A delayed opening at two of Colorado’s biggest ski resorts is a sign that global warming is nipping away at both ends of the ski season.
Both Keystone and Copper Mountain widely publicized Halloween openings, but last week, Copper reset its opening day to Nov. 7, and Keystone Resort officials say they will fire up the lifts as soon as they can. Breckenridge is scheduled to open Nov. 7, and most other major ski areas are planning to open around Thanksgiving.
The state’s mega resorts are typically blasting their slopes with massive amounts of man-made snow by late October — but not this year, as a persistent spell of unusually warm autumn weather held off the snow guns. Data from the official National Weather Service site in Dillon show that the average daily minimum low temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit above average. That may now sound like all that much, but in the world of snowmaking, it can make all the different in the world.
Even though October was unusually warm statewide, a few timely cold snaps at higher elevations enabled Arapahoe Basin to get a jump on the season, opening with one trail on Oct. 17, and Loveland Ski Area opened Nov. 1, showing that elevation will be a huge factor in how ski areas are affected by climate change.
Almost all the climate models are unanimous in projecting more year-to-year variability, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by resort operators.
“Last October had tremendous, cold snowmaking conditions. We certainly are concerned with climate change and its potential impact,” said Alan Henceroth, general manager and chief operating officer at Arapahoe Basin. “I am not sure I have seen a trend in warming in the autumn. I have only been closely watching fall temperatures since 2002 when we installed snowmaking … It certainly seems like it is harder to stay open into the late spring. If spring is a little warmer, I suppose it makes sense that fall is warmer too,” Henceroth said.
A-Basin’s base is much higher than that of either Copper or Keystone, and the ski area was able to take advantage of this year’s short cold snaps to cover a small amount of terrain with man-made snow.
Normally by this time of year, temperatures at resort elevations drop into the teens and 20s every night. But this season, not so much. Only a few light frosts have tinged the valleys so far, leaving the slopes bare and dry.
During late October, high temperatures around Copper Mountain and Keystone consistently ran between 10 and 20 degrees above average, and nighttime lows were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the norm. Similarly warm conditions blanketed the West, with temperatures averaging two to six degrees above average from the Rockies all the way to the Pacific.
“The warmer nights have been observed now all the way back beginning of the 1980s over broad areas, including Colorado, but more so since the early 1990s,” said Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken.
Few folks watch the the temperature patterns more closely than ski resort executives like Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability director for the Aspen SkiCo.
“Nighttime lows are definitely going up globally,” Schendler said. “To me, the salient point is that the last 12 months globally have been the hottest in the temperature record.”
Delayed sky resort openings don’t just affect Colorado skiers and snowboarders anxious to start tallying days on their season passes. Major resorts have invested millions of dollars in snowmaking gear to help ensure a set opening date, and the ski areas hire staff and order supplies based on that date.
At Copper, ski teams from around the world had planned to start training by Nov. 1. The delay has already affected local lodging companies that had reservations for early November.
None of this means that the winter will be a bust. Colorado may go on to have a record snow year.
But early season perceptions are important, especially for out-of-state destination visitors who are in the process of planning and booking their winter trips right now. All other things being equal, they’re likely to look for ski areas where they’ll find the best snow conditions. Simply put, if you’re in Chicago planning a ski trip and it’s snowing in Tahoe, but warm and sunny in Colorado, where would you pick?
The economic costs were quantified in 2012 during a West-wide drought by two University of New Hampshire researchers who estimated that the $12.2 billion national ski industry took a $1 billion hit, including 27,000 lost jobs due to climate change.
“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,” UNH researcher Elizabeth Burakowski said when the report was released. “This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.”
The report confirmed that the industry needs to take global warming seriously, Schendler noted.
“Ski resort CEOs and trade groups leaders have a fiscal responsibility to both understand climate change and respond at scale. That should be the industry’s highest priority,” said Schendler.
The ski industry has taken a few small steps toward reducing its carbon footprint, including forays into renewable energy, and has lobbied for changes in national climate and energy policy, supporting Environmental Protection Agency efforts to clean up coal-fired power plants and extensions of the Wind Energy Production Tax Credit.
Still, the lodging and transportation sectors are carbon-producing energy hogs. And certain aspects of resort operations — including energy intensive snowmaking, based on supplies from Colorado’s already strained rivers — are far from sustainable.
Without deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the outlook is even bleaker than the current view of snow-less Colorado ski slopes. Winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, which would would be a deal-killer for many lower elevation resorts around the country, especially in the Northeast and the Far West. Snow depths in the West could decline by 25 to 100 percent, depending on elevation, and the length of the snow season in the northeast could be cut in half, according to the University of New Hampshire report.
Those aren’t just predictions by wild-eyed environmentalists. The far-from-radical Colorado Water Conservation Board recently released a state climate report that underscores risks to the ski industry. The data includes warming that’s been measured the past few decades. Colorado’s spring temperatures have soared 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years, with about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit warming in summer and fall.
“The take-home is that warming is occurring in all seasons, but that the relative magnitudes of the seasonal warming trends are hard to pin down because of the greater variability in seasonal temperatures versus annual temperatures,” said report author Jeff Lukas, with the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Given their high elevation compared to resorts in other states, Colorado’s ski areas may be buffered from the full impacts of global warming for a few more decades. But even if this year’s warm autumn is just part of a natural climate variation, there’s cause for concern.
The state climate report suggests that there will be more frequent extreme weather events that are outside what humans have experienced in modern recorded history — longer droughts, more heatwaves and more year-to-year snowfall variability are definitely in the cards.
Even without human-caused global warming, climate records based on tree rings and other evidence going back thousands of years show decades-long warm and dry periods in the West that have been far more intense than the droughts of the past few decades.
Skiing has always been an iffy, weather-dependent proposition, and when global warming is added to the equation, it becomes clear that skiers and snowboarders shouldn’t take powder snow for granted.
“It’s shades of things to come unless we dramatically change the way we use energy in the future,” longtime Colorado skier Art Burrows said via Facebook, where posted questions on this year’s October weather elicited a good discussion thread. “We will see a much faster trend towards a warmer climate in the future because of rapidly increasing CO2. This will not be good for skiing nor the water supply in the West,” Burrows said.
Other people question the rush to open ski resorts before autumn is even halfway over.
“I think it’s time for the ski industry to shift the season from October to April to something that makes more sense, like December through May,” said Dillon resident Chuck Savall. “We spend a fortune in dollars and water resources to make snow in October, then we leave 10 feet of it laying around in May,” he said.[ Photo by Bob Berwyn.]