The Ghost of Winters Past

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Tweeted @Vailmtn Resort on January 25th.

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows’ Facebook page professed on January 24th, “Over 7 feet of snow in 5 days leads to a whole lot of powder. The skies will be clearing up this week, so don’t miss bluebird days and all-time conditions.”

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@Jacksonhole Mountain Resort posts pow shots on Instagram.

Whistlerblackcomb.com simply states “20+ FEET OF SNOW & COUNTING”.

While I sit overseas in rainy England, jealously scrolling through endless Instagram posts of friends slashing through chest deep powder I can’t help but wonder if the stoke for this epic snow year is overshadowing the fact that 2016 was globally the warmest year ever. Are we forgetting that in 2013 only 109 inches of snow fell over an entire year in Mammoth Mountain (this season it had already snowed more than that by January 4th)? Are we forgetting that Mount Hood’s Palmer Snowfield melted almost entirely in 2015 forcing Timberline Lodge Ski Resort to close over a month early? Are we forgetting that earlier this season the Beaver Creek Birds of Prey and Lake Louise World Cup races had to be cancelled due to lack of snow? But most importantly are we forgetting what this climate change trend means for the future of our sport?

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NASA‘s image of temperature warming trends from 1880 to 2016 including 23 record warm years.

Research has shown that, unsurprisingly, skiers perception of climate change risks are much higher in warmer winters and much lower in colder, snowier winters. Our confidence in and reliance on resorts’ snowmaking abilities amplifies our denial in climate change and decouples the ski industry from the natural snowfall. The winter tourism industry is aware of the financial risks posed by poor seasons yet continues to contradict long-term sustainable business and environmental management to optimize short-term trail conditions and shareholder profits.

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First day lift lines at Arapahoe Basin CO. A-Basin is known for it’s early start date and late end to the season but this wouldn’t be possible without snow guns, which you can see working hard to create a snow cloud and what is known as the white ribbon of death down the center of an otherwise green run (image source angrysnowboarder.com).

News of an earlier opening date, a warm spell mid-January snow gunned over or a harder base lasting further into spring all excite us but snowmaking has long been known to be incredibly harmful to the environment (and the budget). 1 hectare of snow cover requires up to 1.5 million liters of water and up to 27000 kWh of energy. Artificial snow using imported water diverts the natural flow of the water basin and brings in foreign elements while the snowmelt of manmade snow melts much slower, all damaging fragile alpine habitats.

Powder Magazine recently came out with an article showing ski industry executives including Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Jerry Blann and owner Jay Kemmerer and Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory supporting and donating large sums of money to climate change denying congressional candidates who are actively fighting greenhouse gas and CO2 regulation legislation. If these political decisions that are made in light of rising ticket prices with worsening conditions confuse anyone, you are not alone. Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of environmental sustainability says “Right now, supporting these guys is like we’re saying: ‘Hey, we’ll give you money, just as long as you can guarantee you’ll destroy our livelihood.’”

The costs, already exorbitant (Australia invested $82 million USD in snowmaking infrastructure, Tyrol Austria spent 55 million Euros while resorts in Switzerland reported that each kilometer of a ski run cost 650,000 Euros on average to cover with artificial snow), to maintain snow conditions amplify the fact that this tactic cannot be sustained, environmentally or economically.

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A helicopter bringing in a load of snow to help cover the track of the famous Hahnenkamm Downhill in Kitzbuhel Austria in 2007. Venues are hesitant to cancel races as they bring in money, but these types of conditions are increasingly common across the World Cup circuit. (Source New York Times/Kerstin Joensson)

Multi-resort passes such as the Mountain Collective, Epic Pass and the MAX pass have been popping up for exactly this reason. Localized weather variance with climate change has increased risks in snow supply and demand from skiers at each ski resort. However by diversifying geographically, resorts can ensure passes are bought and skiers have the option to follow the snow wherever it may fall.

Ski resort corporations may be marketing, selling, politicking and scattering their way around climate change, but we as skiers (and consumers) are eagerly eating this all up. We play along as we post photos of powder days past on Instagram when resorts are closed, watch ski films showing endless snowcapped peaks not questioning the increasingly remote locations and rave of epic January mountain bike rides when things go real south. We forget our role in the cause of climate change but more importantly in the solution.

As the first downhill races of the season were being cancelled due to lack of snow some athletes like Steven Nyman felt “it brings to light the whole climate issue, which I believe is the real deal.”, but others were less certain of the link to climate change. Dustin Cook, a Canadian Alpine Ski Team member told the Toronto Sun “I look at the term climate change, and I think that’s definitely affecting things, but also it’s just early in the year… I just don’t buy that it’s too warm.” US Mens Head Coach Sasha Rearick said “I’m bummed FIS (International Ski Federation) didn’t have more confidence in the snowmaking to pull this thing off last minute.” None of the news articles from various papers covering the cancelled events showed pictures of the grassy slopes instead pictures from previous years and different races accompanied the articles.

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The Denver Post cites lack of snow as reason for cancelling the Birds of Prey race but shows a snowy picture from last years race.

Research on skier behaviour shows that nearly all skiers, particularly experts and die-hards are willing to travel upwards of 2 hours farther (70 percent would travel to another region) and pay 10 percent more for reliable snow conditions. No one in the study indicated they would stop skiing!

We won’t stop skiing and are willing to adapt, but can we change our behaviour and that of our resorts enough to ensure we don’t create a situation that forces us to stop?

Some people are trying to do just that. Films like Salomon’s Guilt Trip; A Climate Change Film with a Skiing Problem (watch here), books like Porter Fox’s DEEP; The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow and organizations like Protect Our Winters (POW), Outdoor Industry Association and SHIFT are all starting a positive conversation of not just how climate change impacts us, but how we impact the environment and our responsibility as skiers to act. As skiers we have to think about how our actions are contributing to this conversation. Whether it’s through writing news articles, posting photos to Instragram or choosing which ski resorts to support our words and actions must align with and push our industry to meet our collective goal of a snow filled future.

We have to continue the climate change conversation, remembering the rainy days of the past and fearing snowless days of the future, as we shred the epic winter of today.

 

 

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