Sadly, after hearing experts and industry leaders at Mountain Meltdown at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on October 22, 2013, it appears that our mountains are, indeed, melting. Regardless of your stance on the cause, and whether we mortals can make a difference, the inescapable truth is that our winters are changing. There is less snow at lower elevations and the seasons are shorter.
Before the presentation, San Francisco-based Liftopia, a company with an e-commerce platform for selling lift tickets, hosted a reception for ski industry professionals and media at their office on Market Street. Jonny Moseley, moguls gold medalist at the 1998 Olympics, Tommy Moe, gold medalist in the 1994 Olympics in downhill ski racing and Jenn Berg, professional big mountain free skier, were some of the well-known attendees.
At the Mountain Meltdown presentation two panel discussions highlighted different perspectives from stakeholders in the snow sports field, including a scientist, professional skier, editor of a snow sports magazine and ski area executives.
Panel 1-Science and impact
The most compelling narrative, not surprisingly, came from Anne Nolin, PhD, Professor of Geosciences and Hydroclimatology at Oregon State University, who spoke during the first panel. If those credentials weren’t enough, she specializes in mountain hydroclimatology, snow and ice in the climate system and remote sensing of snow and ice. She spoke eloquently about her research in the Pacific Northwest, where she has mapped snow that is at risk of becoming rain. Data from the latter half of the twentieth century, which is when reliable measurements were collected, show visible signs of the 1-2 degree C (1.8-3.6 degree F) change that has taken place. Flowers bloom earlier as snow liquefies 9 to 11 days sooner than in 1948. The largest declines in snowpack in the Western U.S. have occurred in the Pacific Northwest but changes have been felt further south as well. Analysis of the Sierra Nevada snowpack shows a similar trend toward earlier snowmelt in the spring. Climate models indicate continued warming at the rate of 0.2-0.6 degrees C (0.36-1.08 degrees F) per decade, numbers that don’t seem like much, but add up to significant changes over the long haul (1.5-3.2 C [2.7-5.76 F] by 2040). Looking at the potential impact of specific ski areas in the Northwest it is apparent that areas located at lower elevations are more likely to be highly impacted by warming winters.
The most heartfelt story was articulated by Jeremy Jones, Founder and CEO of Protect our Winters (POW) and a professional snowboarder, who has traveled the world riding the big mountains and searching out the best powder. He described his observations in Chamonix, where a train was built to whisk skiers away from the end of the glacier. Then a lift was built to access the train. Now it’s about an hour’s walk to the lift as the glacier recedes. Closer to home, Tahoe has seen spring arrive two weeks earlier than it used to in 1961, an ominous sign of the future.
Porter Fox, Editor of Powder Magazine discussed his book project, “DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow”, where he spent a year interviewing meteorologists, scientists, skiers, farmers, and others as he traveled to mountain areas all over Northern Hemisphere from the Cascade Range to the Alps, documenting changes. There is a Kickstarter campaign going on now to fund the project.
Panel 2-Ski areas and energy
The second panel, comprised of three President/CEOs from western ski areas, included Dave Brownlie from Whistler Blackcomb, Mike Kaplan from Aspen/Snowmass and Jerry Blann at Jackson Hole (Andy Wirth from Squaw/Alpine had to cancel due to his recent skydiving accident). They were a polished bunch, choosing their words carefully and being positive about the growth prospects of the industry. They generally shared the concerns expressed by the first panel, noting that they have all expanded summer operations to draw visitors to the mountains during the off-season but acknowledged that the income from such operations hardly equals that generated in winter months. They, like most large operations, have invested heavily in snowmaking to assist Mother Nature in creating the needed snow surface for recreational activities and touted advances in snowmaking that make it more energy efficient, using computer technology to refine the process, using lower energy guns and recycling water.
Meatier topics were introduced when the CEOs discussed specific projects related to energy. At Aspen they traced their energy supply back to coal, hardly an environmentally friendly way to produce power. They partnered with Owbow Corporation’s Elk Creek Mine to develop the first large scale plant to convert waste methane from the coal mine, spending $5.4 million on the project, which will eliminate 96,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while generating electricity. Aspen sells the electricity to the local utility, Holy Cross Energy.
Whistler Blackcomb produces its own electricity as a strategic partner in the Fitzsimmons Creek Renewable Energy Project, a run-of-river hydroelectric project located entirely within the ski resort’s operating area. Producing the amount of power that matches the annual energy consumption of Whistler Blackcomb, the project is visible from the PEAK 2 PEAK gondola from a height of 1,427 feet. The project became operational in 2009.
Many ski areas have examples of projects large and small to do their part to support environmental concerns. Jackson Hole, Aspen and 106 other ski areas, along with 40 unrelated businesses such as retailers and automobile manufacturers, have signed the Climate Declaration, an initiative to get U.S. policy makers to address climate change and advocate for clean energy policies. In Tahoe, all of the major ski areas have signed the declaration, including Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Heavenly and Northstar.
The fact remains, however, that ski areas are inherently large energy consumers, between chair lift operations, lodges, snowmaking and plowing. Skiers usually have to fly or drive to the resorts unless they are lucky enough to be able to take a train or other public transit. The Tahoe area is not particularly well served with consistent public transportation, though there have been strides made. Other ski areas like Crested Butte, Jackson Hole and Whistler Blackcomb have well developed transit systems in place. Many well-meaning projects demonstrate an awareness of environmental issues and commitment to take action but the long term solutions to environmental warming are vexingly difficult and complex to achieve on a scale large enough to halt the trends. The most we can hope for is to slow the rate of decline.
What will happen to our mountain recreation areas? Time will tell. Indications point to shorter seasons and less snow in lower elevations, so when the snow flies grab the chance to get in some turns and get yourself to the ski area in the most environmentally friendly way possible.