The snow sports industry is going through rocky times.
A two-degree Celsius increase may be hard for most people to fathom, but its effects are clear to skiers and snowboarders. Climate change is moving the snowfall line up the mountains and the lower elevations are getting hit the hardest, according to Anne Nolin, professor of geosciences and hydroclimatology at Oregon State University.
Over the last several decades in North America, there have been about 1.5 to 2 percent declines in snow during the spring per decade – the snow season is getting shorter, Nolin said.
“Nobody wants to come show up at the lodge when there’s drizzle going on,” she said.
Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, founder and CEO of Protect Our Winters, reminisced about how some mountains he frequents have changed over the years.
“I used to be able to snowboard right here,” he said about a spot in Chamonix.
Reduced snowfall has caused many mom-and-pop ski resorts to close, and that pattern will continue as temperatures increase. With decreased snowpack, warmer temperatures will also threaten much of our water supply because “rain runs off, whereas snow is that reservoir that holds that moisture there until spring,” according to Nolin.
“This is way bigger than skiing,” said Porter Fox, features editor of Powder Magazine. “This is about snow as a part of the climate cycle on the planet and part of the water cycle, and an incredibly important resource.”
Fox has been traveling the world doing research for his new book, The Deep: The Story of skiing and the Future of Snow (November 2013). He discussed how peoples’ attitudes were wide-ranging, with some being surprisingly open-minded because they had witnessed decreasing snow and higher temperatures. But it’s hard for people to fathom that humans can cause change on a global scale, he said.
“This is a very difficult thing for people to understand.”
Fox spoke about what the average person can do to help slow climate change. While you can start lowering your carbon footprint by recycling, reusing and driving less, “they say fifteen to twenty percent of conserving energy is easy to do — it’s the next twenty percent that’s difficult,” he said.
“Climate change is the biggest challenge of this generation and the next,” according to Nolin.
But their overall outlook was hopeful. The ski industry is in a unique position to communicate the challenges of climate change because many of the people that enjoy winter sports are part of a very influential demographic, Fox said.
“Let’s face it…these are people that have contacts in government and business,” Fox said. “We want skiers to literally help save the world.”
During the second half of the two-part panel, CEOs from some of North America’s most popular ski resorts took the stage, including Dave Brownlie, President and CEO of Whistler Blackcomb; Mike Kaplan, President and CEO of Aspen/Snowmass; and Jerry Blann, President of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
The Whistler Blackcomb ski resort faces interesting challenges because Wyoming is a large energy-producing state, according to Blann, and “the whole idea is balance and how do you get there in the most efficient way.”
“It’s no easy challenge,” Blann said. “As an industry, I think we’ve done a pretty good job on the efficiency piece.”
While winter tourism overall is taking a hit, mountain communities are especially at risk of economic downturn during the winter months.
“The stakes are significant in terms of the communities that are dependent on tourism," Kaplan said.
The industry leaders discussed how they are dealing with climate change, from balancing seasonal opportunities – like introducing mountain biking in the summer season – to adapting, which is “what mountain people are all about,” Kaplan said.
“We’re used to having to adapt to whatever Mother Nature’s going to give,” Kaplan said.
Brownlie spoke about the industry's commitment to decreasing carbon output. Whistler Blackcomb is using hydropower to create renewable energy, putting an amount of energy back into the grid nearly equivalent to the ski resort's annual energy consumption.
"We as an industry have to do all the things that we can," Brownlie said.
“This industry gets it,” according to Kaplan. But he expressed overarching concerns about the future of the Colorado watershed and government policies that still allow industries to continue polluting without financial repercussions.
“If you're going to allow carbon emissions to be free, in the end nobody's really going to do anything,” Kaplan said.
- Danielle Torrent
Photos By: Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California
October 22, 2013