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Report paints dim future of ski industry in warming climate
At southern Colorado ski area Monarch Mountain, everything was ready by Thanksgiving for a triumphant debut of their $2.5 million lodge and base area renovation.
Everything, that is, except the snow. The couple inches that fell Thursday was the first moisture in weeks, and two weeks past the scheduled opening date, the lifts still are not running.
“We’re all dressed up for the prom and our date stood us up,” said Monarch marketing manager Greg Ralph.
Without a big change, they could be headed for the latest opening ever, surpassing the record of Dec. 15 set in 1989. Monarch doesn’t make snow so there’s no work for employees, and businesses in nearby Salida are suffering.
Monarch is not alone in its woes. On the heels of the driest winter in decades and the worst wildfire season in Colorado history, the snow has been so sparse this fall, even ski resorts with major snow-making operations have been able to open a handful of runs.
A study released Thursday by ski industry and environmental groups says states that depend on winter tourism will continue to suffer economically if global warming continues.
Colorado leads the nation in skier visits, and the report by Protect Our Winters and the National Resources Defense Council said each low-snow winter could cost the state 1,800 jobs and $154 million in resort revenue.
“This industry as a whole needs to take its head out of the snow before it melts away and look at the hard realities of what awaits them in the future,” said Antonia Herzog, assistant director, Climate and Clean Air Program, Natural Resources Defense Council.
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire compared skier visits and snowmobiling in snowy years and dry years from 1999 to 2010. Across the 38 states that have some form of winter sports, the industry lost $1 billion and 27,000 jobs due to less snowfall and shorter seasons, the report says.
“In many of the U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall and shorter seasons,” said researcher Elizabeth Burakowski.
“We know that if it doesn’t snow, we’re going to have less revenue, and that means there are less jobs for people. It’s hard for people in ski towns to feed their families. There’s less tax base,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Ski Company, one of the winter sports companies that founded Protect Our Winters.
The company is feeding its employees this fall because there is no work for them, and Schendler hopes the study will be a call to arms for skiers and the ski industry to urge lawmakers and President Obama to enact regulations on carbon emissions from power plants.
The study says Colorado’s climate could warm 5 to 7 degrees over the next century, meaning less snow would fall and more would come down as rain at lower elevations. But the impact on skier visits here is less than predicted in many other states, 8 percent in low-snow years.
Researchers said Colorado relies more on tourists from around the world, who will book in advance before the snow conditions are apparent, while other states rely more on local skiers who will stay home if conditions are poor.
Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist, said Colorado has elevation in its favor as well. With the highest average elevation of any state in the lower 48, the snow level may creep up, but Colorado will continue to have skiing, he said.
He agrees with the projections of other climate scientists that the Earth will continue to warm, resulting in more rain and less snow, with the flakes arriving later and melting sooner. There have been fewer cooler years and more warmer years over the past 20 years in Colorado.
But he cautioned that skiers can’t blame any one poor season on global warming, because the climate here can produce widely varied snowfall from year to year and there were dry years long before greenhouse gases were a concern.
“What happens in any given year or set of years it not something you can make a simple direct statement that, This is climate change,’” he said.
He said he appreciates Thursday’s call to action.
“I admire that they’re taking a stance on this, but I view that Colorado does have a little bit more snow insurance than some other parts of the country, thanks to our geographic position,” he said.
At Monarch, Ralph said you can’t blame the troubles of one or two seasons on global warming. And while in the future Monarch will probably not set an opening date until the snow begins to fall, he remains hopeful the area will be open soon, after receiving 1 or 2 feet of snow.
“It’ll click. Once that high pressure moves out of the west and those storm tracks come through here, it’ll be okay,” he said.