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For Winter Sports Industry, Decreasing Snowfall Sends Business Downhill

February 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While winter storms have blasted parts of the Midwest and Northeast, a lack of steady and deep snow -- less accumulation and faster melt -- has had serious effects for the ski industry. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how winter sports businesses are navigating the season as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, a large chunk of the country has been hammered by a fierce winter storm this week, but even so, scientists and businesses are concerned we have seen less accumulation and faster melts in places that crave deep powder, the ski slopes.

Hari is back with our story, part of our series Coping with Climate Change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s peak ski season in Aspen, Colo. The mountain town draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the world every winter just for the snow.

For championship skier Chris Davenport, skiing is more than just a pastime.

CHRIS DAVENPORT, Professional Skier: Skiing through powder snow, champagne power, as we call it here in Colorado, is almost an indescribable experience. You have got gravity pushing you down the hill. The snow is sort of coming up over your body silently. The air is cold. It’s blue sky, and these crystals are sort of glistening in the air.

It’s almost an out-of-body experience. And that’s the thing that makes skiers — that gets skiers addicted to the sport.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But these days, Davenport is worried his sport is headed for a fall.

CHRIS DAVENPORT: You don’t know if you’re going to have good snow. You don’t know if it’s going to come early or late, or if the spring is going to become warm, and the season is going to end prematurely. We just don’t have that dependability anymore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Those variations are what Mark Williams, a snow hydrologist at the University of Colorado, has been studying.

MARK WILLIAMS, University of Colorado: In terms of climate change, the parameter that’s going to change the most is snow. In particular, we’re starting to lose snow on the shoulders.

That is, snow accumulation starts later and snowmelt start earlier. And that’s going to have all kinds of repercussions in terms of water availability, in terms of recreation, in terms of ecosystem services. The list goes on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The 2011-2012 winter season was the fourth warmest on record for the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That year, Colorado saw only half its average snowpack, making it the worst ski season in 20 years.

And Williams thinks it could get worse.

MARK WILLIAMS: We knew that, our work showed that snowmelt is going to start earlier. We’re going to start to lose some of that late season snow, but it didn’t look like it was going to really be a problem until we get 30 or 40 years into the future.

However, what we saw last year, March 2012, there essentially was no snow first time ever. It was the lowest snowfall here in Boulder on record. So there’s reason to be concerned.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Across the country, on a small community ski hill, the realities of warmer winters are felt more acutely.

COREY SMITH, Campton Ski Area: Well, we’re here. We’re at Campton Mountain Ski Area in Campton, N.H., part of Waterville Estates. And that’s our 1969 stately compact double chair lift, an oldie, but a goody. And then over to your left there is our rope tow. Families just love watching the kids out there. And lots of people have learned to ski right on that little hill, you know?

HARI SREENIVASAN: It is more a community resource more than a profit center, but due to low snow, it has been closed since 2011.

COREY SMITH: And we get e-mails from the members every day. They’re just, when’s it open? They want to know. The kids want to know. The families want to know. Everybody wants to know. And just, we can’t do it. We just don’t have the — it looks white, but if you went over that with skis that you cared about, they’d be ruined.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The lack of steady and deep snow has measurable economic effects across the country. Visits to ski resorts were down 15 percent nationwide in 2012.

ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI, University of New Hampshire: And what we found is that there’s a pretty big impact. And when you have a lower-than-average-snowfall winter, you have got about $800 million dollars of unrealized revenue in the United States, and it can cost the U.S. about anywhere between 13,000 and 27,000 jobs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Elizabeth Burakowski is a climate scientist at the University of New Hampshire. She co-authored a report looking at the economic impact of a bad season on the winter sports industry.

ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: By the end of the century, some regions are going to be seeing winter temperatures that are anywhere between six and 12 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they have been in the past couple decades. And that spells trouble for our ski industry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even in a wealthy resort community like Aspen, a slow ski season means losses.

DAN MCMAHON, Incline Ski and Board Shop: We do. What are you looking for?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dan McMahon, whose shop is at the bottom of Aspen Mountain, does not want another winter like the last one. In March, his ski rental business tumbled 20 to 30 percent and the losses snowballed for the rest of the year. For McMahon, low snow means high costs.

DAN MCMAHON: If it’s a low snow year, our skis are going to get beat up. People are hitting rocks. More equipment gets broken. And a lot — it just gets damaged more. So we spend a lot more on our staff, bring in more people to help tune the skis.

MIKE KAPLAN, Aspen Skiing Company: Have a good run.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mike Kaplan, CEO of the Aspen Skiing Company, says the industry operates within a very small window every year.

MIKE KAPLAN: Our business is — it’s make-or-break business based on really four months of the year. We’re open about 140 days a year, but it’s that Christmas-through-March period where, yes, you either make it or you don’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Snow guns like these are a ski company’s last resort against warmer temperatures. But even here in Aspen, where they have invested millions in turning water into flakes, the machines only cover 10 percent of the ski area.

RICH BURKLEY, Aspen Skiing Company: We can turn these on individually. Water and electricity are required.

And Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations for Aspen Skiing Company, says making snow is energy-intensive.

RICH BURKLEY: We will blow about 200 million gallons of snow — of water converted into snow, and that sounds like a lot, but it’s — in the natural environment and in other resorts, that’s a very small amount of snow that we make.

It’s energy-intensive, there’s no doubt about it. So when we’re at full capacity across the four mountains, we’re using about 10 meg of power, which is kind of the power equivalency of a small town.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That kind of power is too costly for many resorts to sustain. It also adds to carbon emissions. So to help lower its carbon footprint, Aspen has is trying to go green, everything from more efficient lighting to powering its electricity with methane vented from a coal mine.

MIKE KAPLAN: We are just finishing now bringing our third one-megawatt generator online, so we have three one-megawatt generators that are being powered by this methane that was just being vented in the atmosphere. So, destroy carbon, make money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While a big snowstorm like the one that hit this February may be a short-term boon to the resorts in the Northeast, Burakowski says it doesn’t reverse long-term trends.

ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: Over the long term, like since the 1930s, we have seen decreasing trends in snowfall, including in the Northeast U.S. In terms of what we really care about is whether that snowfall stays on the ground. But the number of days with snow cover has been dropping off pretty precipitously.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while this season is looking better than the last for Colorado, the possibility of shorter winters has skiers like Chris Davenport concerned.

CHRIS DAVENPORT: By traveling around and seeing these things firsthand, it really is shocking. I come back to my own home and I go, oh, my gosh, what are we going to do about it? I have three small children. I want my kids to grow up seeing the same glaciers and enjoying the same long winters that I have been able to enjoy. And I fear that they are not going to be able to do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A chilling thought for all skiers.

GWEN IFILL: Since our visit to New Hampshire’s Campton Mountain, the ski area has been able to open, but not under the best conditions.

We have much more online for Science Wednesday, including a look at the challenges of making snow for resorts and pictures from our viewers who shared their own stories how snow shortages have affected their winter sports plans.