Resorts grapple with global warming
Trend points to more rain days and fewer powder days
Snow guns blast Durango Mountain Resort this year with some early season manmade. If predicted consequences of global warming come true, snowmaking will become more necessary and more expensive for Rocky Mountain ski areas, which also could see fewer powder days and more rain days./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Editors note: The following is the second on a series by Allen Best, "Danger in Degrees," which takes a look at global warming and the economic and environmental ramifications it has for the Western United States and beyond.

Business at Thanksgiving was always questionable in the early days of ski areas.

Now, thanks to snowmaking, Thanksgiving is an almost sure bet for every ski area, giving most ski towns a four-month season.

But, if predicted consequences for global warming are accurate, the ski season bookends will move in. Snowmaking will become more necessary and also more expensive. Even Rocky Mountain ski areas will get fewer powder days and more rain days.

Some scientists, if admittedly better versed in climatology than the economics of skiing, even predict the ski industry has a snowball's chance in well, you know.

Although more optimistic, ski areas are now beginning to accept global warming 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. More remarkable, operators have indicated that their reliance upon fossil fuels is part of the problem.

High and dry real estate

Among those scientists with a bleak view is John Harte. A researcher from the University of California at Berkeley, Harte has summered near Crested Butte since 1977, looking out from his cabin and office at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory onto the ski trails of hook-nosed Mt. Crested Butte.

There, some $200 million in real estate development as well as a new ski hill called Snodgrass Mountain are being planned. 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 several years, he adds, is a likely preview of global warming. "Anyone who invests in land development because of the potential for skiing is making a foolish investment," he insists.

To such predictions, Vail Mountain's 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."

Durango Mountain Resort is far more inclined to see a direct and immediate threat. Variable snowfall averages have been the norm during the resort's 40 year history, but DMR is keeping its eye on global warming science. "As a weather dependent industry, we do take global climate studies seriously," notes Matt Skinner, DMR communications director.

Not only is the resort taking a hard look at studies, DMR is taking concrete steps to limit its footprint. "Responsible environmental stewardship has been and will continue to be an integral part of this resort's operating plan, including focus on greenhouse gas reduction, as well as local and global, immediate and long-term environmental concerns," Skinner says.

The Aspen Skiing Co. is credited with being the first ski resort to take global warming seriously. However, like DMR and Vail, Aspen is also plunging ahead with major slopeside 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. The increased warming will not be uniform. Winters will warm more than summers, and nights more than days.

This would make Thanksgiving openings more expensive, if not impossible. With even the best snowmaking technology, temperatures must be at least 30 degrees.

Still uncertain are changes in precipitation. Even if more precipitation occurs, it could be rain, not snow. Even snowstorms are likely to be more erratic. Instead of blessed 7-inch doses three times a week, there will be blowouts, perhaps like the storm of March 2003 that smacked Denver and Summit County, closing Interstate 70 for an unprecedented three days.

Other manifestations of global warming also appear to be happening. It has rained in January in both Aspen and Vail during recent years. Who remembers the last time it got to 30 below? On the other hand, do you recall the great melt-down of this past March?

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, localized weather. Still, these recent weather events suggest 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 - long considered the farm teams for Colorado's destination resorts - more sketchy.

Add this up, and skiing - already highly dependent upon uncertain weather -becomes a more risky business proposition.

"The net effect would add to the existing deterrence4 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 pull 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. In their report entitled "Climate Change and Winter Sports: Environmental and Economic Threats," they predict more troubles for the Alps than the Rockies.

By one measure, warming will leave only 44 percent of Swiss resorts as "snow reliable," down from the existing 85 percent. With generally lower elevations, even fewer ski areas in Germany and Austria would remain. In Australia, 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, even more snowmaking capacity 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 because of their higher elevations and hence colder temperatures.

Cheap, easy travel

But reliable snow is not the sole fall-out from global warming. Destination ski resorts are premised on relatively cheap and easy transportation enabled by the burning of fossil fuels. Jet planes, although improving rapidly in fuel efficiency, gobble gas at a higher per-mile rate than any other form of transportation.

If no substitute energy sources are found, the easy and far-flung vacations - San Francisco for the weekend, Nepal for a week, Hawaii for the Fourth of July - will become more rare. That means fewer visits to Colorado's destination resorts.

Vail's Jensen, while conceding the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, has strong faith in engineering prowess. "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."

But most scientists urge prevention. "The scale we're dealing with is just so massive that engineering solutions are just impossible," says Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist from Boulder who achieved fame for her role in helping repair the ozone hole. That solution was not strictly technological, but rather an agreement to quit sending chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere. Now, she says, we must take international action to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.






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