Global Climate Change and Skiing

SpringSnow_svariophoto_EPlus_Getty.jpg
Global warming means a thinner snowpack and a shorter ski season. svariophoto/E+/Getty

Alpine skiing and snowboarding allow millions to appreciate the winter season and the mountain environment. It is also a $12 billion industry in the United States. Skier expenses go toward lift tickets, but also meals, hotel rooms, and equipment. The industry employs thousands, supporting many local economies. It is therefore not surprising that the ski industry has been anticipating the effects of global climate change with a wary eye.

Of course ski resorts are not free of blame when it comes to global warming: they rely on a complex and energy-demanding infrastructure, and the significant emission of greenhouse gases is one of the environmental concerns associated with ski resorts.

During any given year, the success of a ski resort is tied to the length of the season and the abundance of snow. For most regions, winter is getting shorter and the snowpack thinner due to global climate change. The atmospheric warming trend is steepest in New England and the northern Midwest. Increasingly wide year-to-year variations in snow amounts are somewhat masking the declining trend in snow cover and season length, but that trend is predicted to worsen. In the northeast, for example, the average number of days with snow cover is projected to decrease 50 to 75% by the end of the century. The first resorts to fold because of climate change are likely those at lower elevation, furthest south, and those smaller operations without the funds to invest more in expensive snowmaking equipment.

Economic Consequences

The Holiday season is a crucial period for ski resorts, and a positive ledger at the end of the year often hinges on keeping the resort busy between Christmas and New Year’s Day. At the same time, that period is far from the snowiest in most ski regions in North America.  In the east, a solid natural snow base is established increasingly late, often not until mid-January.

Delayed snow seasons have severe effects on the ski economy.

Globally, the effects of an ailing ski economy would not even qualify as speed bumps, but locally the consequences can be devastating. Ski resort towns have their entire economy anchored in ski tourism revenue. With little else in terms of economic resources, these communities will feel climate change sharply. To estimate those costs, a study compared the differences in skier visits and economic impacts during a highest snow year and a lowest snow year between 2000 and 2010. They found that low snow years like those expected under a warming climate led to the loss of $1.9 billion and almost 13,000 jobs nationwide. In Vermont alone, ski resort revenue and economic impact losses totaled $106 million and over 700 jobs. In Colorado, the losses amounted to $270 million and 1867 jobs.

Adaptation

The competitive environment of ski resorts encouraged investments to adapt to climate change. One approach was the diversification of their tourism offers: to attract and retain customers, resorts invested in indoors aquatic parks, spas, shopping, fine dining, and nightlife establishments. The development of slope side condominiums allowed resorts to profit from the lucrative second home real estate market.

It also guaranteed returning costumers on the slopes but also on the new golf courses and other summertime amenities.

More directly, resorts have heavily invested in artificial snow making. The deployment of snow guns on the slopes helps lengthen the season, and better survive the occasional winter thaw. Snowmaking is best conducted at night, to minimize inconveniences to skiers, and when temperatures are cooler. Even when daytime temperatures are above freezing, skiers can enjoy artificial snow that has been made in the cooler hours of the previous night. However, in the northern half of the United States the average nighttime lows are climbing faster than the daytime highs, narrowing the effective snowmaking windows. Some ski stations have resorted to stockpiling spring snow, covering it with sawdust, and deploying what did not melt over the summer back onto the slopes to jump start the early winter season.

Relying on artificial snow has a major drawback: customers seeing little or no snow at home are less likely to make the drive to the ski area, even if it does have an adequate snow cover. Resorts have had to adapt their marketing strategies, including the use of webcams showing snow-covered slopes to the reluctant suburbanites.

Source

Natural Resource Defense Council. 2012. Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.