Shrinking Snow Means Steep Slide for Ski Industry

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On Aspen Mountain, high in the Colorado Rockies, winter tourists and locals zig and zag down the snow-packed hills. They are among the tens of thousands of visitors who flock to the Aspen Ski Resorts for skiing, snowboarding and general frolicking in the area’s characteristic “champagne powder” snow.

For two-time World Championship skier Chris Davenport, it’s more than just a hobby — it’s a lifestyle.

“You’ve got gravity pushing you down the hill,” he said. “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.”

Skiing is Davenport’s job. Though no longer a competitive skier, he still skis 200 days a year, stars in ski films and guides alpine ski treks to Mount Everest and other high mountain peaks. But lately, he’s seen his snowy terrain disappearing.

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

Mark Williams, a snow hydrologist at the University of Colorado, has been studying the effects of climate change on future snowpack.

His forecasts showed that snowlines — elevations below which snow won’t develop — will move up more than 2,400 feet from the base of Aspen Mountain. His team has also predicted that if carbon emissions stay the same, average temperatures will climb by nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit at Aspen by 2030 and 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

“We knew that our work showed that snowmelt is going to start earlier, and that we’re going to start to lose some of that late season snow,” Williams said. “But it didn’t look like it was going to really be a problem until 30 or 40 years in the future.”

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But the problem is advancing quicker than expected. March 2012 delivered “essentially no snow,” he said, adding, “It was the lowest snowfall here in Boulder on record. So there’s reason to be concerned.”

The 2011-2012 winter season was the fourth warmest on record for the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Colorado saw only half its average snowpack, making it the worst ski season in 20 years. The number of skier visits nationwide dropped by 15 percent.

As hard as the season was in Colorado, the many small ski areas that dot New England fared even worse. Campton Ski Area, a three-trail community ski hill in northern New Hampshire, was closed to the public from 2011 until late February of this year. Corey Smith, the mountain’s general manager said that if seasons like this continue, the mountain may be forced to close for good.

When it comes to climate change, the ski industry faces challenges beyond snowfall. Warmer temperatures and intense drought sparked wildfires that swept through the Colorado Rockies last summer, and an ongoing pine beetle epidemic has turned mountain vistas into brown hillsides. Intense storms, like Hurricane Irene in 2011, washed out roads to ski resorts in the Northeast and destroyed the base lodge at Killington Resort in Vermont.

Climate change also carries a high price tag for the winter sports industry. Elizabeth Burakowski, a climate scientist at the University of New Hampshire, co-authored a report, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council and non-profit Protect Our Winters, analyzing the economic impact of a low-snow year. She found that the losses rippled out beyond the resorts.

“When you have a lower than average snowfall winter, you’ve got about $800 million dollars of unrealized revenue in the United States, and it can cost the U.S anywhere between 13,000 and 27,000 jobs,” she said.

Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations at the Aspen Skiing Company, details the challenges of making snow.

As a last resort, many mountains are increasingly turning to snowmaking, a process that requires tremendous amounts of water, energy and some careful timing.

Snow forms high in the atmosphere, where water vapor clings to dust particles in the air. In freezing temperatures, the water freezes, forming ice crystals. As the crystals plunge through the atmosphere, they gather more moisture, and the snowflake grows.

Snowmaking machines do essentially the same thing, said Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations at the Aspen Skiing Company in Aspen, Colo.

The machines vary in shape and size. Some look like sprinklers or strobe lights or tiny mars rovers. Aspen uses two types of machines, squat cannon-like things called snow guns and sets of six nozzles attached to 30-foot silver poles. Water and pressurized air get forced through the small nozzles at the end of these machines. The nozzles release the water as a fine mist, and the cold air freezes the drops on contact. The fans and the snow guns aim skyward to give the crystals more “hang time,” allowing the snowflakes to fully freeze.

The quality, however, is noticeably different from natural snow. Rocky Mountain states like Colorado and Utah became known as famous ski destinations for their fluffy powder, snow that’s typically thick with air. But machine snow contains less air, making it denser and less thrilling to ski, Burkley said.

How much water does it take to make snow?

Just how much water and power does it take to make snow? Find out here.

Early in the season, when snowmaking machines are at capacity, they’ll pump up to 6,000 gallons of water a minute for all four of its ski areas combined. In 2011, the company turned 220 million gallons of water into snow.

Pumping that much water to make snow requires about 10 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a few hundred households, Burkley said. The company typically aims to make snow for a few weeks in November, enough to put down a good base layer and guarantee the necessary snowpack to open for Thanksgiving weekend. The goal is to shut down the snow machines by Christmas Day, and planning around temperature swings is nerve-wracking. This season, they were still making snow in January to supply the half-pipes and ski-jumps for the ESPN X Games.

In New England, it’s not uncommon for snow machines to cover the entire mountain, said Bob Ashton, president of the Ragged Mountain ski resort in Danbury, New Hampshire. (To compare, Aspen only covers 10 percent of its ski mountains with manmade snow.) But snowmaking is essential for New England resorts to stay open, Ashton said, whatever the cost.

“We spend probably $400,000 to 500,000 a year just making snow, not including the capital investment for all the equipment,” Ashton said. “But that’s the core of our business. We could get the best, fastest lifts in the world, but if you don’t have snow on the ground they don’t mean anything. So snowmaking is an absolute key. It’s the heart of our business in the wintertime.”

Yet as average winter temperatures rise closer to the freezing point, the number of good snowmaking days are shrinking, Burakowski said.

“And this spells trouble for a region that has a winter temperature that’s hovering around 20 or 22 degrees,” Burakowski said. “Making snow at 32 degrees Fahrenheit is a bit more challenging than making it at 20 degrees.”

“In the end, snowmaking is not a viable solution to climate change. You’re using tons of energy and cannibalizing the climate you depend on to respond to warming,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

The growing unpredictability of winter weather has skiers worried that fewer people will join the sport. For Davenport, that really hits home. He has three children of his own, all of whom ski.

“By traveling around and seeing these things first hand, 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?’” he said. “I want my kids to grow up seeing the same glaciers and enjoying the same long winters that I’ve been able to enjoy, and I fear they are not going to be able to do that.”