Beautiful, snowy landscapes like the Sierra Nevada mountains photographed from Mammoth Mountain, CA could become a thing of the past as snowfall averages begin to decline. Photo by Samantha Barry.

No snow, no skiers, no service

How the ski industry has been impacted by the ongoing climate crisis

It’s no secret that the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent social distancing/quarantine period has affected almost every aspect of Americans’ lives. One lesser discussed impact of it all was the abrupt halt the virus put on the 2019/2020 ski season.

About a month ago, nearly all U.S. ski resorts turned off their lifts and shut their doors to comply with social distancing guidelines, affectively ending the inbound season across the country. While this may seem like one of the more trivial affects the virus has had, for the outdoors community, it dramatically cut down a season that was already in jeopardy to shorten due to climate change.

While the planet slowly warms as a result of the current climate crisis, less snow is falling, winters are getting shorter and thus, so are ski seasons. Shorter seasons not only upset avid skiers and riders but have a large effect on the industry economically. Winter sports tourism is a massive contributor to many mountain town economies, and less snow and visitors means less revenue for them to survive on.

Data from a 2016 Climate Central study suggests that winters in the U.S. have been warming faster than any other season at a rate of 0.21°F per decade since 1896. The study stated, “Warming temperatures can impact how precipitation falls, and whether precipitation falls as rain or snow can impact everything from summer water availability for agriculture and cities, to forest dryness, and susceptibility to wildfires, water reliability for power generation, and the winter sports economy.”

In short, warmer temps mean more precipitation as rain and less as snow, pushing the U.S. further and further into a “snow-drought.”

This map shows the percent change in precipitation across the U.S. over 67 years, specifically highlighting how much precipitation falls in the form of snow. The red circles specify areas in which more rain is falling than snow with the blues representing the opposite. These readings were taken at 246 different weather stations in 48 states. Map courtesy of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
This map represents the average rate of change in total snowfall with readings from 419 weather stations across 48 states. The blue dots indicate an increase in snowfall and the red dots indicate a decrease in snowfall. Map courtesy of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

If this trend persists, it could spell disaster for snow sports tourism, which, according to researchers at Colorado State University and the University of New Hampshire and reported by CNBC, contributes $20 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Most of that revenue comes from ski resorts where guests pay generally steep prices for gear rentals, lift tickets, hotel rooms, meals and other merchandise.

Nonprofit climate advocacy group, Protect Our Winters (POW), published a report in 2018 analyzing the impact that climate change will have on the ski industry. Over the course of 15 years, they found that during low snowfall seasons, ski numbers dropped by 10 percent resulting in an industry-wide loss of $1 billion and 17,4000 jobs.

As temperatures rise and the snow starts melting earlier, cutting lucrative seasons short, resorts have had to adapt. For some, that means investing more in artificial snow-making — installing large snow guns on trails to make up for a lack of real snow. For others, it means strengthening their warm-weather activities such as mountain biking, zip lines, ropes courses, mountain coasters and music festivals, according to The New York Times.

For larger resorts, specifically, ones belonging to parent companies such as Vail Resorts Management Company and Alterra Mountain Company, this option is feasible. However, smaller and independently owned mountains, sometimes can’t keep up. In the past two decades, approximately 83 resorts and ski areas across the country have had to shut down for particularly bad weather seasons. Some even closing altogether, for they did not have enough snow coverage and openable terrain to entice visitors or to make operations worthwhile.

These charts show the average snow coverage across North America and the number of operational ski areas in the U.S. between the same time-period respectively. During this time, there was a 15% decrease in operational ski areas and a 2% decrease in overall snow coverage. While ski areas can close for a variety of reasons, one of the chief seasonal operation stallers is the lack of sufficient snow cover on trail terrain.

Founded in 2007 by pro-snowboarder, Jeremy Jones, POW is one of the largest and most vocal climate advocacy groups in the outdoors community. By utilizing the passion and size of said community, they aim to bring awareness to these issues and enact change. They are all about turning people’s passion for skiing, climbing, hiking, etc. into a purpose.

This year, through partnerships with big outdoor brands such as Patagonia, Rei Co-op, Clif and Ikon Pass, as well as other partnerships with top athletes and researchers in the field, POW is making a push to get people registered to vote for leaders and legislation that advocate for climate change policy ahead of the upcoming presidential election.

In addition, their goals for 2020 include educating and engaging the community while lobbying for a net carbon-neutral future through things like renewable energy and electrified transit.

Right now they are actively working on campaigns to repeal a section of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Job Act that allows for oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge, as well as supporting the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, which would protect 400,000 acres of land in the state.

Sunday River Mountain, Maine closes its lifts for the day in November 2018. A bare base is common during the early season months but could become a more frequent sight later on as the climate crisis worsens. Photo by Samantha Barry.

“To me, a big take away from this is that this community (the ski industry) has as big a stake as any other in the world to voice our concerns on this issue,” said Mario Molina, the executive director of POW, to Powder Magazine. “You can’t argue that you care about American jobs and the American economy and not take climate change seriously.”

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