TELLURIDE – According to a recently published report by the National Wildlife Federation on the effects of global warming, Colorado’s ski industry has reason to worry.
Published on Jan. 28 and titled “Odd-Ball Winter Weather: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Northern United States,” the report outlines oddball winter events across the country and states that those oddities in weather events will continue if global warming pollution continues unabated.
For ski resorts in Colorado, the report predicts that winter weather will continue to become milder and shorter with snowfall inconsistencies. In fact, the report states that the extent of snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by approximately three to nine percent since 1978, with especially rapid declines in the western U.S. At the same time, the last few decades have brought fewer seasons with extremely high snowfall levels and more seasons with extremely low snowfall totals. Illustrating the oddball behavior, the report compares the year 2007, when Colorado snowpack levels were 50 percent below normal levels; just a year later, Colorado snowpack levels were 80 percent above normal.
The report also says that precipitation falling as snow has declined by nine percent since 1949 in the West. At higher elevations, where winter temperatures typically remain low enough to maintain a snowpack, scientists have seen a trend toward more rain-on-snow events, which could reflect an increased likelihood of mid-winter rainfall. Lower elevations in the West are seeing fewer rain-on-snow events because there is less snowfall overall.
These continued impacts may not be good to the estimated $66 billion contributed to the U.S. economy from skiing, snowboards and other winter sports. Mountain destinations, according to the report, like Telluride, Aspen and Utah’s Park City, could see a 2,400-foot rise in snowline before this century ends, leaving many base areas without snow. All of the combined weather changes listed in the report could add up to shorter ski seasons for ski areas across the country.
“The ski industry is an interesting beast,” Auden Schendler, the Aspen Ski Company’s Executive Director of Sustainability, said at a press conference Tuesday. “A lot of ski resorts run in deficit until March. One of the problems we could see is a compressed ski season as a result of global warming.” He said ski areas may be able to handle losing skier days in November and December due to a compressed season but if ski areas lose the busy March month because of receding snow levels, it could result in the closure of some ski areas.
“If you lose March, you go out of business,” Schendler said.
Chip Knight, project coordinator at NWF and three-time Olympic slalom skier, agreed with Schendler by saying not only are the ski areas vulnerable to the effects of global warming but the economies that thrive off of the ski areas are vulnerable as well.
“The oddball winter weather is terrible news,” Knight said on Tuesday. “Local economies are becoming increasingly vulnerable and we are seeing, unfortunately, the changing face of the sport with much shorter ski seasons. We could have a 25-24 percent decrease in [skier] days by the 2070s.”
The report states that many ski resorts will be able to cope with the climate change by increasing their snowmaking capacity in the short term. But snowmaking does not come without costs. Through computer modeling and “real life evidence,” Schendler said, the temperature at night has been warming as well for ski areas and that snowmaking becomes “exponentially more expensive” in warmer temperatures.
With that increased need for water and electricity to make more snow, “ski resorts are going to find it difficult to make it economically viable,” Knight said.
As a competitor on the U.S. Ski Team for 13 years, Knight said he has seen first-hand the effects of global warming on the ski industry around the world. He grew up skiing in Vermont, where he liked its hard and cold snowpack, but increasingly found himself on soft and warm conditions. While training in Europe, Knight said he was constantly reminded of the deteriorating ski conditions when he saw receding glaciers almost every year. “The extreme efforts necessary to provide snow for the Vancouver Olympics are a startling example of what’s at stake.”
While the report outlines the effects global warming could have on the country’s ski industry, it doesn’t leave out other impacts the oddball winter weather will have on ecosystems, natural habitats and agriculture.
The 10-year-old old pine beetle epidemic that has spread through forests through much of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains is seen by many as a result of warmer temperatures. Joe Duda, the forest management supervisor at the Colorado State Forest Service, said that forests in Colorado have experienced erratic weather the past 20 years, with extremely wet periods and then extremely hot and dry periods, which “don’t kill bark beetles.” With the warmer temperatures and the changing weather patterns, a perfect storm was created for a beetle outbreak.
“The combination provided ideal conditions for pine beetle populations to expand and we will continue to have the right conditions for bark beetles to continue to expand,” said Duda. "Through 2009, we have a half million new acres of mountain pine beetle in Colorado, which brings the total to nearly three million acres. On top of that we have 124,000 acres of new spruce beetle outbreak in southern Colorado.”
Facing the grim predictions of the study, the Wildlife Federation’s Regional Outreach Coordinator David Dittloff said the first thing the country needs to do is reduce its carbon emissions.
“What matters most is getting the message to Washington that business people in Colorado care about this,” Schendler said, adding the he was disappointed by the Jan. 25 announcement that Rep. John Salazar has joined a Congressional Coal Caucus, which is intended to provide a voice for coal in the U.S. House of Representatives. “I think he should write off trying to fundraise in Telluride or Aspen. These are constituencies that depend entirely upon the climate.”
To view the full report visit www.nwf.org/.