Save the Snow! Ski Resorts Face An Uncertain Future Thanks To Global Warming

My brief visit to Vermont two weekends ago was probably my last snowboarding trip of the season. I can’t afford to chase the snow to the Southern Hemisphere this summer and hit the slopes in Chile or New Zealand, as some North Americans do. I might make it up to the storied Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire’s lovely White Mountains, where the skiing season doesn’t even start until April (and often lasts into June), because of the intense avalanche danger through winter. But northern New England is a long drive from coastal southwestern Connecticut where I live, and that means a lot of work and expense for a place with no ski lifts.

Although it’s a winter playground today, Smugglers’ Notch is named for a long history of sneaking contraband through the Green Mountains. Credit: Brian C. Howard

Don’t get me wrong; backcountry snowboarding and skiing is fantastic. It’s a thrilling way to experience the beauty, solitude and majesty of nature in winter, while challenging yourself and building confidence in your own abilities. But it also can be dangerous and even life threatening, and it’s a lot of work. Let’s face it, most people who enjoy barreling down snowy inclines prefer to be hauled up in lifts. As explains, “In less than a century, the number of ski lifts worldwide has grown from zero to more than 30,000.” So what is the environmental footprint of all those moving chairs?

Most ski lifts are powered by diesel engines, which means they release dangerous levels of particulate matter and carcinogenic fumes, and contribute to the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Further, some amount of invasive construction must take place before the lift can even deliver the first skier to a snowy peak. explains, “Ski areas aimed to maintain a ‘wilderness’ atmosphere that is radically different from the skier’s day-to-day surroundings. However, to create a modern ski area’s ‘unique sub-arctic ecosystem’ inevitably meant some violation of the indigenous environment.” Trails must be cleared and tended, roads and parking lots must be put in, and lodges tend to spring up to provide aprés services.

Dude, Where’s the Snow?

Still, the part of the ski industry’s environmental impact that should really hit home among the legions of resort bums and weekend warriors is the looming specter of global warming. Clearly, if there is less snow, there are fewer opportunities to hit the slopes. Resorts lose money and enthusiasts miss out on doing what they love.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has pointed out that projected losses of 10 to 20 percent of ski season days may mean a loss of $42 million to $84 million for the New Hampshire ski industry alone. The Rocky Mountain News recently reported, “Colorado’s $2 billion ski industry could be dead by 2050 unless radical steps are taken to address global warming and save the state’s prized champagne powder.” In fact, the USGCRP states, “Most analyses project a decline, if not total demise, of downhill skiing by the mid or latter part of the 21st century.”

In a recent paper for the USGCRP, Dr. Lynne M. Carter explains that lower-elevation ski resorts are already experiencing decreased snow quality and quantity due to warmer winters. Carter wrote, “If winter temperatures rose without accompanying increases in snowfall (which is one possibility projected for this region) even less snow would blanket the region’s mountains, creating a much shorter ski season.” Even if more precipitation would fall in autumn and winter, it would more likely come as rain. Warming could also trigger more avalanches and shrink glaciers.

Eek! Am I the only snowboarder who is concerned about this grim forecast? When I went to Idaho in February looking for powder, I was sorely disappointed by the mediocre to poor conditions. The snow was either too wet and heavy or the “bulletproof” patches of solid ice more commonly seen during January in New England. In fact, this past season saw some pretty lousy skiing in most of the Northwest. Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, has admitted the region has had an “off year.” One blogger posted on the Internet, “Amazing how little snow the mountains got this year. I can’t remember a ski season ever being this short.”

Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch and a few other ski areas are taking the threat of global warming seriously. Brian C. Howard

Like much of the West, the Northwest is suffering in the throes of another drought, and this winter has been particularly dry and warm. The Summit at Snoqualmie, a ski resort 52 miles east of Seattle, has been closed most of the 2004-05 season because of lack of the white stuff, and received a torrent of rain in January. The Union of Concerned Scientists has reported that global warming may be decreasing the snow pack of California’s Sierra Mountains.

In the East, the snow season got off to a slow, late start. Snowboarder magazine once emblazoned on its cover that “summer sucks,” but the influential publication should really print a cover in 50-point type that screams “global warming sucks.”

Hope on the Horizon

There is some evidence that skiers and snowboarders are waking up to the very real threat of climate change. According to a 1994 Roper Starch survey, 38 percent of skiers, compared to 21 percent of the public, have voted based on a candidate’s environmental position and 58 percent of skiers, versus 42 percent of the public, have contributed to environmental organizations.

The advocacy group Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition (SACC) produces an independent report card of Western ski resorts to help people choose the most environmentally friendly option. Criteria include limiting development of environmentally sensitive areas, protecting water quality and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Top scorers include Aspen, Sundance Resort and Mount Bachelor, while the worst offenders include Crested Butte, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.

The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition criticizes the National Ski Areas Association’s environmental charter, which was signed by 150 resorts in 1999. The advocacy group argues that the voluntary, nonbinding charter skirts key issues like habitat protection, sprawling development and water use and fails to set any concrete goals, including to head off global warming.

A few shining examples, however, are showing that true environmental commitment is certainly possible—and profitable—in today’s ski industry. For instance, the iconic, upscale Aspen in Colorado (which received an A grade from SACC) has implemented widespread energy-efficient changes and a water-saving snowmaking system. Aspen president Patrick O’Donnell has called climate change “the most pressing issue facing the ski industry today.” The resort puts its money where its mouth is by buying wind power, and free shuttles for guests help reduce car use. Workers even carried equipment up the mountain on foot to protect the region’s fragile environment.

In the East, which is not yet rated by SACC, Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch Resort is aiming for greener slopes. The resort, which is 30 miles east of Burlington and is affectionately known as “Smuggs,” boasts some of the steepest terrain east of the Rockies. Smuggs won the “Best of the Best” award from Efficiency Vermont in 2002 for energy-saving measures and saves tens of thousands of dollars a year in energy bills and rebates. Smuggs a

lso recycles waste and old building debris, composts organic matter, uses low volatile organic compound paints and works hard to save water. An innovative “living machine” uses bacteria, plants and fish to biologically treat wastewater. Smuggs also minimizes impact on local wildlife, including the black bear and Bicknell’s Thrush, a “species of special concern” in the Green Mountain State.

Public Relations Director Barbara J. Thomke explains that Smuggs chose not to install the massive, high-speed lifts now common at most destination resorts because they require widening of ski trails (or establishment of new ones), and the resort wants to limit development. This helps maintain a lower skier density, which also results in a safer, more fun experience for guests. A woman who goes by the name “Mother Nature” leads environmental education programs for kids, who are brought to Smuggs in vanloads by parents eager to take advantage of the resort’s award-winning family programs.

To combat climate change, Smuggs launched the SkiCool initiative with Vermont-based NativeEnergy in February 2004. “The ultimate goal is to have totally climate neutral skiing at Smugglers’ Notch,” says Thomke. Anyone buying a season pass is asked to add $10, which is used to purchase renewable energy credits through NativeEnergy. That $10 translates to preventing 1,667 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, enough to offset the release from lifts, snowmaking and grooming and travel to and from the slopes for the average use of a season pass. A one-day lift ticket green upgrade costs 50 cents. For each option, the resort kicks in another 25 percent.

Thomke says most of the green initiatives originate with the resort’s local owner, Bill Stritzler, whom she says has “a strong community and environmental consciousness.” Speaking about limiting development, Stritzler once said, “People from New York don’t want to come to Vermont and find New York.”

Earlier in the season, the view from the top of Sterling Mountain at Smugglers’ Notch was spectacular. The surrounding Green Mountains were blanketed in white and the sky was a deep blue. As I picked out my line of descent down the mountain’s 2,610 feet of vertical (that’s more than Colorado’s Keystone), I worried about how many days I may lose in future seasons because of climate change. The thought of moving to Canada has crossed my mind. But I am becoming increasingly open to making small, practical changes in my life to reduce my impact on climate change. And I patronize resorts that are making a difference.

Even if the most skeptical critics of the idea of human-induced global warming turn out to be right (despite the warning of the scientific community), at least I’ll be able to tell my kids as I teach them to snowboard that I did my part to make sure they could enjoy the winter. Most likely, I’ll have helped save the snow.

CONTACTS: Aspen Snowmass; Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition; Smugglers’ Notch Resort.