Study: Climate Change Will Devastate Snow Economy


Last year brought the fourth-warmest temps in more than 115 yearsand the third lowest snowfall since the start of satellite tracking in 1966. It was either a rude awakening or the nail in the coffin, depending on how closely you’ve paid attention to the effects of climate change on snowfall. Overall, our winters are 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in 1970.

But until now, the economic fallout from the low-snow trend has been a bit fuzzy. Today the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Protect our Winters (POW) released their findings from a joint study of the impact of climate change on the winter sports economy. The future, they say, is not bright.

“In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, snow is currency and climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons,” it says. “This spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.”

The study shows that from November 1999 to April 2010, the downhill ski resort industry lost an estimated $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue during low snow years. In the past decade, skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers and others have hucked themselves into the wintery wilds 36 percent less during seasons when snowfall suffers. Last year’s devastatingly dry winter caused 50 percent of ski areas to open late and 48 percent to shut lifts early, according to one poll.

It’s not just the ski resorts that suffer: Restaurants, lodges, bars, gas stations and grocery stores that rely on winter-sports tourism lose out as well. “The damage to the environment goes hand in hand with damage to local economies and individual businesses,” according to the study.

This holds true for all regions of the U.S. Most states – 38 in all – benefit from winter-sports tourism. But Colorado has the most riding on solid snow. The Rocky Mountain State, which by the NRDC’s and POW’s estimates can lose as much as $154 million in ski resort revenue during a single dry winter, is more dependent on winter sports tourism than any other state. California, New York, Vermont, and Utah round out the top five snow-sport-dependent states.

The study authors also pointed out that snowmaking, which the majority of downhill ski resorts rely on in tough times, could itself succumb to climate change. As nighttime temperatures continue to heat up — at a quicker pace than daytime ones, it should be noted – snowmaking could cease to be a viable option.

So far we’ve seen some promising early snowfall this season, namely dumps in the Cascades and the Sierras. But by the end of the century, winter temps are expected to spike 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, sending snow depth plummeting. The grim prediction for the Northeast is that the winter-sports season could be half its current length by 2100.

The overall pricetag for all this climate change? A loss of 211,900 jobs and $12.2 billion in value added to the U.S. economy per year.

Here are more of the key findings:

  • Only four out of 14 major ski resorts will remain profitable by 2100 under a higher-emissions scenario.
  • A reliable snowmobile season (more than 50 days of natural snow cover) will be completely eliminated.
  • Park City, Utah will lose all mountain snowpack by the end the century while Aspen will be confined to the top quarter of the mountain under a higher emissions scenario.
  • Snow depth is expected to decline by 25 percent in the western United States and will disappear entirely at lower elevations.

The snow sports industry is the canary in the coal mine in terms of the economic impact of climate change, and, according to this report, the message is clear: “Winter as we know it is on borrowed time.”

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Shutterstock

{ 8 comments…read them below or write one }

  • John Tannock

    Well if that prediction bares out, that will be the least of the western states problems, especially the southwest which almost entirely depends on snowmelt from the rockies for water. Las Vegas, for instance will be figuratively and literally… toast!

  • Austin

    It was an interesting study, but to say that last year’s snowfall is indicative of climate change is stretching it a little far. The previous two winters were near records for snow across the pacific north west and in utah. 1 year does not equal climate change. The definition of climate is sustained 30+ year weather patterns. The industry would be better served by researched alternative energy and mass transit to and from the slopes than raising the specter of climate change after a poor season. Or how about funding a study of how arctic weather patterns affect the current trend of atmospheric rivers (considering that the 2007 melt event triggered a massive arctic ejection what are the odds of 2012 effecting the same resut?).

    • steve casimiro

      All that’s true, Austin. The industry, however, isn’t fixated on last year, nor is this study — it analyzed the last 10 years. And the reason it’s important is that it’s the first to take a black and white look at the impact of low snow on the economy and jobs. If we’ve learned anything from the last 20 years of our elected leaders dithering over global warming, it’s that the only issues that really get their action are the ones that impact their re-electability, which almost always boils down to money. Quantifying the potentially devastating impact on the snow economies in states is a better way to get their attention than just complaining it hasn’t dumped.

  • Dean

    I used to work at a ski hill, specifically running the rentals department, pro shop and tech shop. I saw the writing on the wall years ago and changed careers.

  • Sandor Lengyel

    Thanks Austin for pointing out that weather and climate change are not the same thing (although related). People often associate the weather at their house with climate change (on both sides of the argument).

    Remember that the evidence of climate change is a compilation of tens of millions of data points from tens of thousands of observation points from hundreds of scientists across dozens of disciplines from across the political spectrum. What’s going on in your neighborhood is anecdotal evidence only. It’s global warming, not Bakersfield warming, or California warming, or U.S.A warming.

    P.S. Sometimes I think I’m a jerk for thinking about new surf breaks that will pop up from sea rise, or mountain biking all year round, or growing tomatoes in November. Then I think about the billion or so people who live near sea level.

  • James

    Seems a bit dramatic. Climate change is a definite reality, but I wonder what this study considers “normal” when they are calculating financial affects. We have all seen the ups and downs of snow pack and temps through out the years. The ski industry has grown so much and gotten so expensive that small changes in snow fall can have huge financial consequences. We should be much more globally concerned about global warming. If the incredible glacial and arctic melt rates continue we will be in more trouble than just not being able to go skiing.

    We all need to do more to reduce global warming and reduce our use of fossil fuels, but I find it ironic when the ski industry claims to be so environmental minded and hand out awards to each other. I love to resort ski just as much as anyone, but let’s face it it is not an environmentally friendly activity. Resorts basically strip mine the mountain sides, construct enormous buildings to lodge people and park their cars and the vast majority of these people are flying in from all around the globe. I’m the one being dramatic know, but it is offensive when an organization like POW is spearheaded by athletes that are flying around the globe numerous times a season to be filmed helicopter skiing.

    I do applaud the resorts that are trying to do something to decrease their footprint. It seems that the Powdr Corp resorts are using a lot (or most) of their electricity from wind power.

  • Fred

    Well no shit a warming planet is gonna screw over the winter dependent industries. While there’ll still be a hardcore base of folks getting after it, there are a lot of people who are going to see last winter and the way this winter is looking and already plan on investing less of their time and money into a ski vacation.
    And yeah, for the western states who are concerned about losing winter tourism based revenue, they got way bigger worries with summer time droughts and water scarcity. Yup. We’re lookin’ to be pretty gull dern fucked. I think sliding on snow will be the least of our worries. The real bummer is we’ll have one less way to forget about the woes of the world. I wonder if surfboard sales will start to rise?

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