Rising temperatures, extreme drought and giant wildfires hit Colorado’s ski industry

BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado – During the annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Breckenridge Ski Resort in early December, thousands of people gathered on Main Street under bird-blue skies.

The event was preceded by a dog parade featuring hundreds of Bernese Mountain Dogs and a run with runners dressed as Santa Claus and elves. When the sun finally set, the countdown began as a huge evergreen tree in the square was bathed in golden light.

The festive scene contrasted starkly with what could happen for Colorado and the Rocky Mountains: a dramatically shortened ski season by 2050, with some areas shutting down permanently by the turn of the century.

Few of Colorado’s industries are feeling the effects of climate change more than the once robust ski industry, which experts say could fall victim to rising temperatures, extreme drought and massive fires in the decades to come. forest.

Home to some of the most iconic names in world-class alpine skiing, such as Vail, Aspen, and Snowmass, Colorado earns $ 5 billion in revenue a year from outdoor sport. But many wonder if the industry can withstand its biggest challenge.

Denver, which sits at the foot of the Rockies, broke records this year when measurable snow didn’t fall until December 10, or 232 straight days without snow. Pitkin County, home to Aspen and Snowmass, experienced 30 more frost-free days this year than in 1980. And warming temperatures, even at night, prevent early snow production, which is essential for a season. a profitable vacation.

A typical downhill ski season in the Rockies begins in early November and ends in early April, but a 2017 study in the journal Global Environmental Change, it was found that virtually all winter recreation areas in the United States could see the length of their seasons decrease by 50% by 2050 and by 80% by 2090 for some sites. Alpine skiing.

The authors estimated that changes in the length of seasons under extreme emission conditions could result in a loss of more than $ 2 billion for downhill skiing in the United States.

Ideas vary among managers of Colorado’s 32 major ski areas on how to tackle the crisis, but most agree that what they’re doing now isn’t working.

“We are failing terribly,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and a mountain dweller for 30 years who is alarmed by the growing delay in the snow and its premature departure, which he called the “March merger”. “

Schendler said he became particularly concerned when the Grizzly Creek fire destroyed 33,000 acres near Aspen in 2020. It threatened the town and resulted in mudslides along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. , temporarily cutting off access to Aspen.

“Initially, I feared that the industry would be destroyed by the heat and the lack of snow. But in the last four years we’ve had two giant, catastrophic fires that have virtually shut the city down, ”he said, referring to Grizzly Creek and the Lake Christine fire in 2018.

Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said Colorado experiences shortened winter seasons with late first snows and the last falling earlier.

“We need below-freezing temperatures to get this snowfall, and with the temperatures rising, that’s what shortens the winter season,” he said.

Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, a commercial group, said the snow was getting more and more unpredictable.

“Businesses don’t like unpredictability,” she said. “It is a major existential issue for the ski industry.

Skiing is Western Colorado’s largest economic driver and second-largest revenue generator, tourism, according to Colorado Ski Country USA.

Ski areas have been working hard to switch to renewables to generate electricity, performing energy audits to track their progress and using water more wisely, as most of the water in the Colorado originates from the snowpack of the mountains.

Despite ski resorts’ efforts to achieve zero emissions, zero waste and zero net operational impact, Mills said that was not enough.

“We can all be carbon-free, and we still won’t reduce the problem,” she said.

To this end, the industry is focused on advocacy by pushing policy makers to do more to tackle climate change.

“It’s not a problem we’re going to fix locally,” Mills said. “And that’s not a problem the ski industry is going to solve. We want to be part of the solution, but we need action at national and international level.

Schendler had hoped President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan would be successful because it included some $ 550 billion in climate-related programs that would have put the U.S. economy on track to reach zero emissions by 2050.

Scientists say that without this kind of global action, nations will be unable to limit climate change to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius, and avoid its most catastrophic effects.

Lisa Whitaker, who lives in Summit County and is part of the volunteer security patrol at Copper Mountain, fears the late start of the season will put too many people on too little land, increasing the risk of accidents .

“I would be sad if I couldn’t ski anymore,” she said. “I would be devastated if an entire community were wiped out. But when I think of the hundreds of thousands of acres burning and the loss of wildlife, it’s a lot sadder for me than not being able to ski.

Schendler said it would take a national effort to save not only skiing, but also other outdoor industries that depend on the weather to survive.

“We have to be loud,” Schendler said, “and most of the business community in the United States is not doing what’s required on a problem that costs more to leave alone than to solve.”

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