As many of the nation’s 15 million skiers and seven million snow boarders pack up to hit the slopes over the long weekend and winter school vacation, they are, no doubt, dreaming of slicing through the 60 inches of packed powder coating some mountain trails.
Ski resort owners are also dreaming of a successful season – there’s likely to be less need for snow-making this winter after our extended brush with Arctic weather in January (though, meanwhile, northern latitudes in Greenland and Canada have been unusually warm.)
Despite this banner year for U.S. snowfall in many places, climate analyses show that long-term temperature and rainfall patterns may result in more extreme year-to-year variability with an overall decrease in winter snow totals.
This means many ski resorts are preparing for increased snow-making in the future.
Using ClimateWizard.org, scientists at The Nature Conservancy compared average temperature and precipitation changes of seven ski resorts in the Rockies and seven in the Northeast over the coming century. Without efforts to curtail carbon pollution, winter is expected to warm overall, but more rapidly for Northeast resorts than for those in the West.
Northeast ski resorts in the analysis would see average winter temperatures rise from the current 21.08 degrees Fahrenheit to 26.51 by mid-century and to 29.71 by 2100. Meanwhile the seven Western resorts would experience increases from the current average of 20.27 degrees Fahrenheit to 24.37 by 2050 and to 27.30 by century’s end.
According to the Climate Wizard analysis, the East will likely depend even more heavily on snow-making to keep trails open. Additional snow making may have ecological implications resulting in changes in freshwater flows and the timing of spring thaw and runoff.
Western resorts will have their own climate challenges: pest outbreaks are already reducing tree cover and increasing vulnerability to fire. Extreme events such as wet avalanches and heavy rains during the ski season, as well as drought, are likely to become more common in a warming climate.
So, can anything be done to prepare for sparser snow seasons ahead?
Yes, say the experts. In addition to reducing our collective carbon footprints, resorts can work to protect the resources on which they will become even more reliant – water and forest cover.
Because snowmaking requires a reliable source of water to pump through cannons over the slopes to make snow, ski areas can prepare for climate change by restoring wetlands and floodplains to store water. Forests also act as windbreaks and shade against the sun as well as reducing erosion into water sources.
The Nature Conservancy is working with the National Ski Areas Association, based in Colorado, to incorporate ecosystem-based adaptation into Sustainable Slopes, an initiative developed in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Frank Lowenstein, the Conservancy’s strategy leader for climate change adaptation, recently addressed an annual ski resort conference about preparing for a climate-altered future.
Some ski resorts are located on National Forest lands that supply drinking water for down-slope communities, so efforts to protect water supplies can pay off in numerous ways.
“Protecting upland forests and better water management can support snow sports and provide year-round benefits to millions of people,” Lowenstein says.
Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy.
Photo by: © Leigh Greenwood, The Nature Conservancy. (Marshall Mountain Ski Area in Missoula, Montana started using guns for snow blowing in 1972, but closed before the ’03-04 winter season after 65 years in operation.)
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