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Feb 032010

Snow loss incremental, but real

In Europe, the results of global warming already are obvious.

“There’s a place in Scotland that no longer has snow,” Williams said. “In the Alps, the snow line is moving up, and people are quite aware of that.”

In 2007, a protracted lack of snow caused officials in ironically-named Abondance, France, to shutter a ski area that had been the town’s lifeblood for more than 40 years. Conditions improved sufficiently to allow the lifts to start running on a limited basis the day after Christmas 2009, but an elevation of just 3,051 feet makes snow — and the tourist money it attracts — a dicey long-term proposition.

High-dollar resorts may become ghost towns if the snows don't come. Photo: Bill Sullivan

High-dollar resorts could become ghost towns if the snows don't come. Photo: Bill Sullivan

So far, more vertical ski areas in the American West haven’t been affected quite so dramatically, but many in the industry fear the worst.  Already, the Aspen Global Change Institute forecasts that if global emissions continue to rise, the local ski industry will be little more than a memory by 2100.

Among the group’s sobering findings:

“High greenhouse gas emissions scenarios… are likely to end skiing in Aspen by 2100, and possibly well before then, while low emission path scenarios preserve skiing at mid-to-upper mountain elevations. In either case, snow conditions will deteriorate in the future.”

Skeptics of global warming cite images of major blizzards and snowfalls measured by the foot in Midwestern and mountain regions. Williams says those pictures hinder efforts to convince people that a warmer future really is coming.

“It’s a small but constant change,” he said. “It’s hard for people to embrace that.”

In the midst of all these gloomy projections, resorts and environmentalists have become strange bedfellows. Ski companies and the mountain towns that have prospered around them have begun to work toward reducing their carbon footprint while supporting significant policy changes on the state and national level.

How much impact can a greener ski area have in terms of solving the larger problem?

“Zero, and they know it,” Williams said. “So what they’re trying to do is set examples for everybody else. It’s a good marketing pitch as well.”

In 2009, the ski trade brought about $900 million to Park City, which helped host the 2002 Winter Olympics and is home to the annual Sundance Film Festival. A report commissioned by the Park City Foundation last year warned that lost snowpack could result in the elimination of more than 1,100 jobs and the loss of $120 million in revenues by 2030. The study went on to suggest that those numbers could grow to more than 3,700 jobs and a $392 million economic loss as the ski trade melts away.

“Climate change is a global problem – but we can act locally,” says Trisha Worthington, Executive Director of the Park City Foundation. “We want to raise awareness about climate change and empower people to make changes in their lifestyle.”