Ski economy could suffer as shorter winter seasons are expected by 2050, study says

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
February 20, 2018, 4:08:59 PM EST

A recent study has found that virtually all United States-based winter recreation locations could experience shorter ski seasons, exceeding 50 percent by 2050 and 80 percent in 2090 for some downhill skiing destinations.

Researchers examined projected climate change through the 21st century and found that the continued rise in temperatures, which results in more rainfall than snowfall, will likely decrease both the duration and extent of the Northern Hemisphere’s natural snowcover.

To conduct the study, researchers used a physically based water and energy balance model that simulated natural snow accumulation at more than 240 U.S. winter recreation spots.

Scientists combined that model with projections of snow-making conditions, which helped them determine the season lengths of cross-country and downhill skiing as well as snowmobiling under baseline and future climates, according to the study.

They utilized data from five climate models and two emissions scenarios.

Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort - AP Image

Skiiers head to the slopes at Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, near Echo Summit, California. The state's Department of Water Resources held the first snow survey of the season at the nearby Phillips Station that showed the snowpack at 1.3 inches of depth with a water content of .4 inches. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

“One [scenario] is Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5, which is reduced emission, and the other is RCP 8.5, which is essentially what we’re doing now,” said Kathie Dello, associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

RCPs are scenarios that provide input to climate models, according to the Stockholm Environment Institute.

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that the main purpose of RCPs is to show “time-dependent projections of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.”

“For the next two decades, the two scenarios don’t diverge all that much,” Dello said. “After 2050, it should make a difference if we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Current impacts

As snow and ice cover continue to diminish worldwide, U.S.-based ski resorts are already experiencing the effects.

The warmer, drier winter season in some Western states including California, Utah and Colorado has caused a significant decrease in the snowpack.

It has been reported that the snowpack in Colorado, one of the country’s busiest skiing locations, is at around 50 percent of its average.

The shortened snow seasons, warmer conditions and lack of snowfall could spell “economic devastation” for the billion-dollar winter sports industry, according to a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and nonprofit environmental organization Protect Our Winters.

“When you look at the lack of snow right now, it hurts towns that have ski resorts and rely on that tourism economy, and it hurts seasonal workers who rely on ski resort jobs,” Dello said.

“In Oregon, a few ski resorts only opened at the end of January, which is a month late,” she added.

University of New Hampshire Research Assistant Professor Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, who co-authored the 2012 report, said that “low snow hurts much more than big snow helps” the economy, as revealed in a soon-to-be released 2018 report.

In other words, it’s not an equal and opposite reaction in the economy in terms of precipitation,” Burakowski said. “During our high-snow years [between 2001 to 2016], we’ve seen an additional $692.9 million added to our economy and 11,800 jobs compared to our average years.”

The 2018 report also reveals that low-snow years, according to Burakowski, result in about $1 billion in reduced economic activity and 17,400 fewer jobs.

The vast majority of snow-starved ski resorts in states including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada reportedly now rely on man-made snow.

Snow-making, however, can carry the hefty annual expense of $500,000 or more, and can consume up to half of a resort’s energy costs, according to the 2012 report.

When it comes to snow-making, although supply is important, demand is just as essential, Burakowski said.

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Many resorts suffer from “backyard syndrome,” meaning that skiers most likely won’t hit the slopes unless they see snow in their own backyards, according to Burakowski.

“The demand is not likely to continue to increase because we’re seeing these changes,” she said. “It’s a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow.”

Community commitment to clean energy

With the future of winter of sports under threat, ski towns across the U.S. are taking action by establishing strong climate action policy and committing to a switch to 100-percent clean energy.

Participating communities include Truckee and South Lake Tahoe, California; and Salt Lake City.

In Salt Lake City’s first year of efforts toward its clean-energy commitment, the city gained 12 percent in its efforts, said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

“I’m pretty confident that we will be on track to achieving our goal,” Biskupski told AccuWeather.

“With the potential of the Winter Games coming back to Salt Lake City, if we are able to go to a bid, it might even be possible for us to get to 100-percent renewable by 2030, which would be very exciting,” Biskupski said.

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