Lack of snow to cost ski biz $2B annually, study shows

Climate change could increasingly lead to low-snow seasons that would reduce the economic contribution of the nation’s winter sports industry by as much as about $2 billion a year, a new study says.

The report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters nonprofit groups estimates the downhill ski industry lost more than $1 billion when totaling the economic difference between high- and low-snowfall years from November 1999 to April 2010.

It estimated the loss was greatest in Colorado, totaling about $154 million in lost ski resort revenue, nearly 1,900 fewer directly and indirectly created jobs, and $117 million in lessened value to the state economy. The state saw an average 8 percent decrease in skier visits in bad snow years compared to good ones, according to the report.

In future years, a low-snowfall year can be expected to reduce the skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling industry’s national economic value by $810 million to $1.9 billion, says the report, prepared by two doctoral students at the University of New Hampshire.

“In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons,” Elizabeth Burakowski, one of the authors, said in a news release. “This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.”

The report states, “In order to protect winter — and the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend upon a snow-filled season — we must act now to support policies that protect our climate, and in turn, our slopes.”

The report was issued as ski areas are off to a slow start in Colorado, with some having yet to open or offering limited terrain. That follows a previous U.S. ski season that suffered from what the NRDC said was the fourth-warmest winter on record and the third-lowest snow cover since at least 1966.

“This data reaffirms the fact that ski resort CEOs and trade groups leaders have a fiscal responsibility to both understand climate change and respond at scale,” Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Ski Co., said in the news release announcing the report. “That should be the industry’s highest priority.”

In a separate news release, the National Ski Areas Association said that “resorts nationwide are taking meaningful steps toward combating climate change. Ski areas are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions through significant investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy including wind, solar, geothermal, micro-hydro and other sources.”

Many ski areas also have supported the Environmental Protection Agency’s power plant carbon emissions standard and the extension of the wind energy production tax credit, the group noted.

The Aspen Ski Co. recently invested $5.5 million into a project at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset to use methane vented from the coal mined to generate electricity. It previously was being vented to the atmosphere, where methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.

“Ski areas have not been on the sidelines when it comes to climate change,” Michael Berry, president of NSAA, said in its statement. “The ski industry took a leadership role on this issue over a decade ago, and we continue to advance that mission.”

The NSAA also noted over the past 10 seasons, ski areas had their best 10-year average ever, at 57.5 million visits on average nationally.

“Overall, the industry is performing at a pretty high level,” Troy Hawks, an NSAA spokesman, said in an interview.

The study focuses on a $12.2 billion winter tourism industry attracting 23 million participants. It estimates the industry directly and indirectly supports nearly 212,000 jobs.

“Our estimates show that Colorado was the state that benefited most from winter sports tourism, with 37,800 employed, generating $2.2 billion in total economic value added,” it says.

But the NRDC warns on its website, “Without intervention, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall, and shorter snow seasons. Snow depths could decline in the West by 25 to 100 percent. The length of the snow season in the Northeast will be cut in half.

“All of this translates into less snow and fewer people on the slopes.”

The study says that in Colorado, average winter temperatures are projected to rise another 5 to 7 degrees under a higher-greenhouse-gas-emissions scenario over the next century, reducing snow depth by 25 to 75 percent depending on the region.

It notes that another recent study on western ski resorts predicted Park City, Utah, will lose all its snowpack by the end of the century and Aspen’s will be confined to the top fourth of the mountain under a high-emissions scenario.

The report says snowmobile registrations nationwide peaked at 1.77 million in 2004 and have been on a slight downward trend since then. It said low snow cover may be one reason, and noted that the industry, unlike skiing, depends entirely on natural snow.

However, even ski resort snowmaking may be increasingly challenged in the future by the inability to make snow in warmer temperatures, the report says.


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