Storm clouds are gathering over ski country.
As California resorts slog through their worst snow year on record amid historic drought, and as towns from Park City, Utah, to Sochi, Russia, faced temperatures in the 50s and 60s this week, there surfaced an unsettling question for local mayors, business leaders and resort owners:
Will the nation’s booming ski-towns ultimately go bust? Decades from now, will climate change, predicted to make winters feel more like thermostats on the fritz, turn destinations such as Aspen, Vail, and Lake Tahoe into Flint, Cleveland and Poughkeepsie?
“It’s the single greatest threat to our local economy,” says Steven Skadron, mayor of Aspen, Colo., where one overnight storm helped plow crews create a “Mt. City Hall” outside his office, only to be followed by temperatures in the 40s the next day. “We’re very concerned.”
Scientists have so far held off on explicitly linking California’s lack of rain and snow this season to climate change. Warming temperatures in recent years, however, have caused a trend of more erratic weather in the U.S. and around the globe.
“Anomalous conditions in the south, less snow in the places that normally get it,” explains Sarah Feakins, an assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California.
As Terry Root, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, describes, “There’s going to be good years and there’s going to be god-awful years. The globe is warming so rapidly, and variability is increasing so much – both of those things together, I’m glad I don’t have stock in ski areas.”
For years now, as has been well reported, ski resorts and their surrounding towns have been taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints: Jackson Hole Resort in Wyoming, for example, recycles as much as 50 percent of its trash, and Park City Mountain Resort in Utah installed solar panels and a wind turbine atop one of its peaks.
But without action in both Washington and on the global stage, there is an inherent limit to what those steps can accomplish – without global action, temperatures will still rise.
“There’s despair, on a personal level, and it’s associated with frustration on the lack of general adoption of climate change and really what it is doing to society,” says Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, which runs Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts in California, resorts repeatedly recognized for their environmental initiatives. “The lack of general awareness in the general population about climate change is shocking to me, and in some cases saddening.”
But, he emphasizes, on a professional level, the situation may prove “exactly the opposite” – at least for now.
“There’s no science that says it’s going to be asymmetrically negative for the West,” Wirth says.
He pointed to Squaw’s 2010-2011 season, which saw more than 800 inches of snow and skiing through the Fourth of July. “Really, what’s at hand for the companies that operate in ski towns, whether you’re a restaurant or a ski resort, is you have to change your operating platform to be able to adjust to the more variable snow conditions,” Wirth says, from investing in snow-making equipment to having flexible staffing levels.
“Ambient temperature changes of 1.25 degrees [Celsius] over the next 35 years,” he continues, referencing climate scientists’ prediction for global warming, “I can accommodate that in my business model.”
Any greater temperature rise beyond that, though, soon becomes a problem: “If the precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, then [for ski resorts] it doesn’t matter how much precipitation there is,” says Noah Diffenbaugh, a senior fellow at Stanford Woods.
Which leaves one other option: diversification.
“We can do our part in trying to reduce our effect on the climate, but in the big picture, we’re trying to focus on the things we can control, which is diversifying our economy,” says Tom Kern, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association in Colorado.
Already, most ski areas were introducing more summer activities and working to attract outside businesses, in part to shore-up their bottom lines, but especially after the economic crash of 2008, which dropped the bottom out of a development market that had fueled resorts’ growth for years. Since then, though, those efforts have been sustained in large measure by “an understanding that the climate is changing,” Kern says.
“You can have a little difficulty this time of year – here we’re sitting on 300 inches of snow. But 350 miles from here, there are ski areas without a lot of snow. And 800 miles from here, in California, our friends are sitting on under 30 inches of base,” he says. (That number has since ticked up above 50 inches of base.)
The summer months now make up about 42 percent “of our total visitor spend,” Kern describes, and thanks in part to outdoor companies like Smart Wool, Durango and Big Agnes that have opened offices and manufacturing centers in and around Steamboat, plus oil and gas plants not too far away, roughly 49 percent of the area’s jobs no longer hinge on tourism – a number he expects to increase.
In the meantime, there remains the question of national action. The National Ski Area Association has launched “Sustainable Slopes” and “Climate Challenge” campaigns, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones formed advocacy group called Protect Our Winters, and individual resorts have undertaken "Save our Snow" initiatives.
Meanwhile, on Friday, President Barack Obama heads to California to tour drought-stricken areas. He will be ducking the north, instead heading to parched areas in Fresno, but if given the chance, Wirth said he’d have one message in mind he’d share with the president.
“Do everything we can to fight to keep climate change and
keep environmental sustainability as the primary set of proprieties,” he says. “What
we are dealing with are absolutes.”