Winter Recreation in a Warming World

1/6/2014 11:08:22 AM

Did you know skiing can be traced to prehistoric times? Primitive skis have been found in Sweden dating back to 2,000 years B.C.! Skiing was a means of travel between isolated communities during harsh winter conditions. Today, winter sporting is a billion dollar industry. During winter 2011-2012, snow sports generated 53 billion dollars in the economy, supported over 500,000 jobs and generated over six billion dollars in state and federal taxes. An average of 22 million people went snowboarding, alpine and cross-country skiing; nine million people went snowmobiling.

The winter sports industry is sensitive to changes in snowfall and snow cover - and total snowfall has decreased in many parts of the country. Since the 1920s, snowfall has declined along the West and Mid-Atlantic coasts, as well as in southern margins of the seasonal snow regions, the southern Missouri River basin and parts of the Northeast. Over the same time period, snowfall has risen on the leeward side of the Rocky Mountains, in the Great Lakes and northern Ohio Valley regions and in parts of north-central U.S. Variations in snow are a reflection of changes in precipitation and temperature. Our planet's rising thermostat has altered the overall rate of precipitation and increased the amount of winter precipitation falling in the form of rain instead of snow. While total snowfall may be on the decline, scientists have also discovered that there were twice as many extreme snowstorms in the past half century as there were in the preceding one. Warmer temperatures have enabled the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, or "storm fuel," and storms with exceptionally heavy precipitation have become more common as a result. When the air is cold enough, this precipitation falls as snow, which may explain why scientists have seen an increase of powerful snowstorms.

Credit: EPA

How do warming temperatures and changes in snowfall affect winter sports? The snow sporting industry is used to inter-annual variability in operating conditions, but climate change increases that variability and can delay or shorten the snow season, leading to significant economic losses. This is a problem for areas where winter tourism is the most important source of income and snow-reliability is key. For example, snowmobiling relies on natural snowfall because of the linear nature and long distances of snowmobile trails. The skiing and snowboarding industry has tried to reduce vulnerability in areas such as eastern Canada, the Midwest and the southeastern U.S. by investing millions in snow-making technology and operations. But these systems are too expensive and logistically impractical to solve the problem for snowmobiling. Scientists believe that resorts located in southern regions or at low elevations could suffer greater impacts as a consequence of rising temperatures.

The following figure shows the changes in snowfall in the contiguous U.S. Visit EPA's Climate Change Indicators in the United States report for more information.

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