The winter sports industry is estimated to make $20 billion each year in the United States, yet this revenue is expected to decline in the coming years as climate change reduces the winter season and warmer weather minimizes snow accumulation. Ski resorts are already seeing the effects of a changing climate: research from Geophysical Research Letters shows that the amount of snow during the winter in the Western U.S. has decreased by 41% since the early 1980s, and the snow season has shrunk by more than a month. As ski resorts adapt to a shortened and less snowy ski season, more and more ski mountains are creating their own artificial snow, which comes with its own environmental consequences.
Worldwide, more than 60% of ski slopes utilize artificial snow. Artificial snow is made by pumping water and pressurized air to machines called snow guns that are stationed along the slopes of ski mountains. The snow guns atomize the water and spray out fine water droplets, which are meant to freeze in the cold air before hitting the ground. Ski areas use around 50 to 400 million gallons of water to make snow. Since this process is so water intensive, water is often pumped in from surrounding water bodies, which can bring lakes and streams to dangerously low water levels and threaten fish and wildlife. To counter this, the state of Vermont implemented a February Mean Flow (FMF) standard, which states that water cannot be withdrawn from natural water bodies for snowmaking when those watercourses are at or below the average mean flow. Abiding by standards like these will become increasingly difficult for ski mountains as climate change progresses. Ski resorts nationwide are becoming more dependent on artificial snow every year, and in locations that have limited access to water resources for snow guns, it will be hard, and even impossible, to get enough water to create enough fake snow.
Machines that make artificial snow not only require copious amounts of water, but they also use a lot of energy, traditionally from fossil fuels. Robin Smith, the president of MYNEIGE, Inc., a snow gun manufacturing and consulting company, estimates that from October to January of each ski season, 67% of energy consumed at ski resorts is used for snowmaking. This energy use creates a feedback loop between climate change and snowmaking: climate change is forcing ski areas to make more snow using fossil fuels, which is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere and furthering climate change’s effects. As Professor Elizabeth Burakowski at the University of New Hampshire says, snowmaking practices that do not use renewable energy become part of the problem.
More resorts are making an effort to use renewable energy and be more sustainable. Jiminy Peak, a small ski resort in Western Massachusetts, has a wind turbine that provides 4.6 million kWh of energy, which is a third of the resort’s energy usage. Larger ski resort companies are also committing to more renewable sources of energy. Robert Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, announced in 2017 that the company would be committing to using 100% renewable energy at its resorts. This change is necessary for the vitality of the winter sports industry, but it may be too little too late.
Even though ski slopes are doing what they can to provide optimal snow conditions for their customers by making artificial snow, skiers are noticing a difference in quality and are deciding not to ski. Vail Resorts reported an 11% decrease in early-season skiers across its resorts in the U.S. in 2018, preceded by a 13% decrease the year before. A 2018 report from researchers with the nonprofit Protect Our Winters found that changes in the winter season driven by climate change cost U.S. ski resorts approximately $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue between 2002-2012. They also discovered that between 2001-2016, the 5 years with the lowest snowfall, saw 5.5 million lower than average visits from skiers, and about 17,400 jobs were lost in low snow years. ESPN reports that ski areas spend anywhere between $500,000 to $3.5 million each season to make snow, but this expenditure appears to not be enough for skiers. This trending loss in revenue, coupled with rising demand for artificial snow infrastructure, is creating a looming financial burden for ski resorts that will only worsen over time.
The future projections for the ski industry are bleak, and this is impacting both the resorts and the economies surrounding them. According to a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, home values near ski resorts could decrease by at least 15% by 2050. Home values could drop by as much as 55% at lower elevation ski resorts in places such as Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. Studies claim that within 50 years, the majority of ski resorts below a mile in altitude will no longer be in business. The costs of making snow will eclipse the revenue made at these ski areas, so it will not be economically possible for these resorts to keep going. The winter sports industry is doing what it can now to stay alive, but ski resorts need to engage in climate change mitigation in addition to adaptation in their snowmaking practices in order to stay viable for generations to come.
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