Roger Marolt: I came for the winters but may end up living in a summer resort
The problem is complex, but the solutions are straightforward.
I am neither mathematician nor scientist, but I don’t need to be for this. The problem is complex, but the solutions are straightforward.
There is a phenomenon where air cools as it expands at higher altitudes. We all know this. The rate at which this occurs is called the adiabatic lapse rate. On a clear day, the temperature will drop about 5 degrees per 1,000 feet of elevation gain; that rate changes to about 3 degrees per 1,000 feet on a cloudy day. It’s a good thing to know if you like spending time in the mountains.
This information also gives us skiers a clue as to how significant a 1-degree change in average temperature is. By way of jiggering the math above, we can deduce that every degree the average temperature rises, the average annual low snow line could rise between 200 and 330 feet. Think of a receding glacier.
This becomes extremely significant when the low snow line reaches the base of your favorite ski area. In Snowmass, a 1-degree increase in average temperature at this point means your skiing now ends at the top of Fanny Hill and you have to walk about a quarter mile on bare slopes to get back to the Six-pack lift. It’s the extinction of ski-in, ski-out condominiums here.
Indeed, the warming of the globe can suddenly be a very big deal to ski areas, where skiing rapidly becomes impractical or even impossible given the existing infrastructure created when we were able to take the annual snow-line for granted. The death of skiing will not be expressed in linear terms. As the low snow line approaches steeper terrain, the more pronounced is its effect. It will accelerate rapidly in the end.
It may be closer than we think, too. Arapahoe East outside of Denver, The Broadmoor Ski Area in Colorado Springs, Raton Ski Basin above Trinidad, and Conquistador near West Cliffe are former Colorado ski areas located where there used to be enough snow for them to operate. With base areas around 7,800 feet above sea level, Buttermilk and Sunlight are two of the lowest ski areas in our state and it is difficult to imagine being able to operate much lower than that already. Snow (much of it manmade) on Howlesen Hill in Steamboat, which tops out around 7,100 feet, usually doesn’t last past the middle of March.
We should start to seriously speculate what the future might hold for Colorado skiing. Some say we simply move the lifts and base areas higher as temperatures rise. I don’t see this happening.
Moving entire bases of ski areas up mountains would prove costly. Is there fool enough to invest big money to do this in an environment that may require the whole operation be done again sooner rather than later? If it came down to this (i.e. betting money on it), I think far fewer would claim that global warming is a hoax or that we have it under control.
Secondly, there’s altitude. Life gets harder up higher. Most visitors probably agree we are high enough already. The lack of plentiful oxygen negatively impacts almost everything about the skiing experience from exerting on the slopes to eating, drinking and sleeping afterward. An aging skier population isn’t going to buy into moving ski areas higher. We could try shifting the sport to younger people who are more tolerant of altitude’s deleterious effects, but that would require lowering the cost of participation. But how are you going to pay for the cost of moving ski areas uphill by selling cheaper tickets?
Lastly, mountains are commonly bell shaped. They get steeper the higher you go. That means more expert terrain and less room for beginners and intermediates in our reconfigured resorts. That sounds good to me, but no ski area is going to survive on customers like me. I’m a very experienced skier (i.e. cheap). I’ll buy a lift ticket, but I won’t spend a lot in on-mountain restaurants and zippo on lessons. That cuts deeply into the budgets of traditional ski area profit centers.
The other options are to try to do something serious about altering the course of global warming or build more swimming pools and hedge on a longer summer tourist season for economic survival. It’s that simple.
Roger Marolt doesn’t like swimming in pools so he leans toward reducing carbon footprints. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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