Bringing it Home: Sochi highlights ski industry’s climate-change challenge
February 22, 2014
Editor's note: "Bringing It Home" runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
Climate change and its effects on ski resorts have become a hot topic during the Winter Olympics because of the challenges Sochi has faced hosting the skiing and snowboarding events.
Test runs earlier this winter had to be canceled because of lack of snow. Tons of white stuff was stored under blankets from the previous winter to help ensure there would be enough this year, and a reported 400 snowmaking guns have been running as often as possible since the games began — when temperatures allow.
The racecourses and halfpipe have resembled a Slurpee rather than a world-class stage for some of the events. Contestants have battled through rain at lower elevations.
In the U.S., winter has been a hodgepodge almost too weird to describe. California is on red alert from an ongoing drought, recent snowstorms notwithstanding. The Southeast has been paralyzed by a couple of freak brushes with winter and the jet stream that plunged into that corner of the country and ushered in Arctic air. The East has been raked by storms, although they skirted major ski resorts in the Northeast until recently in February. Alaska experienced record-high temperatures.
In Aspen and elsewhere in Colorado's mountains, ski bums are telling themselves, "If this is climate change, give me more." It snowed early and often in late fall and early winter. Excellent conditions have prevailed despite an extended dry spell in January and high temperatures in February. The snowpack remains above average throughout the Roaring Fork River Basin.
But skiers and snowboarders in Aspen turn a blind eye to the climate trends at their peril, said Porter Fox, a longtime editor at Powder magazine and author of "DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow." The book has been "absolutely going off," said Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler, who brought Fox to Aspen last year to speak on climate change and the stakes for the ski industry before the book was out. Fox is now a highly sought source in national media interviews on climate change.
In an opinion piece that ran in The New York Times earlier this month, Fox wrote about how hard climate change would hit the ski industry, based on current models and projections. More than half of the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast may no longer be viable in 30 years because of warmer winters, he wrote.
"As for the Western part of the country, it will lose an estimated 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100 if greenhouse-gas emissions are not curtailed — reducing the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegating skiing to the top quarter of Ajax Mountain in Aspen," he wrote.
In a telephone interview Friday, Fox said the data that scientists are collecting have led to bleaker forecasts in the past 18 months than initially imagined for the West. High temperatures are going to compress winter, and snow will accumulate on the slopes later in the fall and disappear earlier in the spring, he said.
"There will still be a sliver of winter," Fox said. "That sliver is going to get smaller and smaller."
Skiers who base their opinions on the weather in one season aren't facing reality, according to Fox, but he's used to their challenges. Some critics challenged his presentation after a monster storm dumped 3 to 4 feet on some resorts in California. But all the storm did is increase the snowpack from 12 percent of average to 20 percent of average, Fox said. In other words, California is still in a world of hurt.
"I'm not in the game of convincing people of anything," Fox said.
In the Colorado Rockies, there are still epic storms and epic stretches, acknowledged Fox, whose love of skiing has sent him chasing powder around the globe. But the true gauge is to look at snowpack levels at the end of the season — over an extended time to establish the trend. It's clear that ski seasons are getting shorter, he said. At the end of the day, it is irrelevant if conditions are awesome between a slow start and quick end.
"Skiers have a short memory," Fox said. "They remember 10 powder days in February."
"It's not about whether it's snowing out your window," he added.
Precipitation levels in a warming world are difficult to gauge, studies have said. But Fox stressed that temperature is the "predominant parameter" that will affect conditions in places such as Aspen. It won't matter how much it snows in the heart of the ski season if temperatures climb so high in March that the melt occurs sooner.
"If you want to argue about weather, fine, but you can't argue about the temperature," Fox said.
He has evidence on his side. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, he said.
The January global temperature was the fourth-highest on record, even though the average temperature for the contiguous U.S. was slightly below the 20th-century average, according to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska had its third-warmest January in the 96 years of records, the agency reported.
"Just because Colorado had a great year so far this year doesn't mean (climate change) isn't happening," Fox said.
Based on the studies he read while researching his book, he believes the best-case scenario for winter in Aspen 50 years from now is one that matches a low-snow winter now.
The best-case scenario depends on drastic reductions in production of greenhouse gases. That will require the shutdown of domestic coal-fired power plants, the end of exports of coal to China and more widespread development of alternative energy.
Fox is quick to note that devastation of the ski industry pales in comparison with other effects of climate change, such as water shortages in the Southwest and on the West Coast. But his book focuses on skiing and the future of snow because the sport attracts a lot of influential people. They are the type that can make change happen by pressing for policy changes in Washington, D.C., he said.
Fox said he hopes his book inspires more people to educate themselves about climate change from a neutral source. One such source is the National Climatic Data Center at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc.