The Ski-cast: Is There Hope for the Slopes?
The first time I struck out on skis was at Butternut Mountain, a beginner-friendly ski resort that’s been around since 1963 in Massachusetts’ Berkshire range. On that sunny but brisk February day, the bunny hill was brimming with wobbly novices like me — a veritable sea of flailing poles and legs gone wild. I can still remember a particularly exhilarating run in which I managed to knock over a small child before landing on my side in a pile of snow that was clearly intended to stop people like me from careening into an adjacent parking lot. That was the day I literally and figuratively fell for skiing.
Every winter thousands of people fall for skiing and snowboarding at places like Butternut, places with gentle slopes where even future Olympians first begin building their confidence and ability. But, unfortunately, it’s at these small, snowy havens where we often get our start where the fun may soon be coming to an end.
According to a study out of Canada’s University of Ottawa about the impact of climate change on regional ski areas, none of the 17 winter resorts in Massachusetts and Connecticut will be able to sustain a viable skiing season as soon as 2039 as a result of reduced snowfall. Meanwhile, many of the slopes in neighboring Vermont are expected to fare better. The main reason for the differing predictions? Altitude.
While it may seem obvious that temperatures would remain colder at higher elevations, what we don’t know is when these more vulnerable ski spots will no longer be able to survive the financial toll of changing climate conditions. After crunching the data for 103 northeast resorts, with help from IPCC climate models, the researchers concluded that in the next 15 years the number of “skiable” days at many areas could fall to fewer than 100. While season lengths vary depending on a resort’s size and capacity, the 100-day rule has long been a general benchmark of economic viability for any ski hill.
"One of the biggest factors impacting these smaller ski areas is that the season will also become shorter as the warming trend continues,” said Jackie Dawson, one of the report’s authors. “Snow won’t really start falling until after the December holidays, and that’s when these resorts usually make 35 percent of their total revenue.”
Although Dawson’s report focused on Northeast ski resorts, a recent article in the journal Nature also highlighted predictions for other ski destinations whose future remains “climatically unreliable,” with milder winters threatening to render obsolete even former Olympic ski areas like those in and around Salt Lake City.
The Nature article also cited another prediction that “by 2030 the rising snowline at Colorado’s world famous Aspen resort will be near the base of the chairlifts,” and snow may only cover the summit by the end of the century.
Of course, if you live in the Northeast you are probably scratching your head and wondering how these projections could possibly be true after being hammered by snow in 2014. “A lot of people are under the false impression that climate change will only result in warmer temperatures,” Dawson reminded me. “The reality is that we will experience more extreme weather events and increased variability. This means we will not only see warmer temperatures but also increased events of extreme precipitation during short periods of time and more extreme cold temperatures for short periods.”
Although machine-made snow can help make up for lost precipitation, Dawson pointed out that snowmaking still requires cold temperatures and works best with a base layer of real snow.
Snowmaking is also a costly and resource-intensive endeavor. Comprised of the same ingredients as real snow, machine-made snow is created by forcing pressurized air and water through the nozzle of a snow gun and blasting it onto the mountain. A consistent and powerful source of energy is required to run the snow machines, and the process requires vast amounts of water.
According to SMI Snow Makers, the company that saved the day by making snow for the 2014 Winter Olympics, it takes 82,000 gallons of water (enough to fill about 11 tanker trucks) to create a six-inch layer of snow covering a 200-by-200-foot area. To cover a medium-sized ski slope, some 1.5 million gallons of water are required.
At the main Olympic skiing venue near Sochi, two man-made lakes were constructed from which water could be drawn to make snow. More typically, water is siphoned from local rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. Although some water returns after the snow melts, moving it around can disturb ecosystems, impacting the health of aquatic plants and wildlife.
And when the weather is balmy and water is scarce, as it has been in California this winter, snowmaking becomes difficult for some. Without the physical and financial resources to keep their snow machines humming, the owners of the small but popular Donner Ski Ranch in California’s Lake Tahoe ski area were unable to open their slopes for business until March 1 this year.
But Dawson believes there is hope for these slopes, and her study even offers suggestions to ski resort managers about how to deal with climate change. She pointed with optimism to Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, a Massachusetts ski area where energy-efficient technologies, such as an on-site wind turbine, will help them prepare for the increasing need to make snow. The resort has also found other ways to market themselves as hiking and mountain biking destinations in non-winter months, as have many other ski areas across the nation.
“It’s all about adaptation — that’s how these places will survive,” said Dawson.
So, although these ski resorts won’t be turning into water parks just yet, the next generation of skiers will likely be taking their first steps — and falls — on higher ground.
And with the increasing costs of making snow, their lift tickets won’t be getting any cheaper.