From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):
Like most ski areas in Colorado this season, the runs were icy. Throughout the state, a day of skiing this season has often meant a day spent dodging the grass and rocks peeking from a threadbare blanket of snow.
“It was probably the worst day I’ve had since I lived in Colorado,” [Drew] Van Patter said of his runs at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Recent storms offered life support to many of the state’s snow-starved ski areas, but as of early January, Colorado’s snowpack was lower than it had been in 30 years. Last year was the state’s second-warmest year ever.
Ski resorts in Colorado, the snow sport stalwart of the nation, will lose millions of dollars this season because of paltry snow and balmy temperatures, one resort leader estimated.
“The whole state is having its worst opening in 20 years,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Snowmass, during a December interview. “This is the weather and climate we fear. It’s already here.”
There will be many more seasons like this as climate change ravages Colorado ski areas, scientists and environmental advocacy groups predict. Recent Environmental Protection Agency research estimates Colorado ski areas will see their already fleeting seasons dwindle by 10 to 50 percent by 2050.
For a 150-day ski season, that means a reduction of between two weeks to nearly three months. By 2090, the EPA estimates some Colorado ski areas will see seasons shortened by as much as 80 percent from present-day levels.
“A lot of people think that climate change is something way in the future that’s hard to quantify,” said Lindsay Bourgoine, advocacy and campaigns manager for Protect Our Winters. The nonprofit is fighting climate change with support from the outdoors community. “When we start thinking about the millennial generation, this is their grandkids that won’t ski.”
The endangerment of the powder day is among the lesser worries of a world imperiled by climate change, Bourgoine said. But it’s one clear way that rising temperatures and unpredictable precipitation patterns are battering Colorado, a state that in recent years has been insulated from major fires and floods.
It’s hard to quantify exactly how climate change has affected Colorado ski resorts, particularly because their managers keep a tight grip on data tracking season length and snow-making. Half a dozen ski resorts contacted by the Coloradoan declined to participate in this story or did not respond to requests for interviews and data.
But we know mountain snowpack has decreased 20 to 60 percent at most monitoring sites in Colorado since the 1950s, according to an EPA analysis. We know Colorado’s average temperature has increased more than 2 degrees in the last 40 years.
Climate change has gnawed off profitable chunks at the beginning and end of the ski season, said Schendler, who estimated an area needs about 100 days to turn a profit.
“We’re seeing these shoulder seasons being squeezed every year,” he said. “You get maybe 20 percent of your revenue in the Christmas to New Year’s season, and then a big chunk in March for spring break. If you shave off the front and back ends, you no longer have an industry.”
Low snowfall has an immediate impact on skier visits. The marketing group Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents 23 ski areas including Aspen Snowmass and Arapahoe Basin, reported a 13 percent drop in visits between opening day and Dec. 31 compared to the same period last season. Early-season visits last season were down 8 percent from the year before, when heavy snow provided a boost.
Vail Resorts reported an 11 percent decline in early-season visits at its resorts across the United States, which include four Colorado resorts. That followed a 13 percent drop in early visits last year.
Colorado has seen — and bounced back from — winter droughts like this before. Longtime residents might remember the winter of 1976-77, one of Colorado’s driest winters on record. The next season saw well-above-average snowfall. But rising temperatures exace
Snowmaking can help ski areas get through rough winters, but it requires a Goldilocks-esque recipe of temperature, humidity, wind — and water rights. As temperatures climb, that recipe becomes increasingly elusive.
Lower-elevation ski areas are more vulnerable to temperature increases, which will turn some snow into rain and melt away the snow that does fall. Resorts that don’t have the water rights or equipment for snowmaking won’t be able to supplement nature’s bounty with manmade powder.
“The snow-making is just a stopgap,” Schendler said.
‘It’s our responsibility to take action now’
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area is one of the only Colorado areas that has been spared from this season’s snow shortfall.
First to open and last to close, Arapahoe Basin is known for having the longest ski season in a state known for long ski seasons. The area has had an average season of 227 days — about seven and a half months — since 2010-11, according to a Coloradoan analysis.
But Arapahoe Basin is also one of the most active resorts in the realm of climate change advocacy. Along with Aspen Snowmass, it’s one of two Colorado resorts that partners with Protect Our Winters. Resort employees sport POW logos on their uniforms, and two employees work specifically on sustainability initiatives that include waste diversion, greenhouse gas emissions tracking, solar panels and efficient lighting…
What’s missing in the world of climate advocacy is a social movement, Schendler said. All the positive changes in society — labor, women’s suffrage, civil rights — had a movement behind them, but climate change advocacy doesn’t yet, he said.