Now, if not necessarily powder, there's usually snow for sliding on during Thanksgiving, giving ski area operators and the communities that depend upon skiing at least a four-month season.
But, if predicted consequences for global warming are accurate, the bookends for skiing will move in, making the season shorter. Snowmaking will become more necessary and also more expensive. And there will be fewer powder days and more rain days, even in the Rocky Mountains.
Summers will admittedly be longer. However, despite decades of trying, no ski resorts (except Jackson, Wyo., located adjacent to two major national parks) have achieved the same economic punch during summer as skiing delivers during winter.
Some scientists, if admittedly better versed in climatology than the economics of skiing, go so far as to say ski areas will struggle to remain open, that the industry has a snowball's chance in … well, you know.
Ski areas, if not necessarily seeing the future this bleak, are now beginning to accept the warnings as legitimate. First in Aspen, then in California, and more recently nationally, ski industry operators have publicly registered their concerns.
The ski industry, explains Geraldine Linke, public affairs director for the National Ski Areas Association, adopted its position only after a broadened consensus had been achieved among scientists. It is, she adds, the first industry to assert that position, even if individual companies within various industries, such as Dow Chemical, were earlier.
What's more remarkable about the ski industry is that operators have indicated that they could be more than just victims of climate change. Through mostly small but concrete steps, many have acknowledged that they consider their reliance upon fossil fuels as being part of the problem.
That position has not gone unnoticed. Last year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the co-sponsor of a bill that would be the first deliberate admission by the United States of the seriousness of the threat, noted the ski industry support. More than 70 ski area operators have now endorsed the bill, although hundreds of other operators have not.
High and Dry
Among those scientists with a bleak view is John Harte. A researcher and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Harte has been spending his summers near Crested Butte since 1977. His cabin and office at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in the old mining town of Gothic are at about 9,500 feet in elevation.
From that cabin, Harte can look down the valley to see the ski trails cut in the forests on hook-nosed Mt. Crested Butte. At the base of the mountain, the new owners of the ski company, Tim and Diane Mueller, are planning a $200 million real estate development. Together with a new intermediate-ability ski hill called Snodgrass Mountain, they hope to make Crested Butte a major destination ski resort with about twice as many skier days as recorded in recent years.
To Harte, such planning is foolish. "It's very difficult for me to believe that 40 years from now, or even 20 to 30 years, the ski industry is going to be any kind of healthy recreational industry," he says. The drought of the last five years, he adds, is a likely preview of global warming.
"We've seen skiing get hammered by this, but it's going to get much worse. Anyone who invests in land development because of the potential for skiing is making a foolish investment."
To such predictions, Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen has a succinct reply: "Hogwash. I don't believe that at all. People will be skiing in Colorado 50 to 100 years from now. I'll let the jury decide about 200 years from now."
Jensen readily admits to sufficient evidence of global warming to justify action. But evidence of peril to the ski industry in Colorado during coming decades falls short of compelling, he says.
The Aspen Skiing Co. outwardly is far more persuaded of a direct and immediate threat. However, like Vail, Aspen is plunging ahead with major slope-side real estate development at Snowmass Village premised on the idea of ski seasons for decades to come. Aspen's partner is Intrawest, the third major ski area operator in Colorado.
Warmer and …
All computer models, although not specifically assessing ski mountains, predict warmer temperatures. Less certain is the degree of warmth. More uncertain yet is whether warming will produce more or less precipitation.
One scenario, neither the darkest nor most optimistic vision, sees more warming but about the same winter precipitation. Even so, that does not bode well for ski resorts, even those in Colorado. Warming means shorter winters. Models also show global warming affecting winter more than summer, and nights more than days.
If accurate, this would make it more expensive or impossible for ski areas to open by Thanksgiving. In early season, snow is most commonly made at night, when temperatures dip low enough. There will be fewer cold nights, and hence fewer snow-making opportunities. Technological advances in snowmaking have been significant in the last 25 years, but all bump against one reality: temperatures of about 30 degrees.
At the very least, snowmaking will become more necessary and more expensive – perhaps making lift tickets more expensive than people will be willing to pay.
Most computer models also predict more erratic weather. Even if total precipitation remains the same, it is unlikely to come in thrice-weekly seven-inch doses. Instead, weeks of nothing will be followed by a blowout snowstorm, perhaps like the storm of March 2003 that smacked Denver and Summit County, closing Interstate 70 for an unprecedented three days.
Like that record dump in 2003, other manifestations of global warming appear to be happening. It has rained in January in both Aspen and Vail during the last several years. Who remembers the last time it got to 30 below? On the other hand, do you recall this past March? A record season was washed out by melting snow.
None of these things can be linked unquestionably to global warming. Indeed, some scientists carefully warn against trying to make too much of short-term and local weather phenomena. Still, these recent weather events are suggestive of what computer models have consistently suggested will become more common in our climate during coming decades.
Problems are greatest for ski areas at lower elevations. The problem is most apparent for ski areas at 4,000 feet in the Alps, but obviously it makes skiing in places like Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania sketchier. Even the Arrowhead portal to Beaver Creek, with a base elevation of 7,400 feet, would become less functional.
Add all this up and skiing – already highly dependent upon uncertain weather – becomes an even riskier business proposition.
"The net effect would add to the existing deterrence to growth in the industry, and conceivably be a force for reduction," says Frederick H. Wagner, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at Utah State University. "The lower-elevation areas would be at greatest risk of losing profitability."
Could summer tourism pick up the slack for ski towns? Not according to those ski area operators in Utah contacted by Wagner.
"Resort operators comment that if skiing – the original attraction for the economic development, and major contributor to the local economies for four to six months of each year – fails, it will almost certainly lead to sharp declines in property values even if extensive summer tourism could be developed."
The Swiss View
A somewhat parallel study issued by a trio of economic geographers at the University of Zurich likewise has a dark view. "Climate change is a severe threat to snow-related sports such as skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing," say Rolf Bürki, Hans Elsasser, and Bruno Abegg.
In the report, entitled "Climate Change and Winter Sports: Environmental and Economic Threats," they predict more troubles for the Alps than the Rockies. By one measure, 85 percent of Swiss resorts today are "snow reliable." By this same measure, only 44 percent of ski areas will have reliable snow, given one possible warming scenario.
Germany and Austria, with more lower-elevation resorts, would have even fewer ski areas remaining in business. Ditto in Australia, where only one ski area, Charlotte Pass, would be making money, given the worst-case scenario forecast for 2030.
The Swiss geographers predicted fewer impacts in Canada and the United States, partly because of already heavy investments in snowmaking. Still, more snowmaking capacity yet will be required. Whether individual ski areas can absorb additional snowmaking costs may be crucial in determining who remains in business, they say.
Colorado resorts, although not mentioned specifically, would seem to have among the best opportunities for continued operations, due to their higher elevations and hence colder temperatures.
Cheap, Easy Travel
But climate alone is not the sole fall-out from global warming. If the world's nations begin to take the threat seriously, structures of our economy are also likely to change. If we remain dependent upon fossil fuels, travel is likely to get more expensive.
Destination ski resorts are premised on relatively cheap and easy transportation enabled by the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, Sun Valley, the first destination ski resort in the United States, was founded as a way to supply customers for Union Pacific, whose trains then burned coal. Then, when the ski industry blossomed in the 1960s, it was premised on travel by jet planes.
Jet planes, although improving rapidly in fuel efficiency, remain highly consumptive of fossil fuels. Per mile traveled per passenger, they use more hydrocarbons than buses, cars or trains.
If we find it imperative to wean ourselves from our high-carb diet of fossil fuels, it's not hard to imagine a time when our easy and far-flung vacations – San Francisco for the weekend, Nepal for a week, Hawaii for the Fourth of July – will become at least more rare. That could do nothing but depress visits to Colorado's destination resorts.
That scenario assumes no technological breakthroughs, however, and it's one with which Vail's Jensen disagrees. While conceding we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, he also firmly believes in man's technical ingenuity.
"I'm a big believer in technology," he says. "The history of man, particularly during the last 200 years, is that technology has literally overcome every problem civilization has faced."
This discussion is a proxy for a larger debate about whether scientists and engineers can deliver a technological solution. Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist from Boulder who achieved fame for her role in helping repair the ozone hole, is among those who warn against people looking to scientists for all the answers.
"The scale we're dealing with is just so massive that engineering solutions are just impossible," she said recently at a lecture in Boulder.
Like many scientists, she thinks the solution to global warming is instead found in the realm of public policy. Just as we quickly figured out to quit sending ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere, we must now take international action to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.
NEXT WEEK: Even if global warming produces more precipitation across the Colorado Rockies and the rest of the West, hotter temperatures guarantee changes. One startling thought is that Colorado could end up owing California more water.