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Report warns of disaster in Colorado ski country

A new Colorado College report opened eyes and dropped jaws this month with forecasts that ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains might become “unviable” by 2050 because of rising temperatures and snowpack loss.The report, part of the college’s State of the Rockies Report Card, concluded that the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas could experience an April 1 snowpack reduction of 43 percent on average between 2070 to 2099, compared with 1976 levels.”Predictions for future mountain climate are warmer winters and shorter snow seasons,” the report said. “As temperatures warm and snowpack melts earlier, some predict that the ski industry may succumb to climate change and fold.”Auden Schendler, the high-profile environmental director for the Skico, said damage to the ski industry is the least of his worries concerning global warming.”Asking what’s going to happen to skiing is really irrelevant,” Schendler said.He predicted people from big ski markets like Florida won’t even think about ski trips if coastal flooding is threatening their homes and jobs.The real issues are not about diminished snowpack at ski areas, he said, they’re about how rising temperatures will increase the weather extremes and create more natural disasters, alter the planet’s food production capabilities and increase the spread of diseases as well as coastal flooding.The usually upbeat Schendler was not in the mood to trumpet the green successes of the Skico or the environmental movement in general for Earth Day 2006. He said global warming poses risks so drastic and the response so far has been so insignificant that it’s difficult for him to be upbeat, even for Earth Day.”I’ve become horrifically pessimistic,” he said. “We’re delusional if we think we’re going to change this problem with little tweaks.”The only hope he sees is drastic policy change by countries like the United States. Corporations and governments, as well as individuals, have to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming, he said.Colorado College’s report took two models for global warming then applied the results to the eight states of the Rocky Mountain region. The “business-as-usual” model assumes that humans will add greenhouse gases at the current rate or greater. If that’s the case, the winter temperature increase will be about 6 degrees Celsius for Colorado’s central mountains.”In general, the Rockies will likely see higher temperatures in both winter and summer, variable changes in precipitation across the region, and more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow,” the report said.The study’s other model assumes that as fossil fuel resources decline a transition to alternative energy will reduce emissions. In that scenario, the Aspen area of Colorado would see winter temperatures rise about 3 to 4 degree Celsius.Most areas of the Rocky Mountains lose more than 50 percent of their snowpack under the business-as-usual scenario. About half of the areas that receive snow will lose 50 percent of the snowpack even under the reduced emissions scenario.Business-as-usual isn’t acceptable to Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell. If the snowpack disappears sooner – March rather than April – the company’s financial viability is in danger, he said.”It takes us 100 days to break even,” O’Donnell said. “Any profit we make is contingent on March.”Warmer temperatures at the beginning of the ski season would also spell disaster. Snowmaking on lower slopes creates a base that will survive through the season. Without that base, the integrity of the snowpack in high-traffic areas is compromised.O’Donnell said some ski industry officials downplay the threat or tend to ignore it because it seems like a long way off. Since many current adults won’t be around in 2050, the threat doesn’t concern them.But he noted that some models indicate snowpacks could be noticeably smaller in as few as 10 years because of global warming.As bleak as the business-as-usual scenario is for Aspen’s ski areas, the Roaring Fork Valley, with a 37 percent smaller snowpack on April 1, would be better off than many other ski regions, according to the Colorado College report.Summit County – home to Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone – could lose 50 percent of its snowpack. Ditto for Steamboat and Crested Butte. Beaver Creek and Vail could kiss 57 percent of their snowpacks goodbye.Alta, Snowbird and Solitude in Utah could see as much as 84 percent of their snowpack disappear if global emissions remain at current levels. Deer Valley, Park City and The Canyons would fare slightly better, with a 61 percent loss.Taos could be the biggest loser, with 89 percent of its snowpack gone.Sun Valley could experience a 41 percent loss while Jackson Hole’s loss could be about 26 percent.The report, which covers a lot more than climate change, is available at http://www.ColoradoCollege.edu/StateoftheRockies.”This report by Colorado College is not good. It’s bleak,” Schendler said.His advice? Become an advocate for drastic action on global warming. Start by writing representatives in Congress to support efforts that reduce greenhouse emissions, he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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