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by Joshua Eldridge

For millions around the world there is a long-awaited feeling of excitement that comes with strapping on a pair of skis or a snowboard after a long hot summer.  Who can forget that tingling sensation in your lungs as the cold air mixes with your blood, the crunching of perfect snowflakes under your feet as you walk to the ski lift, or the chill on your cheeks as wave after wave of powder washes over your face as you glide carefree through the trees?

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Unfortunately, there is a direct threat to the sustainability of these experiences and the approximately 720 ski areas that operate in North America. Global climate change is making its presence felt, and for an industry dependent on temperature, weather, and climate, this is a serious problem.

While the causes of global warming are still debated, we can no longer deny that the climate is changing and we need to adapt and be proactive. There is a growing number of research studies and model projections that indicate warmer temperatures and changes to precipitation patterns are likely to take place in most of the alpine regions of North America and Europe (Adam et al 2009; Casola et al 2009; Karl et al 2009; IPCC 2007; Zimmerman et al 2006). Later snowfall, thinner snowpack, and earlier snowmelt can be expected and will greatly affect the ski season. The bigger problem is this warming trend will affect the water supply for downstream users.

The minimum amount of snow necessary for skiing is 12 inches, but this increases with elevation and terrain considerations, such as rocks, logs, and other obstructions. For a ski area to be viable snow depth must hold for 100 days for at least 7 out of 10 years.

If model projections are accurate, lower elevation ski areas in lower latitudes are likely to be affected first. Abondance, a ski area in the Alps, situated at 3,051 feet above mean sea level, closed in 2007 due to a chronic absence of snow, becoming one of the first ski area casualties of climate change (MSNBC 2007). If the figure below is accurate, Abondance isn’t alone in its vulnerability to climate change. Based on the minimum requirements, only one of the 13 major ski resorts in the Northeastern United States is projected to have viable conditions for ski area operations by the end of this century.

Ski Areas Adjust

There are many ways that ski areas are trying to expand their operations to account for lost revenue due to poor skiing conditions. The larger ski resorts are beginning to offer summer activities, such as golfing and mountain biking.  Some are even putting in zip-lines to attract adventurous types. Adding summer activities does help keep some resorts in business, but it doesn’t help small ski areas, like Wolf Creek, CO, or Grand Targhee, WY, because they lack the infrastructure to support summer sports.

To combat the shrinking snowfall, many ski areas are increasing snowmaking operations. Snowmaking is the process of creating snow by forcing water and pressurized air through what is known as a snow gun or cannon. Snowmaking was used before the climate change debate started, but now there is increased snowmaking in regions that now need to extend the ski season and improve snow packs, such as the Rocky Mountains.

For snowmaking to work, temperatures still need to be sufficiently low enough to produce snow, which may not be possible as the climate warms. Snowmaking also is a strain on energy and water resources, and in states like Colorado, where water rights are recognized, snowmaking becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. There are also impacts to fish or other aquatic species as a result of reduced water levels and water quality (Wemple et al 2007).

Many ski areas and industry groups are adopting a big-picture approach by educating people, including politicians, about the risks of climate change. For example, the Colorado-based National Ski Area Association (NSAA), an industry group that represents a majority of ski areas in the U.S., developed and adopted an environmental charter, known as Sustainable Slopes in 2000 and was revised in 2005 (NSAA 2005). The charter addresses climate change as a potential threat to the environment and the winter sports industry, an industry that generates an estimated $2 billion a year in Colorado alone (MSNBC 2010).

Running a ski area is energy intensive, but it is not known to produce large amounts of greenhouse gases. However, because greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change and reduced water availability in alpine regions, Sustainable Slopes focuses on raising the collective environmental performance of the ski industry, which includes reducing emissions by encouraging use of renewable energy and carpools as well as efficient water use. In addition, many ski resorts, either through NSAA or directly, lobby Congress to influence energy policies that encourage renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many ski areas are not waiting for an official climate change policy and are finding ways to use renewable energy sources. Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Massachusetts and Park City Mountain Resort in Utah are joining a growing list of ski areas adding wind turbines to help offset energy use and reduce direct emissions. In addition, many resorts also are purchasing renewable energy credits.

Most notable is the effort by Aspen Ski Company. They recently agreed to invest $5.5 million to help construct a methane-burning power plant in Somerset, Colorado, using methane produced at the Elk Creek Mine (Kahn 2012). According to the EPA, methane has 20 times more warming potential than CO2 (Huffman 2012). This is the largest project of its kind in the U.S. and sets the bar for offsetting carbon footprints of ski areas.

It All Flows Down Hill

The ski industry has recognized that climate change is a direct threat to its future and bottom line and requires creative problem solving now before it’s too late. The industry is encouraging the reduction of greenhouse gases, embracing alternative energy sources, and diversifying their service base, but these efforts do not solve the real problem. Alpine areas are the headwaters of the river systems that are the source of water for hundreds of millions of people around the world. The warmer climate reduces snowfall, which ultimately reduces the water supply of essential rivers. The efforts by the ski industry to proactively change this scenario are respectable, but this is a complex and multifaceted issue with no easy or simple solutions. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to adapt to this situation, but it’s going to come with sacrifices.

So if you dream of floating through pillows of powder down a steep mountain side, I suggest you make sure to get to your local resort this winter. Or take that long awaited trip to the resort of your dreams because if you wait too long, you might end up in Colorado skiing the Great Sand Dunes instead of Blue Sky Basin at Vail.


Additional Information

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

National Ski Area Association

United States Global Change Research Program



Adam, J.C., A.F. Hamlet, and D.P. Lettenmaier. 2009. Implications of global climate change for snowmelt hydrology in the 21st century. Hydrological Processes. 23(7): 962-972.

Casola, J.H., L. Cuo, B. Livneh, D.P. Lettenmaier, M.T. Stoelinga, P.W. Mote, and J.M. Wallace. 2009. Assessing the impacts of global warming on snowpack in the Washington Cascades. Journal of Climate. 22: 2758-2772. Doi: 10.1175/2008JCLI2612.1.

Huffman, J. 2012. “Ski resorts go renewable – U.S. ski resorts tap renewable energy sources to combat climate change.”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Fourth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis.

Kahn, M. 2012. “Aspen to build energy plant – Aspen Ski Co. to invest in first-of-its-kind clean energy plant.”

Karl, T.R., J.M. Melillo, and T.C. Peterson (eds.). 2009. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY.

MSNBC. 2007. “Alps town can’t take the heat, shuts ski area.”

MSNBC. 2010. “Colorado: Warming melts winter fun – Forests, ski resorts vulnerable to shorter, warmer winters“.

National Ski Area Association. 2005. Sustainable Slopes: The environmental charter for ski areas. Lakewood, CO.

Wemple, B., J. Shanley, J. Denner, D. Ross, and K. Mills. 2007. Hydrology and water quality in two mountain basins of the northeastern U.S.: Assessing baseline conditions and effects of ski area development. Hydrological Processes. 21: 1639-1650.

Zimmerman, G., C. O’brady, and B. Hurlbutt. 2006. The 2006 State of the Rockies Report Card. Colorado College. Colorado Springs, CO. pg 98-102