Could Al Gore Have Been Right? A Reflection on Ski Lift Conversations

The first time it happened, I was at Alpine Meadows halfway up the mountain on the Summit chairlift. One of the skiers situated next to me turns and says,

“You know, I’ve never believed in all that global warming nonsense. But with the snowpack in such a bad condition as it is, I’m starting to think that maybe Al Gore was right.”

MaxWhittaker GettyImagesI was taken aback by this stranger’s chutzpah to bring up what can be a controversial topic for the skier’s equivalent of an elevator chat, but also by his honesty. He talked about his experiences living through the drought in the 1970’s, when California’s snowpack, as well as Lake Tahoe, fell to their all-time lowest levels. After two horrible years, the drought was almost completely reversed. He hoped that sudden reversal would happen again, but now with our fourth year of drought and dire predictions suggesting that California has one year left of water, he was worried the activity which he loves so much, skiing, might be irreparably altered by climate change.

We parted ways at the top, but I’ve found the topic of climate change has come up again and again in an unexpected location: on the ski lift. I’ve had numerous other conversations with other strangers about the drought’s effect on the tourism industry, water conservation measures, and historical snowpack trends. It’s come up with both young boarders and old, time-weathered skiers. Some are staunch in their conviction regarding climate change, while others are just starting to realize the disappearing snowpack might not be fully explained by natural phenomenon. It seems climate scientists have missed the mark completely in their attempts to communicate about climate change: people may feel sorry for polar bears, but take away powder days and suddenly you have people’s attention.

Climate scientists have, for years, known that mountainous regions are more vulnerable to climate change. They’ve made predictions that climate change will cause decreased amounts of snowpack and more intense wildfires. The people with whom I’ve had conversations on the ski lift wonder whether these predictions could be coming true when they consider how the bad snowpack has affected the local tourism industry: Sierra at Tahoe and Sugar Bowl have closed early in 2015, and Squaw Valley had to cancel their hosting of the FIS Skicross and Snowboardcross World Cup. Summer events have also be affected, with the Lake Tahoe Ironman being canceled due to the smoke from the King fire last year. While it’s extremely difficult to definitively and scientifically connect a specific weather pattern or event—like the King fire, or the drought itself—to climate change as the root cause, it’s reasonable to consider the possibility of climate change as a contributing factor in intensifying these events.

In all my conversations, we left with more questions than answers. Thankfully, there are groups and individuals working to find specific and novel solutions in varied ways. The non-profit Mountain Pact is an organization trying to bring together mountain communities to speak as one voice on federal issues affecting them and bring in additional funding to support issues like fighting and preventing forest wildfires. Protect Our Winters, or POW, is another non-profit which works to educate and advocate, specifically geared towards supporting the winter sports community. Lastly, Sierra Business Council’s own Sierra Climate Action and Mitigation Partnership (Sierra CAMP) works to bring the best strategies to the Sierra in order to support local vibrant communities and improve quality of life in the face of climate change.

Whether you’re still not sure if the effects of climate change are occurring today or you’re seeing it around every corner, we are all affected by a meager snowpack. These organizations are working to help solve that in their own ways. And the best place to discuss all this? I’m a new fan of the ski lift. I’ll see you there.

Photo Couresy of Max Whittaker/Getty Images