Ski industry eyes climate change concerns
January 6, 2014
— This is the first part in a three-part series about climate change as it relates to the ski industry.
Rae Jensan has called the Vail Valley home off and on for 31 years. She has noticed changing weather patterns over that time and doesn't think it's for the better.
Jensan recalls a summer in the early 1980s when Vail reached a record high of 88 degrees, while Avon hit 92 degrees.
"We were all complaining at how hot it was [because] the upper 70s was the norm, with the low 80s being 'hot'," she said. "But the past three summers we have reached those temperatures a lot of the time."
Jensen points to climate change as the culprit, and also to the forests throughout the region that have suffered widespread pine-tree mortality due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. She thinks unusual weather patterns such as earlier winters and earlier summers could be the result of climate change.
"Of course climate change has natural cycles over long periods of time — thousands of years, or at least hundreds — but it's really hard not to conclude the impact humans have on it," she said. "I am baffled by people who don't believe that climate change has to be affected by the population of humans and industrialization."
Jensan joins mainstream scientists in her beliefs. According to "Expert Credibility in Climate Change," a 2010 report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, more than 97 percent of climate researchers actively publishing in the field agree that greenhouse gases are warming the Earth and that humans are responsible.
That mainstream thinking is prevalent within the ski industry, as energy-saving initiatives, environmental programs and activism have become the norm.
But the scientists known as climate change skeptics or deniers point to everything from faulty weather models, biases and political influence as proof that mainstream beliefs on climate change are nothing more than irresponsible groupthink.
That sentiment comes up in debates on social media and chairlifts, too. When asked if changes in weather patterns signify human-caused climate change, answers vary from a resounding yes to sarcastic remarks.
"Winter: cold. Check. Summer: warm. Check," commented Kurt Desautels on the Vail Daily's Facebook page. "All seems normal to me."
David Dempsey added a tongue-in-cheek comment that he misses the "good ol' days when the climate never changed and it was always the average temperature every day."
The sarcasm comes from both sides of the argument.
"Yeah, dumping huge amounts of pollutants/gasses that retain heat into the air couldn't possibly do anything harmful at all, lol," wrote Jacob Deneault on the Summit Daily's Facebook page. "Deniers are not the brightest bunch."
Jokes aside, there is scientific evidence that the Earth has been warming — the National Weather Service reports that 2012 was the warmest year on record in the United States — however 2013 is on pace to have more daily low temperature records than daily high records.
That can all be explained, though, according to mainstream science.
"While 2013 is unusual in the context of the past two decades, periods of relatively cold weather — including Arctic outbreaks — are still to be expected in a warming world, studies show," according to a National Weather Service statement issued earlier this month about cool temperatures this year.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a group established by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization with the task of reporting climate change impacts to the world. The panel reviews scientific and technical information regarding climate change but does not conduct research. It's an intergovernmental body, open to member countries of the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization. It has become the widely accepted authority on climate change.
Ski resorts have gone to great measures to conduct more research specific to the industry, such as the Park City Climate Change Assessment, a report prepared by Stratus Consulting in 2009, and a December 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters report, "Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States."
The National Ski Areas Association has released an annual report on sustainable slopes every year since 2001. And Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade group representing Colorado ski resorts (excluding Vail Resorts), encourages more Colorado ski industry efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Protect Our Winters, or POW, is a group started in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones that has emerged as a leader within the snowsports industry for climate change activism. Professional winter athletes and industry professionals have joined the cause, including famous Aspen athletes Gretchen Bleiler and Chris Davenport, who both sit on the organization's board of directors. Four people on the 10-person board of directors hail from Aspen or the Roaring Fork Valley, actually — Basalt resident and Backbone Media founder Penn Newhard and Aspen Skiing Company Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler are the other two local members.
POW's "Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy" report predicts the potential for major economic losses due to climate change. The $12.2 billion winter tourism industry in the United States is already feeling the impacts of climate change, according to the report.
"Across the United States, winter temperatures have warmed 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1895 and the rate of warming has more than tripled to 0.55 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1970," according to the report. "Furthermore, the strongest winter warming trends have occurred in the northern half of the United States, where snow plays an important economic role in their winter season."
Boulder-based scientist Mark Williams, a snow hydrologist at the University of Colorado studying effects of climate change, predicted a rise in snowlines throughout this century in a 2008 study. The snow line — the elevation in which snowfall turns to rain — would move up more than 2,400 feet from the base areas at Aspen Mountain and Park City Mountain in Utah, according to the study which was sponsored by both resorts.
Under a high-emissions scenario, the report predicts no snowpack at Park City's base by 2100.
A University of Colorado press release about Williams' research notes "private jets that fly celebrities and vacationers in and out of Aspen for winter ski jaunts and summer recreation trips are by far the biggest carbon dioxide emitters in the Roaring Fork Valley."
Ski resorts across the West covet the destination guest, someone who flies into town rather than drives. Destination guests stay longer, spend more money and are vital to ski town economies and resort companies' bottom lines.
It's a conflict of interest that ski resorts acknowledge — the valued jet-setting guest vs. environmental responsibility — but they hope to offset some of the negative impacts through other environmental initiatives.
Matthew Hamilton, sustainability director at Aspen Skiing Company, said the company is aware of who its guests are, but he points to the company's efforts to educate guests on environmental responsibility.
"Ideally they're putting their Blackberry or iPhone down for a little bit and enjoying the natural environment around them and gaining appreciation for that experience," Hamilton said. "What we're doing that makes our resort special — hopefully they take some of that home or to their own business."
Rick Cables, the former head of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain region for the Forest Service who joined Vail Resorts this year as the vice president for natural resources and conservation, said people obviously need transportation to get to the mountains. The company realizes that and creates more conservation efforts with that in mind.
Wastewater, recycling and energy reduction are some of the focus areas that help offset the energy used for transportation, he said.
And with the purchase of Colorado Mountain Express a few years ago, Vail Resorts is itself a transportation company, too.
"Some of it we can control," Cables said. "We can ensure we have vans fully loaded — it's a form of communal transportation — to try to make it very pleasant. We're exploring ideas to have our fleet be as fuel-efficient as it can possibly be."
Colorado Mountain Express does also offer luxury transportation services in private vehicles, so not all rides are communal.
Vail Resorts Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz wrote a letter to the Denver Post one year ago to make the point that climate change is bigger than the ski industry:
"It's hard to understand how the weather changes the way it does and why things can look so different from year to year," Katz wrote. "Count me in the category of someone who is very worried about climate change, but also someone who tries not to look at every weather pattern as "proof" of something. But, maybe more than anything, you can count me out of the group that says we need to address climate change to save skiing. … So, let's keep the focus where it belongs and encourage everyone to do their part to reduce greenhouse emissions: not to save their favorite ski run, but to save the planet for our children and grandchildren."
Vail Resorts also ran an ad in the New York Times a year ago featuring photos of skiers and snowboarders enjoying fresh snow at its resorts. The ad banner read: "the climate HAS changed."
Schendler later told the Aspen Times that Katz's comments seemed to mock the conversation on climate change. Schendler pointed to a very different strategy at Aspen Skiing Company, one that uses the threat to winter sports as a way to educate people about climate change.
Both ski companies can agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions through environmental programs is good for the environment, and good for cutting costs.
Vail Resorts has resorts in California, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and Utah, as well as hotels and condominiums around its resorts and at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. As the company grows, so do its environmental programs. Cables said there's "just no one doing more than Vail Resorts."
"There's a lot of ski companies in the United States and many are doing wonderful things for the environment, and that's great," Cables said. "It takes all of us working together to make a difference."
— Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects editor for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.