Climate Change and Ski Towns

I was listening to NPR last week, and I heard that if we continue emitting greenhouse gases at our current rate, one third of the creatures in the ocean will become extinct by the end of this century. That was a pretty dramatic visual for me, so then I started to think about the visuals in my own backyard that look like climate change: namely, very little snow in Truckee and erratic weather. I don’t like to admit it, but I believe that’s what’s going on. So I did a little research on climate change’s impacts on ski towns.

According to Daniel Scott, a professor of global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario: “Only half of the 19 communities that have hosted Winter Olympics might be cold enough by midcentury to host them again. By 2100, that number shrinks to 6. The planet has warmed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1800s, and as a result, snow is melting. In the last 47 years, a million square miles of spring snow cover has disappeared from the Northern Hemisphere. Europe has lost half of its Alpine glacial ice since the 1850s, and if climate change is not reined in, two-thirds of European ski resorts will be likely to close by 2100.”

JR Blog Imate ClimateChange SkiTowns 2014 02Extreme weather events, species extinction and a lack of reliable water (70 million people in the western U.S. rely on snowmelt for their fresh water supply) are obviously more important than whether ski resorts stay open, but ski communities face a distinct economic hardship which they must address. According to New York Times Op Ed The End of Snow: At Lake Tahoe, spring now arrives two and a half weeks earlier. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise — they grew 41 percent between 1990 and 2008 — then snowfall, winter and skiing will no longer exist as we know them by the end of the century. The effect on the ski industry has already been significant. Between 1999 and 2010, low snowfall years cost the industry $1 billion and up to 27,000 jobs. Artificial snow-making now helps to cover 88 percent of American ski resorts, and has become the stopgap measure to defend against the early effects of climate change. Snow-making requires a tremendous amount of electricity and water, though, so it’s unlikely that snow guns will be our savior. Ski areas like Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin seed clouds with silver iodide to make it snow, but that won’t help much when it gets warmer. When it does, whatever the clouds bring will fall as rain.

In order to not feel completely depressed I looked into what some ski towns are doing in response to climate change. Aspen passed a resolution to eliminate coal-fired power as an energy source by 2015. By spring of this year, Aspen will be purchasing 89% of its energy from renewable sources. Chamonix is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 22% by 2020. Being a European town, Chamonix is increasing service on its train line to get people out of their cars. Whistler has opened a micro-hydro plant which has helped to offset its on-mountain electrical use by 15%. Jiminy Peak, a small ski resort in the Berkshires, built a wind turbine which powers much of the resort and the surrounding area by generating 4600 megawatts annually. Based on the actions of these and other ski resort towns, I am hopeful ski communities and non-ski communities alike with take action to reverse the trend of climate change. Economics is always a powerful driver for change. Whether it’s a reduction in agricultural products, or fish in the ocean, or snow for skiing, something needs to motivate us to take action sooner rather than later.