Heather Hansman/High Country News
Snow is alchemy. It’s the perfect combination of cold, water, and air. You can feel the difference of man-made — the stiffness and the catch — and the unbroken crystals of newly fallen fresh. Snow is sound, too. The creaky stick of cold weathers, the ball bearings swish of snow slush corn and the crackle rime-yice are all signs of sound. This is the truth about the thousand words that snow needs to be said.
If we lose the ebb and flow of winter — which we soon could — we also lose storm chasing, and the barometric adrenaline of waiting for a storm. There’s a risk in pinning your heart to weather, and we skiers hang everything on snowfall. You know you’re in trouble when you’re constantly watching storm tracks and snow gauges, trying to predict the places where it’s going to be the deepest. Letting the real-life logistics of where you’re going to live, for instance, fade into the background while you focus on La Niña storm tracks and Farmers’ Almanac predictions.
The winnowing winter is the greatest existential threat to skiers. Global warming is threatening the survival of ski towns and the sport. Depending on which emissions scenario you choose snowfall could shrink by as much as a third by 2025. This narrow margin of weather will have a major impact on skiing’s future and whether people can continue counting on the seasons for a means of survival. Not just in the dry Southwest. But in British Columbia, where freezing temperatures keep climbing higher, and in New England where nearly every ski hill depends on man-made. That problematic future is easy to forget in deep winters, but it’s abundantly clear in shallow ones. Skiing is one outdoor sport that produces the most carbon. As it snows less or rains less, it takes more energy to make snow.
The worst winter I ever lived in the mountains was when I was a ski patroller at Arapahoe Basin. We avoided Pallavicini Face and packed down the snow on our skis to keep it from sticking to the hills. We tried vainly to preserve some kind of base to keep the mountain open. Mainly we were trying to hold onto our sanity, and protect everyone else’s. When it doesn’t snow, the land doesn’t look right. The community is swept into low-slung depression. Everyone feels irritable. A few dry weeks in a ski area can make you question the value of waiting for the weather. It was a season of desperate measures and burnt ski bonfire sacrifices to the snow gods. To make things more interesting, I did a lot on groomer skiing looking like a hotdog.
Every season hinges upon the possibility of snow days. Was climate ever something we used to talk about? Was December always so dry? If it gets worse, can we keep going?
The erosion of winter isn’t just a bummer for single-focused ski bums and weather nerds. Rising temperatures and shrinking winter snowpacks have an impact on water supply, food safety, and economic viability. Warmer winters and more precipitation falling as rain than snow means that everything, from electricity generation to fish migration, is affected. Bad skiing can make everything miserable.
Geophysical Research letters, a scientific journal, reported that the western U.S. snow season has decreased by 34 days from the 1980s. “The overall decline in snowfall has dampened profitability given the fact that industry operators have to incur significant costs in using snowmaking equipment,” the study read. It’s a hard economy to hold onto even when snowfall is consistent. Ski resorts have launched and faded in the lifespan of people who have witnessed the evolution from rope tows to mega resorts, and by the time today’s kids are old enough to work at a ski resort, the world of skiing could change even more.
Liz Burakowski, a climate scientist at the University of New Hampshire, says modeling the future of winter storms isn’t easy, because interconnected factors like El Niño, sea ice or snow cover in Siberia, create a complex puzzle. But despite the range of variables, there’s a clear warming pattern thanks to the way carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere and warms it up. “The trend toward the end of the century is to see winters that are 8 to 10 degrees warmer,” she says. “That puts a lot of places right above the freezing level; the margin is small.”
That means some resorts, especially the tiny ones that don’t have the capacity to create their own winter through snowmaking, and which are in low elevations or Southern latitudes, are going to have a hard time staying economically viable in the very near future. And as winter gets warmer, even the places that have invested in snowmaking won’t be able to do much. Even if you have the equipment to make snow, if it’s raining or hot you won’t be able to keep it on the ground.
Burakowski is the kind of scientist who can both rationally look at the facts and the modeling, and hold the emotional side of losing winter in her head, which makes her good at talking about it in real terms — a piece of her job that’s feeling increasingly urgent and important.
She said it can be difficult to make sense of it by simply modeling temperature spikes and ranges. This is why storytelling is a major part of her mission. Talking about her mother’s habit of ice fishing in lakes that do not freeze over, she says. Back-to-back bad winters are a concern for the ski industry. This is because casual skiers can lose their motivation after a few strikes. A skier’s family may decide to move on to another sport if they skip a few more seasons. You suddenly have a declining population and a weakening weather pattern.
The biggest imbalance of climate change, in almost any capacity, is that the burden isn’t spread out fairly. People who are least able or able to protect themselves from the effects of warming are often the ones most affected by it. As winter gets warmer and shorter, ski hills that struggle the most — the small ones in low, dry places, where funding is short — start to require more assistance. They need snow guns they can’t afford, or water rights for snowmaking, or ways to pass the buck in years they can’t open. Some ski areas will do better than others in the face of climate changes, at least for a while. Those that have corporate coverage are categorically the ones that will do well. If the number of skiers remains the same, but the number of viable resorts decreases, somewhere like Mammoth Mountain in California, which sits at 9,000 feet and has a stacked fleet of snow guns, will be busier, while lower-elevation and lower-dollar operations — say, Ski Santa Fe — won’t fare as well. The snowy backbone is already dotted with failed resorts.
I’m afraid for places like this, and what might happen if they can’t survive. Ski Santa Fe caters to families and churches, despite its steep, peppery tree-skating slopes and thousand-foot-long chutes. It reminds me of places such as Cannon, Oregon, where I grew-up skiing icy bumps. Or the community-owned Mount Ashland, Oregon. It’s eastern Washington’s Loup Loup or southern Colorado’s Hesperus, where you can night ski the creaky slow double chair. Even though winter is not often seen in these places, they are still able to hold on to the idea of it, even though it may be less frequent than usual.
The real future of skiing depends on what counts as natural, what we attempt to create or keep, and how long can we hold onto the past.
There’s a halo of goodness around the outdoor industry, a sense that it engenders environmentalists and breeds people who want to protect the mountains. But just because you love skiing doesn’t mean you’re doing anything concrete or impactful to preserve it. Due to the outdated ideals of public-land use, half of American ski resorts operate in U.S. Forest Service-owned land. This means that whatever these ski areas do in order to attract tourists or improve the ski experience, it impacts collective resources such water supply and wildlife migration. And that’s before you even consider the fallacy of federally owned public land, and how the American government came to consider it public after taking it from Native American tribes. We’ve historically viewed attractive outdoor economies as benign, but just because we love being outside doesn’t mean we’re not overusing resources or damaging landscapes. It’s not just climate change and large-scale warming that impact the skiing experience, it’s the way we skiers use resources, and the cascading impacts of snowmaking, transportation, trail cutting and energy demand.
We’ve historically viewed attractive outdoor economies as benign, but just because we love being outside doesn’t mean we’re not overusing resources or damaging landscapes.
Think about snowmaking — which 88% of resorts in the U.S. use to keep their operations running in shallow winters. “When the snow was great, it was great, but when there was no snow, we wouldn’t open,” J.R. Murray, the general manager of Arizona Snowbowl, told me a few years ago, when they were trying to figure out a snowmaking water supply. “We’d have ski seasons that were 20 days long and some where we got 400 inches. The difficulty is you can’t plan. You can’t hire and retain staff. So we needed snowmaking to stabilize things.” It adds some crucial smoothing to the climate curve, but it’s expensive and resource-intensive, hard to sustain in a different way, especially because you can only make snow when it’s freezing.
In 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last five winters were the five warmest on record, and that’s not likely to stop. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that under a higher emissions scenario (the path we’re currently on), the total amount of seasonal snowfall is projected to decrease by 10% to 30% by the end of the 21st century. This impacts more than just skiing. The Rio Grande, which is the main water source for New Mexico’s largest population centers, often runs dry in the summer due to overuse or overallocation. It is even more fragile because of the low snowfall in the mountain’s headwaters. It’s all connected, and it’s crashing.
Liz Burakowski and other climate experts are working together to turn those numbers and predictions into emotions, to make us feel empowered to take action, even when it seems overwhelming and scary. I feel a deep ache in my stomach when I think about the loss of snow. I’m scared and sad and somewhat perpetually grieving. How could this have happened so quickly?
“Solastalgia” is the name for the feeling of the world changing around you, when you were told it would be stable. It’s the existential distress caused by climate change, and the unmoored feeling of the landscape shifting under your feet. It makes it difficult to live your own life, and makes you feel uneasy when the weather changes. It’s the deep unease of hot, snowless winters. Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher, coined the phrase. He combined nostalgia, solace and desolation to express that feeling of loss. It’s persistent and creeping into my body almost every day.
Psychologists believe that the best way for climate grief to be dealt with is to visit the places that can restore you, and to remind yourself of our connection to the land. But that’s extra painful when those spots that are supposed to sustain you can’t hold snow anymore.
The narrative of exploring in mountains has been centered on the first ascents and last descents. However, it is possible that we will be more interested in the last ascents and descends.
Excerpted from “Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow,” by Heather Hansman, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins. Copyright High Country News.