In changing climate, ski industry should take action, report says

As the climate trends warmer and snowpacks fall, the U.S. ski industry is positioned to suffer acutely, according to a report released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Protect Our Winters (POW), a snow sports environmental activism organization.

The report draws links between low snow years over the past decade and lost jobs at resorts and related businesses, such as lodging and restaurants. A bad snow year can cost as much as $1.9 billion in reduced economic activity in the U.S., and job losses of up to 13,000, or 6 percent of the industry. Looking ahead, with forecasts showing a warming trend of 4 to 10 degrees F in winter temperatures by the end of the century, with less snowfall and a shorter snow season, the number of jobs lost between a good and bad snow year could grow to 27,000.

Two researchers from the University of New Hampshire -- Elizabeth Burakowski, a Ph.D. candidate in its Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program and Matt Magnusson, an adjunct lecturer for its Whittemore School of Business and Economics – used climate forecasts and economic data collected from the ski resort and snowmobile industries to write the report.

Snowmobiling relies on natural snow, but ski resorts increasingly turn to snowmaking to adapt to shrinking snowpacks. That helps keeps the lifts running, but it's a catch-22, since snowmaking is very energy intensive – and expensive. About half of a resort's energy spending typically goes toward snowmaking and is generated for the most part using carbon-emitting power sources. That's not to mention its massive demands on the local water supply.

"The bitter irony is that the response to climate change is to use a lot of energy and further cannibalize the climate. Surely there is a better approach than that,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Ski Company, about contemporary snowmaking.

Photo of ski slope with green grass underneath courtesy of claro/Shutterstock

Next page: Warming nighttime temperatures compound problem

Temperature trends that show nighttime minimum temperatures warming at a faster rate than daytime maximum temperatures compound the problem further. That’s bad news, since snowmaking relies on low overnight temperatures. "It is uncertain as to what extent snowmaking will last as an adaptation strategy," the report says.

Chris Steinkamp, executive director of POW, says a few ski resorts such as Aspen Skiing Company and Squaw Valley Ski Resort are taking a very proactive response to climate change. For example, Aspen Skiing Company recently funded a project to capture methane emissions from a Colorado coal mine and convert the gas to electricity.

The NRDC is using the report to amplify its message to Washington, D.C. "I'd like to see every ski resort owner, every skier, every snowmobiler and snowboarder, calling on the President to take action," said Antonia Herzog, assistant director of NRDC's Climate and Clean Air Program. Allowing the EPA to set carbon pollution standards for major emitters, such as power plants, would be such an example, she said.

Steinkamp and Schendler expressed their hope that the report will provide a starting point for more action and spending on sustainability programs within the industry – or even wider acknowledgement that the changes all ski resorts are seeing in snowfall and temperatures are related to human activity.

One reason resorts have largely been sitting on the sidelines until now, says Steinkamp, is that they don't want to make financial commitments to clean energy projects. "It's hard to lobby for things that might increase energy costs in the near term," he says. "I'm not a resort owner so I can't throw stones, but it's a matter of operating for the next 10-15 years versus the next 100 years."

He hopes the report will initiate a process of goal-setting for the ski resort industry. "Other industries have hard benchmarks. We should have them, too."

Download the full report from NRDC's website here.

The Ski Industry's Future, By the Numbers

15,214,459 million: the average decline in visits to ski resorts during a nationwide low snow year

4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit: The amount by which winter temperatures are expected to rise by century's end

13,000 – 27,000: The number of jobs ski resorts are expected to cut during low snow years if snowpacks continue to trend downward and winters becoming increasingly short

25 percent to 100 percent: The expected decline in snowpack depth in the western United States

50 percent: The amount by which the ski season in the Northeastern U.S. is expected to be shortened due to warmer winters

76: the percent of U.S. states that directly benefit from snow sports industries