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Feb 032010

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

Ski resorts face tough choices and an uncertain future. Photo: Bill Sullivan

Ski resorts face tough choices and an uncertain future. (Photo: Bill Sullivan)

Anyone who has ever traveled to a big-time ski resort knows that conquering the mountain is a daunting task – and an expensive one, too.

For the 2009-10 season, a one-day lift ticket at Vail (Colorado) is $97 for an adult. Over at Aspen/Snowmass, a two-day advance purchase pass will set you back $191.

Of course, that’s just the beginning. If you’re a flatlander or a relative novice, you’ll probably have to rent equipment. (Plan on $40 a day and up.) If you’ve never skied at all, you’ll want to get a few pointers before climbing onto that lift: At Vail, a one day beginner lesson at Golden Peak Ski and Snowboard School is $165.

Planning to stay close to the slopes? The Vail Plaza Hotel & Club can keep you near all the action. For a mid-March visit, a standard room with two queen beds runs about $539 a night. If you’re bringing a crowd, a three-bedroom condo averages $2,475 each evening you put head to pillow.

Yes, there are less tony accommodations at not quite so chic locales, and rates vary by time of season (Christmas and Spring Break are the most expensive bookings), but you get the point. The ski trade is Big Business backed by even Bigger Businesses, and enormous investments are subject to conditions that can change… like the weather.

But what happens when the weather itself actually changes? Global warming is a concept that sends chills down the spine of owners and operators at otherwise remote outposts in Colorado, Utah and California, not to mention Canada and Europe.  A steady snowfall from before Thanksgiving through early April is essential to keeping companies afloat and locals gainfully employed.

Those good times and big payoffs are threatened as the Earth heats up.

“People in the industry are definitely paying attention,” says Mark Williams, University of Colorado geography professor and a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “A small change of climate that changes snow to rain changes the industry.

“They’re quite aware of what could potentially happen with climate change.”

A little over a year ago, Williams and Brian Lazar of Stratus Consulting Inc. of Boulder released a study that combined temperature and precipitation data with general climate circulation models, focusing on Aspen Mountain in Colorado and Park City Mountain in Utah, resorts who combined to sponsor the research.

The study produced some startling conclusions:

  • Snowlines (elevations below which seasonal snowpack doesn’t develop) will move up more than 2,400 feet at the two ski areas by 2100.
  • Using a “business as usual” scenario and assuming that the future rate of CO2 increase will be similar to the current rate, the model projects that average temperatures will rise by four degrees Fahrenheit at the two resorts by 2030 and by 8.6 degrees in Aspen and 10.4 degrees in Park City by the dawn of the next century.
  • By 2030, ski seasons will be squeezed on each end, with snow falling later and melting earlier.
  • Many ski areas in California’s Sierra Nevada, the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, and Eastern areas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia could be forced to close in the coming decades due to warmer conditions.