With Climate Changing and Political Action Neglected, Snow Sports Have Much to Lose – From Dollars to Jobs

Chelsea LittleDecember 25, 20125
2011 U.S. Nationals was one of many races held with very little snow in the last few years. Here, one of the two main climbs on the Rumford, Maine, distance course before the races.

Twice now, Chris Steinkamp has gone to Washington.

And these weren’t just any old trips to Capitol Hill. Although Steinkamp, the Executive Director of Protect Our Winters (POW), met with myriad congressmen, his “coworkers” on the trips were also legendary: nine-time “Big Mountain Rider of the Year” Jeremy Jones, who founded the nonprofit. Olympic silver medalist and X Games champion snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler. Chris Davenport, the first big-mountain skier to conquer all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Jones’ brother Steve Jones, founder of the ski-film behemoth Teton Gravity Research.

The goal for the delegation was to encourage politicians to pass meaningful climate change legislation. Climate change is real, they said; humans are causing it, with the huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere every year, far above natural levels. Over years of traveling the globe, the skiers and riders had watched firsthand as winters became less and less entertaining.

The interviews with congressmen didn’t go badly, but Steinkamp left knowing that the organization had to do more.

“Athletes give a very clear picture of how climate change has already begun to impact our sport, our industry, and the economies of the communities that depend on consistent winters and consistent snow for their economic survival,” Steinkamp said in a conference call with the Natural Resources Defense Council earlier this month. “But the response from senators on both sides was, ‘Great, thank you. But can you tell me what the effect is in my state when it doesn’t snow? I need to know this before I can think about climate legislation.’”

Like everything else in Washington, climate change legislation comes down to money – and which side can convince Senators and Representatives that the opposition will kill the economy. Unfortunately, while personal stories from the likes of Bleiler and Devenport were compelling, the POW crew “didn’t have an answer for them” about the money.

“We left with a clear mandate,” Steinkamp said in the conference call, which FasterSkier participated in. “If we were going to have any impact on climate change, the winter sports community needed to place a value on winter. We also heard that climate legislation was a jobs-killer.”

Steinkamp and the athletes knew that wasn’t true. The second trip came late in 2011, as the worst snow season in years was just getting started in all of its brown, rainy glory.

“We were hearing from our corporations, businesses, small resorts, and friends, that jobs were being lost, businesses closing, and resorts trimming staff,” Steinkamp said. “Lack of snow was having a direct economic impact on thousands, many of whom were friends and family.”

So POW – a handy acronym for a group of winter sports enthusiast who want just that – went out to get the data. They partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the University of New Hampshire’s Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program, whose PhD candidates Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnussson recently completed a wide-ranging report for the two organizations.

The numbers are in one sense staggering, but in another not altogether surprising to observant winter sport enthusiasts. In the last decade, employment typically declines by six to thirteen percent in a bad snow year compared to a good one, representing 13,000 to 27,000 jobs. In that decade, bad snow years have combined to cost the winter tourism industry over a billion dollars in lost revenue.

“The key thing to understand here is that snow is currency in the 38 states that benefit from the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry,” Burakowski said in the conference call. “If that currency is undermined by climate change then the industry, not just the manufacturers but the resorts, lodging, grocery stores, restaurants, and bars, is very much put at risk.”

By the Numbers: Scary

One thing that is inarguable is the warming that has already occurred in the United States. As the report – which you can download here from the NRDC – notes, average winter temperatures (December through February) have declined by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.

A separate report by the European Environment Agency earlier this year found that March and April snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by seven to ten percent in the last forty years. Correspondingly, the National Ski Areas Association conducted a survey at the end of the 2012 season and reported that 50 percent of U.S. resorts had opened late that year and 48 percent had closed early.

The fourth-warmest winter on record in the United States and the third-lowest snow cover since 1966, when scientists began tracking it, 2012 resulted in nine million fewer tourist visits for the alpine ski industry compared to a typical good year. Snowmobile registrations have been on the decline since 2004. The researchers did not analyze economic or visitor data for nordic ski areas at the national level.

“It’s something we would have been interested in, but there isn’t really good data compared to the alpine skiing,” Magnusson told FasterSkier. “So that’s the primary reason that we weren’t able to come up with better information for that industry.”

Burakowski, however, has examined nordic skiing before. During her masters degree she completed an analysis of the effects of climate change in New Hampshire specifically, and found that nordic ticket sales decreased by 29 percent between 1984 and 2006, with an economic impact of over half a million dollars in that small state alone.

Sadly, the changes will only get worse. The study noted that temperatures will rise between four and ten degrees by the end of the century – or even worse in Alaska, as warming will be the most severe in the Arctic. That state will see an eight to thirteen degree rise in temperatures.

In some areas of the Rocky Mountains, snowfall could drop to zero by 2100. New York and New England can expect a 50 to 75 percent decrease in number of days with snow cover. The Pacific Northwest and the Sierra Nevada mountains could see 40 to 70 percent less snowpack in the next forty years alone.

Both the meteorological and economic forecasts vary significantly by region, and even at a finer scale.

“The lower elevation that your mountains are, the more likely that you’re going to be vulnerable to climate change and lose your snowpack,” Burakowski said. “At higher elevations, the snowline is likely to move up the mountain and you could retain some snow at the higher elevations. But overall the trend is for much more snowfall to come in the form of rain at lower elevations. And the further north you are, the more likely it is that you might have more snow in the future.”

Meanwhile, she predicted that big-ticket locations like the Rockies might be able to retain more of their tourist dollars.

“Colorado might be a little insulated because people book their vacations months in advance, and aren’t as tied to the snowfall,” Burakowski explained. “That’s different than a place like New Hampshire, where you get a lot of commuters coming up from the Boston area.”

Adaptation Isn’t Enough

Also on the conference call was Auden Schendler, the Vice President of Sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company. While Schendler has been outspoken about climate change and what it means for his industry, Aspen is in the minority of resorts in terms of even having anyone with his job description.

“Auden Schendler at Aspen is the only high profile guy I know of who’s really taken the bit in his teeth–he’s a good guy,” climate activist and nordic ski enthusiast Bill McKibben wrote to FasterSkier in an e-mail last week. “We need it to spread. You know [Middlebury College coach] Andrew Gardner has been pushing hard in the nordic world.”

While Schendler’s credentials include a stint at the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the nation’s most highly-respected environmental think tanks, he’s definitely in the minority among ski industry higher-ups. And as a result, his determination to address climate change is rare.

“The CEO of Hunter Mountain was recently asked about climate change,” he said. “And he said, yes, it’s absolutely happening. But then he said, I don’t know if this is a natural cycle or not. Well, the CEO of a ski resort is fiscally obligated to know if it’s human-caused or not, because the answer to that, which is pretty straightforward, enables you to solve the problem or not.”

So education is clearly lacking in the snow sports industry. Schendler said that he would love to see, for example, NASA meteorologist James Hansen invited to speak at the National Ski Areas Association annual convention. So far, that hasn’t happened.

But a large number of executives, Schendler said, know that climate change is real and perhaps even that it’s caused by humans. Unlike the Hunter CEO, they just choose not to take political action, instead tending towards adaptation, for instance installing more snowmaking or working to minimize their carbon footprint.

If the reasons are economic, then resorts are hiding from a false foe. Schendler used numbers to explain why legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t hurt a resort’s bottom line, even if the cost of electricity went up. Power represents roughly two to six percent of a resort’s budget; even if that increased by another point or two, the change could be erased by improving efficiency.

“Whereas climate change, if we see increased drought and big flooding events like the one that destroyed the base lodge at Killington [during Hurricane Irene], or the drought that cost Mammoth Mountain 20 million dollars last year, the impact is wildly disproportionate,” Schendler said.

Furthermore, adaptation is not a good strategy, according to Burakowski. As temperatures have climbed, nighttime minimums have increased more quickly than daytime average temperature. Snowmaking requires temperatures below 28 degrees, which are fewer and farther between on winter nights. So although alpine resorts and an increasing number of nordic areas (as recently featured in the New York Times) are extending their seasons by adding snowmaking, at some point it will be too warm to blow manmade snow.

Then there’s the issue of water. With less precipitation in the forecast, particularly in the mountain west, droughts will become more common and water rights an even bigger issue. Areas in the Rockies may struggle to find the larger and larger amount of water they need to cover their trails every year, or at least to justify using the water for such a recreational purpose.

Finally, Burakowski said, nordic ski areas as well as other industries such as snowmobiling will be hit harder than the opulent alpine ski world.

“I think it’s a pretty good guess that they will be hit a little bit harder than the alpine skiing industry, because they can’t compensate with extensive snowmaking,” she told FasterSkier. “It’s a trail system that is much more dispersed, and it’s not as concentrated on one mountain.”

Why No Action?

Across the board, conference call participants were puzzled as to why the snow sports industry hasn’t publicly called for climate change legislation.

“We know that if it doesn’t snow, we’re going to have less revenue,” Schendler said. “We will have less jobs for people. It’s harder for people in ski towns to feed their families. There’s less tax base for schools. There’s a monetized risk, and the solution should be for the ski industry leaders and trade group leaders to get off their asses and move as if this was an existential threat to their existence. Which it is.”

It’s true in the nordic world, too. While neither the United States Ski and Snowboard Association nor Cross Country Canada (CCC), for example, deny climate change – both mention it occasionally, even on their websites – neither organization appears to have made waves in trying to use their clout to address the problem.

“Global warming is a factor that will inevitably have an impact on cross-country skiing at different levels (e.g. accessibility and dependability of skiing conditions, duration of season),” CCC wrote in its strategic plan for 2018. “The exact nature and immediacy of these impacts is uncertain. As an immediate concern, short-notice cancellations and/or relocations of international competitions is becoming a significant expense for CCC, due to the related travel and accommodation costs.”

But the strategic plan made not reference to any strategy to minimize the future effects of global warming on the sport.

“I fear we’re at the point where structural change is required, which means politics, which means rocking the boat,” McKibben wrote. “Most industry types don’t like to do that–but you’d think the ski industry, above all others, would realize their backs are to the wall.”

For her part, Herzog of the NRDC called for the industry to “take its head out of the snow before it melts,” asking, “How long will people keep coming to the slopes after multiple bad snow years?”

One possible explanation for inaction is the fear of alienating potential customers. Burakowski cited research by fellow UNH investigator Larry Hamilton, which found that climate change was the most divisive issue in politics today – more divisive than abortion, gay marriage, or gun control.

Schendler cited a recent letter signed by over 100 ski resorts supporting a tax credit for wind power. Nowhere in the letter was climate change mentioned.

That doesn’t make much sense to Schendler, who feared that ski resorts would run themselves out of business, and destroy their communities in the process, if something didn’t change radically in the next few years.

“Unless these resorts start to explicitly talk about the issue instead of beating around the bush, it’s not going to be effective in driving change in Washington,” Schendler said, later describing what that would mean to his home in the Roaring Fork Valley. “It would essentially be sacrificing mountain communities throughout the West – that would be no fun and it doesn’t make any sense, especially when we can deal with this problem.”

If it wasn’t clear already, he’s disappointed in the ski industry.

“The response has been defensive, in large part, which has been to say that the ski industry isn’t responsible for a lot of emissions and we’re doing a lot on our own,” he said in the conference call. “Which is a puzzling response to a threat to the business which is increasing so fast…. this is business, this is industry. And if people say that we need action, we can make a significant difference.”

Athletes and Enthusiasts

As McKibben pointed out in his e-mail, industry can not only make a difference in reaching congressmen directly, but also in helping to educate the millions of people who travel to resorts every year.

“We could put a solar panel on every skilift tower on earth and it wouldn’t matter much–but a sign on every ski lift tower saying ‘pull our your cell phone and call your congressman to tell him to stop caving to the fossil fuel industry and do something about climate change before winter vanishes forever’ would be of great use,” McKibben wrote.

And that’s where POW, NRDC, and Schendler all see hope: if the industry itself continues to live in denial, at least there are millions of regular Americans out there that love snow and winter and could demand political action.

“Skiers and snowboarders are optimists,” Schendler said. “When we’re at the top of a steep slope with lots of hazards, we all think, I can do that. That’s the approach that we should take to climate. Here’s an opportunity for us to do what we do, which is to get in there, get active, and solve problems.”

As Steinkamp said, he wouldn’t tell the 50,000 people who support POW to work so hard or donate money if he didn’t think the fight could be won. POW and NRDC were part of a coalition that encouraging support of a recent EPA proposal to limit carbon pollution from power plants; the result was more than three million separate comments to the EPA, a record for the agency.

Next time around, Schendler, Steinkamp, and Herzog would like to see double that number. Or triple it.

“I’m hoping that this report will drive radical change,” Schendler said of Burakowski and Magunsson’s work. “[Change] in getting to Washington and making aggressive public speeches, writing op-eds, educating the industry as a whole, and using this incredibly passionate, 21-million person base of enthusiasts in the winter sports world to drive this critical policy change so that we can ski for the next 100 years.”

It might take some sacrifice. McKibben noted that he is taking the Presidents Day weekend off from skiing (“assuming we have any snow”) to go to Washington for a rally; he hopes to see some skiers there.

High profile athletes have also made time to be activists, although mostly in their off-seasons. And they’ve made time, too, to educate younger skiers. Through POW, elite snow sports athletes have visited classrooms and talked to over 15,000 students about climate change.

“Aspen Skiing Company is unique in the level of policy activism that we’ve done,” Schendler said. “But if you look at the athletes in snow sports, it’s very hard to pick one who isn’t mobilized and very concerned about climate change. All the big superheroes are.”

If that level of involvement spreads to more skier and riders, the NRDC believes that meaningful steps can be taken at the national level. Herzog called for constituents to contact not only their congressmen, but also President Obama, who “has the authority to do this” without Congress. Existing power plants, she said, should be the biggest target in terms of emissions reductions.

“It’s going to take a consolidated effort,” said Steinkamp, the POW Executive Director. “Doing the agreements is great, but having everybody sign one agreement would be the goal. That’s what will give us traction and make a difference.”

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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  • T.Eastman

    December 26, 2012 at 1:01 am

    Many of the biggest players in the ski industry are owned by large corporations with board memberships that reach deeply into other large corporations, many of whom are invested in the polluting industries contributing to emissions problems. The largest of players in the ski industry, Vail Resorts, appears to be positioning itself for a warmer future by continually expanding its areas in the highest parts of Colorado.

  • Tim Kelley

    December 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    This article is very 2005. US power plant conversios to cheaper and cleaner natural gas, due to massive amounts of shale gas now being produced in the continental US, have made the US the world leader in CO2 emission reductions in the power sector.

    If POW wants to do something effective, they should pay the leaders of China and India a visit. Tell the president of China that his country needs to stop building new coal-fired power plants because it is killing the world’s skiing industry. Good luck with that.

  • D. Diehl

    December 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Actually the US is still leading the way in CO2 emissions we don’t need to continue our self righteous course while we set a horribly lame example for the rest of the planet. Moreover my friends down in Sharon Springs, NY really enjoy the fracking going on to gather Natural Gas. Their drinking water from their wells is contaminated from fracking and they get free heat when they turn on the tap and strike a match. Cleaner Natural Gas….not! Perhaps if Bill McKibben is back from his tour of colleges across America he can shed some real facts and numbers for the comments of this article. Bill please tell us there is hope if we make massive immediate changes to Solar, wind, and Ocean tidal energy plants.

  • campirecord

    December 27, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Fracking, the best way to kill a community with a 1-2 punch… Tim, do your self a favor, and look at what is also being done in other parts of the world where, indeed, fracking is on a moratory, just like handguns… You may, in a sense also learn a thing or two from China when it decides to clean up.

  • cassandra

    December 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Too late. We’ve hoist on our own petard. The developing countries are simply exacerbating a problem we began. And to its credit, China has taken steps to address the problem, with national solar and wind initiatives. In this country, climate change has become an ideological debate, divided along party lines. China has no such problem.

    Whatever. There’s no reversing this mess in the short term. We’ve long passed the tipping point on climate change. The end of snowy winters – at least at lower elevations – is nigh, and the downhill resorts know it. The Forest Service has granted their permittees increased summer uses – ropes courses, zip lines, etc. Food and beverage make up for what they’re losing in lift tickets. Ski resort as wedding venue.

    What can you do for your grandchildren’s grandchildren in the short term? Carpool or move closer to your skiing venues — to the extent that they still exist — since commuting to pistes and tracks is probably the most co2-intensive ski-related activity to an egregiously petroleum-intensive pastime (to its credit, in 2006, the California Ski Industry Association supported California’s AB32, a measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions).

    What will future winters look like, here in the Tahoe Basin, where I live and ski? November’s atmospheric river event is instructive. Snow on summits, and little at bases, rain on snow, flooding in the lowlands. According to Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh and others, such extreme events will increasingly become “normal.” California’s reservoir system isn’t designed to hold mid-winter runoff, since the Sierra snowpack has always been California’s water storage system in the winter months. Upshot is fresh water shortages.

    And so it won’t be long before the public starts questioning the wisdom and even the ethics of pumping surface water and groundwater for snowmaking – or for golf course watering — as freshwater supplies evermore grow scarce here. Do the math – with a conservative estimate of 5% loss of water at the nozzle, and conservatively another 15% due to evaporation, overall water loss of 20% of a billion gallons of water over an area as resort-intensive as Tahoe. Figure an average of 32,000 galons of water per person per year, and that’s a lot of water.

    Expect the Public Trust Doctrine to be deployed in the future w/respect to water use – as already has occurred in Vermont. And the energy required to pump water to summits from ponds, and the petroleum for the cats to spread it – many hundreds of thousands of tons of co2. Snowmaking is neither feasible nor justifiable in a climate too warm and wet to sustain it.

    Cross-country skiing (on snow, that is) increasingly appears an improbable — and even anachronistic — pursuit. And that makes me sad. But the dearth – or should I say death – of snow skiing within the next 30 years will be the least of our worries.

    California’s Climate Change Portal: http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/
    Recent research by:
    Noah Diffenbaugh, Stanford
    Tom Painter, JPL
    CIPRA – International Coalition for the Protection of the Alps: http://www.cipra.org/en/climate-projects/alpmedia/dossiers/23
    …and so many more. Just google “climate change and skiing in California.”

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