It’s likely an understatement to observe that Colorado has experienced an inauspicious start to the ski season this year. Snowmaking operations have been hampered by mild temperatures, four resorts postponed their scheduled openings, and of the 13 ski areas that are open, just under 7% of their cumulative skiable terrain was available for skiing on Friday.
When Steamboat Resort officials announced they were delaying opening from last Saturday to this Saturday, they said temperatures had only allowed for eight hours of snowmaking this fall as compared to the normal amount of 200 hours by mid-November. Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Snowmass, said Aspen and Snowmass were able to blow only about 10% of the snow they normally would make going into Thanksgiving week.
To folks who study climate change, this comes as no surprise.
“The situation for snowmaking couldn’t be worse in that warming is happening at a faster rate at higher elevations in the U.S. west, and at night, and this is when you make snow typically,” said Porter Fox, who has written two books about climate change including “The Last Winter,” which was published this month. “It dips down at night and you crank up the snowmakers. At elevation, at night, the rate of winter warming in the U.S. west has tripled since the 1970s.”
It must be said that while weather and climate are related, they are not the same thing. Next fall very well could be colder and wetter than normal. But according to climate data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average temperatures in the contiguous 48 U.S. states last month were 2.9 degrees above the 20th-century average, ranking it as the sixth-warmest October in 127 years.
Irrespective of weather fluctuations, what worries climate activists are the trends they are seeing.
“The way climate change works, it’s not like every year will be progressively warmer, it’s that every 10 years will be warmer than the 10 years before it,” Fox said. “You get some super-cold winters, they blow snow, you get a lot of natural snow, and everyone is like, ‘We’re good.’ But if you look at the long-term trends, it’s very obvious what’s happening. And on that trajectory, it doesn’t take a whole lot of math to figure out that the ski industry is really in a lot of trouble.”
Aspen worked hard to get open for Thanksgiving, but it was only able to offer 50 acres on Aspen Mountain and a small seven-acre learning area at Snowmass. Schendler said Aspen has lost about 31 days of winter since the 1950s, using as a metric the increase of frost-free days annually.
“We know the continental United States is warming, and that warming is accelerating.” Schendler said. “That’s the trend. Down the line we expect to see more compressed seasons, meaning longer falls – like we’re seeing – and earlier springs. That’s also happening. You’re seeing runoff happen earlier (in the spring), and it’s happening all at once, instead of slowly.”
Mario Molina, executive director of an environmental advocacy group based in Boulder called Protect Our Winters, said if current trends aren’t mitigated, the world will warm 2-3 degrees by the end of the century. That could doom the ski industry, Molina believes.
“Is it in the next five years? Probably not,” Molina said. “But if you extend current trends on a long enough timeline, there is no future for the ski industry in Colorado in a three-degree warming world.”
Fox said the rate of warming has been occurring faster at higher elevations, compounding the problem for the ski industry.
“Climate models predict that average temperatures in Colorado could rise 2.5 degrees to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050,” Fox said. “That’s a lot. Those are models. They can be wrong, but it’s all we’ve got to go on right now.”
It is not true that Mark Twain originated the aphorism, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Apparently he borrowed it from another 19th century essayist, Charles Dudley Warner.
It’s also not true that nobody is doing anything about it. Former Aspen chief executive Pat O’Donnell is credited with creating the first environmental department at a ski resort 25 years ago. An accomplished climber and mountaineer, O’Donnell was previously CEO at Patagonia, where he was influenced by company founder Yvon Chouinard, a prominent mountaineer and environmentalist.
“His thesis was, we take from the environment, we should give back,” Schendler said of O’Donnell. “It was simple, it was old-school environmental. He hired environmentalists that were current and radical. We came out of the environmental community. We were not marketing, we were not PR, and he said, ‘Do environmental work.’ We knew climate was the issue for the ski industry.”
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The company built a plant in Gunnison County that captures methane from a coal mine and converts it to electricity. It built the first large-scale solar array in western Colorado. Its current vehicle fleet is comprised of Audi electric cars. It also gets involved in lobbying the political world.
“Businesses — whether they are Fortune 500 or ski resorts — their response to climate change has been ‘Green your operations, reduce your carbon footprint,’” Schendler said. “That’s great, it’s good business, but it has nothing to do with climate change because that is not how you solve a systemic problem like climate. We wield power, however we have power. That means using voice, political influence, coalitions like Protect Our Winters. We’re active lobbying in D.C. We do marketing around climate.”
In 2017, Vail Resorts announced a “Commitment to Zero” goal of achieving a company-wide “zero net operating footprint” by 2030. That includes zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill and zero net operating impact on forests and habitat. Vail Resorts currently operates three dozen resorts — including five in Colorado — in 15 states and three countries.
“We are well on our way to achieving our goal,” said Kate Wilson, the company’s senior director of sustainability. “We are absolutely on track, and I think we will absolutely be able to achieve it.”
Wilson said 85% of the company’s electricity this year will come from renewable sources, thanks to partnering with a wind farm in Nebraska and subscribing to an Xcel Energy solar farm east of Denver. In 2023, its Park City Mountain Resort in Utah will receive 100% of its power from a solar project being constructed near Salt Lake City.
Like Aspen, Vail Resorts is involved in combating climate change through the public policy arena. This year it announced a partnership with competitors Alterra Mountain Company, Powdr and Boyne Resorts to present a united front in something called the Climate Collaborative Charter. Alterra operates 15 North American resorts including Steamboat and Winter Park. Powdr operates 11, including Copper Mountain and Eldora.
“We think it’s really important that we take action now – collective, bold action – on mitigating the effects of climate change,” Wilson said. “One company can’t do this alone. We need everyone to set bold goals and go after them.”
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