It rained. Hard. Just before hundreds of ski-area staff from around the country descended on Utah’s Snowbird Resort for the National Ski Areas Association’s winter meeting.
Snowbird rightfully claims an average of 500 inches of snow per year (about 42 feet). It neither claims nor expects winter rains; it hasn’t rained at the top of the mountain since the resort opened in 1971. Until this year. Snowbird’s experience is just one more piece of the weirding of winter.
“Bizarre,” said one of the owners of Mt. Baldy Resort in California, describing 26 inches of rain the week before Christmas – more than a normal year’s total precipitation.
“Weird,” said an employee at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, describing nearly 60-degree swings in temperature overnight that that resort has experienced this winter.
“We’ve never seen that before” was the report from Jay Peak in Vermont, where 60- and 70-mile-per-hour winds caused the resort to close temporarily to protect skier safety.
“Depressing” was the report from a ski patroller in Montana regarding the rain and subsequent thaw that made the snowpack too thin for skiing and also prone to avalanches there and throughout the Pacific northwest in early January.
“We’re all blaming climate change,” said the waitress at Snowbird’s Lodge Bistro. Of course, the waitress is right.
Climate change is already pumping more moisture and energy into the atmosphere, amping up precipitation and storms. From snowstorms blanketing the U.S. to the unprecedented typhoon that just hit flood-battered Australia, climate change is the likely culprit behind some of this season’s weird weather, and these effects and others will increase with time.
For ski resorts and the 15 million Americans who patronize them, not all weird weather is bad. Northeastern ski hills are basking in record-breaking snow, even as local communities run out of money to plow the roads. And at Snowbird, conditions quickly returned to normal – with nearly a foot-and-a-half of powder falling just during the remaining two days of the ski conference.
And ski areas can adapt to some degree of climate change. In Europe, insulated summer blankets to protect glaciers used for skiing are becoming commonplace. And resorts in the Eastern U.S. have maintained their seasons since the early 1980s by increasing snowmaking. But as climate change accelerates, blowing snow will take more water and more electricity, raising costs. Since each snow gun produces less snow per hour at higher temperatures, and warmer nights also reduce the number of overnight hours suitable for snowmaking, warming will eventually require more guns – a significant capital cost. (When temperatures rise above 27 degrees Fahrenheit, according to several resort owners, it’s just not economical to make snow.) And over the next 40 years, more and more resorts will face these challenges.
Using our interactive Climate Wizard website, The Nature Conservancy recently documented that, among 23 representative resorts, rising winter temperatures alreadymake snowmaking difficult at 22 percent of them. By 2050, 48 percent of these same resorts will have difficulty producing snow.
The “weirding of winter” will continue to impact all who ski, snowboard, snowmobile, or ice fish. Ski areas are taking the threat seriously. At the Snowbird meeting, a new “Climate Challenge” was issued to reduce the resort’s own carbon footprint. The challenge for us all is to keep the weirdness limited by lowering our global carbon footprint.
Frank Lowenstein is the climate adaptation strategy leader at The Nature Conservancy
Photo by: Frank Lowenstein/The Nature Conservancy (Snowmaking at Mt. Snow in Vermont.)
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