A recent study found that a changing climate could cut the length of ski season in half in some parts of the US by 2050, and more by the end of the century. This could have significant impacts on Colorado’s ski industry, which generates almost $5 billion annually and creates more than 46,000 jobs. KDNK’s Amy Hadden Marsh takes a look at two resorts on Colorado’s West Slope to find out what they’re doing to protect the snow and the bottom line.
[photo credit Amy Hadden Marsh: Sunlight Mountain Resort]
Sunlight Mountain Resort, near Glenwood Springs, opened early this season… on November 23rd. 2017 was a different story. Opening Day was December 21st, the latest start of ski season since 1985. 2017 was also the third driest year on record in Colorado and snowpack state-wide was the lowest in 3 decades. At Sunlight, natural snowfall was down by half that year, and it was too warm to make much snow. Visits were down 25%.
Sunlight is a small resort, with 680 acres of skiable terrain and a million-dollar annual budget. It caters mostly to locals, with an average of 80,000 to 100,000 skier visits per year.
Troy Hawks, Sunlight’s Marketing Director, says 2017 was interesting but not the first time the state’s had a dry winter.
“When we talk to the old timers of this valley, they said the last time they saw a snow year like last year was in the ‘78/’79 season as I understand it, so it’s not that Colorado hasn’t experienced poor snow seasons before last year.”
Hawks added that the year before, which would have been the 2016/17 season, was a record year for Sunlight.
But, Colorado winters have become variable enough for Sunlight to take precautionary measures, such as purchasing new, more efficient snowmaking guns and building two new snowmaking ponds.
Cameron Wobus, a senior scientist at Lynker Technologies, a water and environmental resources consultant group in Boulder, says that’s one thing ski resorts need to be doing: adapting to climate change.
“What ski resorts can do is make their snowmaking more efficient. One adaptation that is being implemented at various places around the world is ‘downloading.” So basically having a gondola that gets people to the middle of the mountain where there might be more snow and then you just ski the top half of the mountain.”
Wobus worked on a 2017 study about projected climate change impacts on skiing and snowmobiling in the US. He said the goal of the study was to understand the difference between what happens if we start mitigating carbon emissions and what happens if we don’t.
“The higher resorts – Arapahoe Basin sticks out because it’s the highest resort in the State of Colorado – might have reductions, you know, 10-20% change in season length under the worst scenario. Some of the lower resorts have much more significant change in season length.”
But, ski resorts statewide are already experiencing fewer visitors, particularly in the early part of ski season. The 23 resorts that are members of the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA reported an average of 8% fewer skier visits in December, 2016 than the previous season. December 2017 visits were 13% down from that. Vail Resorts reported a 13% decline in skier visits for December, 2016 and an 11% decline in 2017.
Skiing as a sport has a small carbon footprint. But, Wobus says the industry could suffer significant impacts from shorter winters, and needs to take more of a stand against climate change.
“What some resorts have been doing, particularly Aspen, I’ll point out, (is) using their customer base and their position in the industry to really take a leadership role in getting people to think about climate change.”
Auden Schendler who runs the sustainability program for Aspen Skiing Company and who sits on the Basalt Town Council says that it’s not about individual resorts carbon footprint as climate change is a global problem.
“So you could argue (that) the big, powerful organizations who have access to wealth and influence are the exact organizations that oughta be pushing hard on climate…and that’s what we’re doing.”
With 5,000 acres of skiable terrain, 1.4 million annual skier visits, and 4,000 employees, Aspen Ski Co, as it’s known locally, is considerably larger than Sunlight Mountain Resort. Schendler said that in the face of a changing climate Aspen Ski Co. has improved infrastructure and expanded geographically, but offering the IKON ski pass that includes other resorts.
“But to me, that’s just business. The issue is how do we reduce the impact of this problem for everybody so that maybe you retain some level of skiing down the line? But more importantly, that you do what you have the power to do as a ski resort which is maybe influence a social movement and reduce the damage.”
Schendler adds that Aspen Ski CO has been involved with state environmental and energy policy issues for over a decade.
Back at Sunlight, Troy Hawks says their climate policy focuses on conservation, education, and maintaining a small footprint.
“We are not overbuilt. We are not a mega-resort. We’ve got three small chairlifts. We’ve got a small B&B with about 19 rooms and that really sums up the size of our resort. It’s really been about maintaining a small footprint and certainly we are a local’s hill.”
Aspen Ski Co’s resources allow the company to take bigger steps than smaller resorts. But, Schendler says it’s too late to compare the actions of larger resorts to those of small resorts.
“We have 10 years to essentially rewire the global economy so that it’s carbon-free, so the question of the day should not be “hey you’re big, that one’s small, their carbon footprint’s less.” The question is: What’s the biggest leverage you have access to and are you using it to drive change?”
Despite his study’s warnings, ski industry consultant Cameron Wobus says skiing is not going away.
“Depending on where you are, ski resorts might be starting to see really short ski seasons if we don’t do anything to mitigate carbon emissions. But, skiing is not over. There will always be places where you can get high enough to find snow and fortunately, for those of us in Colorado, many of those places are in our state.”
Connecting the Drops is a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and Water Education Colorado. Find out more at watereducationcolorado.org
Support is provided by COBank, which provides financing solutions for rural water systems. Find out more at COBank.com.