshire, but across New England.
A Change in Mindset
“It’s not the whole ski industry that’s in trouble,” reiterates Scott. He sees climate change driving consolidation, with the geographically dispersed properties of Vail Resorts and Intrawest being the obvious models. One ski area might not be able to withstand three consecutive years of temperatures too warm for good snow. With diversity, there will be relative strength.
Some areas have less to worry about. Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort can wait well into November, then blast its snowguns around the clock to get the necessary coverage for Thanksgiving. A few other resorts, like Lake Louise, Alberta, need not worry, either.
But for most, taking advantage of the smallest of opportunities to make snow will be the challenge of the future. Waiting for the temperatures to drop to the teens to make big piles of snow won’t be enough. “We don’t have that luxury any more,” says Robin Smith, head of TechnoAlpin in the U.S.
At Ontario’s Chicopee, it’s 10 to 15 degrees warmer than Jackson or Lake Louise, and the windows for snowmaking have become smaller. Smith says that nobody expects to open at Thanksgiving, nor does much snow get made in the daytime. “You will only make snow at night,” Smith says.
Smith says he paid no real attention to global warming until about five years ago. But now, putting together his own records of rising nighttime temperatures at resorts with whom he works, he’s become a believer.
With the temperature window for snowmaking narrowing in coming decades, he sees automation becoming more important than ever. Instead of a lengthy set-up time, a computer can pull the trigger when the necessary temperature arrives, no matter how briefly.
Elevating guns off the ground also boosts snowmaking opportunities. A greater distance allows more time in the air at marginal temperatures and greater ability for the water to freeze. Another trick is to cool the water temperature before it is put into the gun via a cooling system.
It’s one thing to make snow, however. It’s another to keep it from melting during the day. For that, nobody has come up with a technological response.
Weather insurance is another possible response. John Yarchoan, a “data scientist” who formerly worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently started a company called Sky Mutual, which offers weather derivatives. He is pitching a climate futures market, which would offer a sort of weather insurance. He has encouraged businesses exposed to climate risks, including ski resorts, farmers, and municipalities, to hedge against different events that might cause them to lose revenue.
With liquidity in this exchange, he believes that businesses can eliminate revenue volatility stemming from poor weather efficiently, and without the traditional costs of insurance policies. He also believes that this type of exchange may aggregate best expectations about our evolving natural world. He already has some municipalities, especially in New England, and other businesses as clients.
Projections beyond the mid century are grainy, and greatly dependent upon the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. If we don’t slow our emissions, according to most climate projections, more than just low-elevation ski areas will be facing major challenges to survive. By the end of this century, even the highest, coldest ski areas of today can expect to see warmer, shorter winters with rain more frequently replacing snow.
Big questions continue to perplex climate scientists. For example, what exactly explains New England’s wonderful winter last year, including Boston’s record snowfall?
And could ski areas use climate change to their benefit? For example, warmer air benefits ski areas, to a point. Warmer air holds more moisture, which brings with it the potential for more snow. It depends upon how warm it gets. “Global warming might lead to some really good skiing in the East for a few years— until it gets so warm that precipitation starts falling as rain,” acknowledges Dr. Wake of UNH.
Climate models of the future aren’t as accurate as history books. But over the past couple of decades they’ve done a generally good job of predicting what is now being observed, including the retreat of the Arctic sea ice. If anything, they’ve been conservative. And, just like skis and lifts, they’ve continued to improve. “Our ability to forecast climate (has transformed rapidly over the last 20 years),” says Wake. “It’s getting better and better all the time.”
This increased sharpness of climate modeling may resolve lingering questions about whether this ski area or that will get more or less precipitation. But climate scientists have never had much doubt about rising temperatures. They have been rising, and they will continue to rise—perhaps more briskly. Even if humans ceased burning fossil fuels tomorrow, temperatures would rise for another 50 to 100 years, say scientists such as James W.C. White, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. That’s because of the delayed effect of the heavier blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. About 90 percent of the heat has gone into the world’s water sources, but that heat can at some point get transferred into the atmosphere.
Global warming presents a hierarchy of questions for ski area operators. For ski areas barely above sea level, rising temperatures pose obvious questions about investments today. At Whistler, B.C., the warmer temperatures of the future have been entering into current investment decisions, such as the effort to locate infrastructure higher on the slopes, above the rain line of the future.
Should the industry altogether raise its voice more loudly about the need for national and international policies to slow the increase in greenhouse gas emissions? Arguably, the industry has already been more vocal than most. But some would say it hasn’t responded with the alarm justified by a human-caused change that could absolutely end skiing at many of today’s ski areas.
Skiing as a business proposition is relatively young. Sun Valley, the first deliberately created destination ski resort in North America, turns 80 years old this winter. Sun Valley long ago lost the trains that were the motivation for creating the resort, but it still has snow. It will have snow for decades to come. But will it have enough snow 80 years from now to justify a business based on 90 to 120 days of skiing? Will other resorts large and small, coast to coast? That’s an open question.
Allen Best has studied the science and economics of greenhouse warming since 2003. He has written on the topic dozens of times both for his own publication, Mountain Town News, and for others, including The Denver Post and SAM.