Bad snow year may just be the start of the ski industry's climate headaches

ASPEN, Colo. -- The ski industry is one business that is facing the prospect of tough sledding in the years just ahead.

According to a survey taken by the National Ski Areas Association, warm weather and low snowfall last winter dropped visitors to ski resorts by almost 16 percent, the sharpest decline in more than 30 years. Of 231 resorts responding, 51 percent opened late and 49 percent shut down early. At least 11 of the nation's 486 resorts went out of business.

The survey concluded that the experience may have just been "an abrupt reminder of the whims of the weather," but it also noted there was the possibility that "long-term climate change" was a factor. The industry has "bounced back" after low snow years in the past, but the survey suggested resort operators might want to consider some changes to protect their business.

Probably the biggest change under way, according to Troy Hawks, spokesman for the ski association, is the purchase of new, automatic snow guns that turn on when their computers detect the "sweet spot": the right mix of temperature and humidity to efficiently spew out man-made snow. "Those do certainly make a difference to providing a skiable product as early as possible in the season," he noted.

Hawks acknowledges that the guns are not an answer for every resort, because they're expensive and drive up electricity bills. Many smaller resorts can't afford them, and larger resorts in the West often have fixed water allotments. "Once you reach that limit, you're kind of done."

As part of its "Climate Challenge" program, the association is working with 18 resort operators that want to tackle the broader climate change issue, which is how to generate more political support to help mitigate climate change causes. They are looking for ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to help educate members of the skiing and snowboarding public that unless they get involved and get governments involved, winters will gradually become worse.

"Climate is our biggest long-term threat," explained Mike Kaplan, president of Aspen Skiing Co., which runs the Aspen/Snowmass resort complex in Colorado, perhaps the most activist U.S. resort. "Making snow is the No. 1 user of electricity for mountain operations," he added, but he's concluded that more man-made snow is not a long-term fix for Aspen.

"Colorado is famous for its light, dry, wonderful snow and expansive terrain. We have 5,000 acres. The cost of man-made snow for that would be huge."


Influencing customers and Congress

In April, Kaplan helped lead businesses in the city of Aspen out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because it was lobbying against pending federal legislation that would regulate and gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

In May, his resort gave the industry a view of what might be its future by staging a snowless ski race where contestants put on skis and roller blades and schlepped around racing gates set in the grass and dirt on the mountain. It was Aspen's contribution to a set of worldwide demonstrations sponsored by the climate change activist group

In June, he announced his resort was installing a $5.4 million system to make electricity out of methane escaping from a nearby coal mine, thus reducing a potent source of emissions. "We're finding this is a profitable way to invest capital," Kaplan explained in an interview. "It hedges your bets against rising oil and electricity prices."

It may also attract more skiers to Aspen/Snowmass, he thinks. "If you are passionate about this, you become more passionate about the place where you visit," he said.

Kaplan's passion hasn't infected the whole skiing industry, at least not yet. "There are a few ski owners who are climate deniers, and that sometimes causes problems," said Theodore Spencer, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He helped organize the National Ski Areas Association's lobbying efforts in Washington, starting in 2003 when Congress was considering climate change legislation.

A downhill race?

The campaign was called "Keep Winter Cool." The association brought resort owners and ski celebrities to Washington, and NRDC arranged meetings with lawmakers and key legislative aides. "We did that for a bunch of years," Spencer recalled.

To generate more popular support, Spencer took the campaign to some of the resorts, putting public service ads about climate change on their closed-circuit television systems. When guests turned on the TV for après-ski entertainment, there was Picabo Street, former world champion downhill ski racer, telling them they had to do more to ward off climate change.

"Climate advocacy was still getting rolling then behind federal legislation," said Spencer, somewhat wistfully. "But we weren't going as hard at it as we should have."

European and Australian ski resorts appear to be getting advanced cases of the no-snow blues. In the French Alps, for example, medium-altitude ski resorts have been losing money for years because of poor snowfall. "These areas are not profitable; it is better to close them intelligently," said Jean-Yves Moracchini, a local official in Grenoble.

In Australia, Catherine Pickering, an associate professor at the Griffith School of Environment, predicted earlier this month that 60 percent of the traditional snow cover of the Australian Alps will be gone by 2020 because of rising temperatures. "A poor year in the past will be a good year now," she told The Australian newspaper.

She said the warming winters and rising costs of making artificial snow will send skiers "overseas to Europe or the U.S." As it happens, however, 2012 has been a banner year for natural snow in some of Australia's resorts, causing one resort spokesman to shrug off mounting evidence of global warming. She told The Sydney Morning Herald that snow is just like rainfall: It "goes up and down."

If you build it higher, will they still come?

If and when snow-deprived Europeans and Australians turn up at North America's biggest ski resort, they will see it is struggling to meet the long-term global warming problem head-on by getting its guests to become more involved about stemming climate change.

The massive Whistler Blackcomb resort in British Columbia, home of the Winter Olympic Games in 2010, has been worrying about the impact of higher temperatures on its business since 1993, according to Arthur De Jong, Whistler's planning and resource manager.

Since then, it has taken a number of steps. Whistler has a breathtaking vertical rise of 1 mile, so it is building its ski trails higher, where it's cooler. It's grooming more slopes on the north side of the mountain, where natural snow lasts longer. It's diverting a portion of a river through a turbine that generates all the resort's electricity before the water is used to make snow. In some places, it even puts white plastic blankets on its glaciers to reduce the melt rate.

Lately, it's been composting most of its food wastes, reducing its overall garbage by 60 percent. Whistler's goal is to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions. "Customers relate to net zero," De Jong said. "The first customer is our staff. It's a recruitment retention tool, and it matters to our guests, depending upon where they're from.

"Northern Europeans care a lot about the environment," he added. "In the U.S., it varies a lot. People who live up and down your coasts are more conscious of" climate change.

But there are limits to lobbying by example, De Jong was quick to point out. "We have more capacity here to outrun climate change than the global economy does.

"So how relevant will we be in the future if the average annual temperature goes up 2, 3, 4 degrees?" he asked, noting that severe climate shifts could crash the world's economies, provoke resource wars and generally melt away the number of well-off global tourists that Whistler must attract to stay in business.

"What we need to prove," De Jong said, "is that reducing our carbon footprint is not only doable, but it makes our economy stronger."

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