Are the days of Colorado skiing numbered?

In the wake of COP21, ski industry leaders struggle to protect skiing before it’s too late

Wikimedia Commons

Ski Country U.S.A.” is in a tight spot. While ski resorts across the country market themselves as “environmentally friendly,” many know that business will be hurt even if they achieve 100 percent carbon neutrality — knowledge that brings a big question: how can an industry heavily dependent on both fossil fuels and long, snow-heavy seasons combat the inevitable toll taken by a warming climate?

As an industry intimately connected with the ecological future of the Rockies, Colorado ski resorts know what they can expect with a warming climate: shorter seasons and mere memories of powder days decades down the road.

While lost snowpack has created disappointing ski seasons in recent years in the East and West, Colorado skiing remains largely untouched by anthropogenic climate change — for now.

“In the southern Rockies where we live here in Colorado, [decline in snowpack] is not as dramatic as it is other parts of the Western U.S.,” says Noah Molotch, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “The primary reason for that is that we are at higher elevation with colder air temperatures… [and] a relative insensitivity to the climate in the amount of snow that we get.”

This isn’t to say that Colorado is immune to the ravages of a changing climate. Molotch notes that climate change is something Colorado has already been experiencing, pointing to studies like those by researchers at the University of Maryland that document a general decrease in Colorado snowpack over the last 50 years. The same study estimates snowpack decreases of at least 50 percent for Grand, Summit and Eagle counties, and a whopping 82 percent loss in snowpack for San Miguel County by 2085. These four counties include some of Colorado’s biggest ski destinations, including Winter Park, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail, Beaver Creek and Telluride.

Though the impacts of climate change won’t pose an existential threat to the ski industry in the next couple decades, Molotch says, the days of deep powder snow and seasons stretching from November to April or May could be numbered.

“In the near term, impacts to the ski industry in Colorado have to do with the quality of the snow instead of quantity,” he says. “So things like champagne powder (the smooth, dry snow that typifies Rocky Mountain skiing) may not exist by the middle of the century.”

As Molotch notes, these projections themselves are far from concrete, as well as the economic implications that these small developments will have for the Colorado ski industry — but many resorts, including Aspen-Snowmass, know what to expect.

“As it gets warmer, you’ll see a different business model. You’ll see a shift to summer-type businesses, like mountain biking, and you might well see resorts that toggle open and closed,” says Auden Schendler, Aspen’s vice president of sustainability. “That’s already happening on the East Coast.”

Schendler, who is known as the ski industry’s “green guy,” has long pushed resorts, brands and skiers alike to think about the big picture. Schendler knows that practices like snowmaking, a water-heavy process used by resorts to keep the season long, won’t solve the problems faced ahead — but they do serve a vital purpose for resorts in the interim.

“You can’t snow-make your way out of climate change, that is true,” Schendler says. “Snowmaking is not an insert, but it is a short-term stop-gap.”

Along with snowmaking, many of the tools used by resorts to keep business running, such as slope contouring and expansion into higher territory, have come under criticism for doing more harm than good. Resorts like Arapahoe Basin (A-Basin) have proposed the latter. The resort’s “Beaver Expansion” would offer more than 400 new acres of skiing.

“We think [the expansion] provides another great skiing experience and it is high elevation, so that it would [accumulate] snow even in a lean snow year,” says Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer at A-Basin.

In addition to expanding territory and using snowmaking technologies, A-Basin is also focusing on diversifying its business — a crucial component to Henceroth, who is known simply as “Al” to A-Basin locals.

“Skiing and snowboarding is still the heart and soul of what we do, but for a lot of reasons, one of which is climate change, we’re trying to have our strategy, not just pray for snow,” Henceroth says.

New avenues include bolstering a kid’s program and ski school with the construction of a new kid’s center. To Henceroth, this is a smart bet for a future with fewer powder days because “first-time skiers don’t wait for the big dump.”

Diversification also took a new meaning for Aspen-Snowmass in 2012 with its operation of a power plant that runs off of captured methane released from a nearby coal plant and used to offset electricity used by the resort.

For Schendler, however, these initiatives aren’t enough for resorts to be called environmentally friendly. That label, for Schendler, would require resorts to not only solve sustainability problems at home, but also become agents of political change.

“This is about using the power of the industry, the voice, the political leverage, to push for the policies that will actually solve this problem,” he says. Initiatives like the submission of an amicus brief in Mass. v. EPA, the court case that established the basis for climate policy in 2007, mark a history of activism for Schendler.

COP21 meetings in Paris this December provided a unique opportunity for resorts to come together under the banner of climate protection. Working through Protect Our Winters (POW), an environmental organization comprised of concerned resorts, ath letes and brands, Schendler and Henceroth teamed up with scores of other resorts to compose a letter of support that was hand delivered to the White House.

The letter was an opportunity for many resorts to show that they are ready to attack climate policy — not only because they have a huge stake in preventing warming in the Rockies, but also because many feel that it is the right thing to do.

“In the picture of the whole world, the ski industry’s kind of a small part of it,” says Henceroth. “We’re in an area high in the Colorado Rockies — we’re gonna be in good shape for a long time. This issue is a lot bigger than A-Basin: it’s an issue for all of us.”

For now, it appears skiers won’t be seeing major set-backs from a warming climate. Even in the decades to come, we likely won’t be seeing the kinds of winters dreaded by skiers and climate activists alike: where rocks stick out of the snow all season and big powder dumps are relegated to memory alone.

But Henceroth faces the future with a mixture of optimism and anxiety. “The challenges are gonna be if the effects of [climate change] keep warming, and what will happen with precipitation — and only time will tell on that,” he says. “I think [skiing]’s gonna thrive, and I think those challenges will come.”

While it remains to be seen whether resorts will accept the implications of a changing climate for skiing — because the snow will become heavier before there is simply less of it — it really is up to all of us to save Colorado skiing, according to Henceroth.

“When we’re talking about climate, you can’t just preserve just one little snapshot out of that,” he says. “We need to take care of this place — we need to take care of the Basin, we need to take care of the challenges to come.”

In the meantime, it’s business as usual for Colorado skiing.