December 21, 2021
By Mark Cox
Snow came really late to Colorado this year.
As December rolled around, skiers were left scratching their helmets at the dearth of available white stuff. And while many are hopeful that significant mountain snowfall forecast for this week will turn things around, it’s been a tough start to the season for Colorado’s ski resorts.
Four had to postpone their scheduled openings this season, and only a fraction of the state’s ski trails are ready for action. Compounding the problem, record-high temperatures seriously hobbled the resorts’ usual early season snowmaking operations (where water and pressurized air are used to create artificial snow).
“Snowmaking requires just the right cool temperatures,” explained Tom Bellinger, an Environmental Science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “But it has been borderline warm in the mountains so far, and that has significantly hampered their efforts. All the ski companies can do now is hope for some big storms as winter progresses.”
However, the real worry is not just this season’s late snow but the larger trend it likely indicates. Decade over decade, Colorado is getting warmer. Denver, for example, shattered the modern record for its longest-ever snow-free stretch – 232 days – and saw its latest-ever first snowfall of the season Dec. 10 – all of three-tenths of an inch.
When viewed through the lens of the state’s growing climate crisis – Colorado has been hit hard by disappearing glaciers and rapidly diminishing water supplies in recent years – there’s a sense that this current spell could be just a prelude. And that’s bad news for everybody, not just skiers, Bellinger said.
“People should certainly be concerned about the prospect of compressed winters, which start later and end sooner, because the cold season provides the bulk of our annual water supply,” he said.
Shorter winters, he said, will mean a decline in the annual reserves of mountain snow that get us through the summer deficit season. “At this point,” he said, “it’s imperative that we all become much smarter about water use, both in terms of managing reservoir supplies and our own personal consumption.”
The Colorado ski industry is a curious thing: a mighty $4.8 billion enterprise that’s dependent on the weather, a random phenomenon that is growing increasingly unpredictable.
“Ski and mountain tourism enterprises are often based at higher elevations, where the impact of warming is occurring at a more rapid rate,” said Lincoln Davie, assistant professor of Outdoor Recreation in MSU Denver’s School of Hospitality. “They are like canaries, collectively sounding a dire warning to the rest of us.”
But key industry players do seem to be taking the crisis seriously. Aspen Snowmass, for example, has built a plant that converts captured methane to electricity and constructed a huge solar array, while also moving to an exclusively electric auto fleet.
Going even further, Vail Resorts generates 85% of its electricity from renewable sources and has committed to having a zero net operating footprint by the end of the decade. All across the industry, in fact, companies are taking major steps to mitigate the impact of climate change.
Lobbying for change
Perhaps just as important, the Colorado ski industry is also wielding its significant influence and financial muscle to take the climate fight to legislators.
Recognizing that no individual organization can solve a systemic crisis alone, ski companies and other tourism-industry players have joined powerful coalitions such as Protect Our Winters and the Outdoor Industry Association to lobby for decisive action.
“The outdoor industry has become a powerful force in addressing climate change,” said Davie. By working together, he said, they have depoliticized environmental issues and learned to speak with a common voice, which significantly broadens their reach.
“Notably, the Outdoor Industry Association was part of a group of major trade and union players that met this summer with the president and vice president to discuss the infrastructure bill,” Davie said. “It was a massive moment for the outdoor industry, representing decades of work – and that kind of access really counts.”
Ultimately, though, this barrage of positive action won’t count for much without broader societal change. Impressive as they are, the ski industry’s measures can feel like using a small cup to bail water from a fast-sinking boat.
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“If the current trajectory continues,” Bellinger said, “Coloradans will have to get used to seeing fewer ski runs at major resorts in the future because snowmaking alone can’t hope to fill all the trails in the state.”
And that, he said, would inevitably lead to a negative spiral: fewer skiers allowed on the mountains, increased prices (snowmaking is labor-intensive and costly) and lower profits.
It’s a grim outlook. But in the absence of sweeping environmental legislation and wholesale changes in social behavior, basic logic and science indicate that this is where we are heading.
“Put simply, we are not moving far or fast enough to head off a climate crisis,” Davie warned. “The future of the ski industry needs to be one of collectivism, built around an authentic commitment to seriously addressing these issues. Without that, there isn’t much hope.”