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In the French Alps, they’re so desperately trying to save snow, they’re covering stored snow with wood chips. Hoping to stay alive, a Vermont cross-country ski area is experimenting with the same idea. In California, winters are shorter — and the fire season way longer. Nearly 200 ski resorts have been abandoned in the Italian Alps, where since 1960, the snow season has shrunk by 38 days. Worldwide, more than 60 percent of ski areas now have to rely on snowmaking … which is not only expensive, it contributes to the global warming that makes resorts, well, rely on snowmaking. 

Off-piste, the situation is even more dire. In the Arctic and Antarctic, mammoth sheets of ice are plummeting into the sea. From Greenland to New Zealand, glaciers are melting like never before. The Earth is experiencing the warmest years ever recorded, year after year after year.

And yet… the President of the United States has declared climate change a hoax and is systematically undoing all the protective measures his predecessor fought so hard to put in place. 

In Australia, the prime minister is not only another climate denier, he left for a Hawaiian vacation as a thousand fires fouled the air of the country’s biggest cities, destroyed more than 1,200 homes and killed an ever-growing number of people and animals (which, at the time of publication, has been estimated to be 1 billion animals dead). 

As tiny Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific, slowly sinks beneath the sea, its president declares, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that warming is not manmade, and announces that his government will “put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation and has replaced it with a bold scenario filled with great faith in the Mighty Hand.” 

Right. Along with burning Australia and sinking Kiribati, snowsports are the most endangered by a heating planet. We are the canaries in the cold mine. 

Opposing Views of Two Neighbors at Whistler-Blackcomb

So, how is the ski industry dealing — or not dealing — with climate change? I asked techies and visionaries, business leaders and ski bums, writers and executives. Their responses ranged from what the industry can do to survive when snow grows scarce to what it isn’t doing. A perfect example of the split comes from North America’s biggest ski resort, Whistler-Blackcomb.

Rob McSkimming is Whistler-Blackcomb’s former VP of business development. Like the president of Kiribati, he’s not fond of those who predict dire consequences of global warming: “Much has been written and discussed about ‘the worst of times’ for the industry … despite perception of the doom and gloom for some, these may actually be ‘the best of times’ for the mountain resort industry.”

McSkimming goes on to discuss advances in gear, in clothing, in ease of learning, then optimistically adds, “Lift placement, snowmaking, summer grooming, artificial surfaces, multi-resort passes, indoor facilities — will all slow down and mitigate the effects seen as a result of climate change. One of the flipsides of the climate change issue is that most mountain resorts around the world are looking for ways to diversify their experiential offerings beyond snow-related activities… The growth potential is, in this regard, staggering.”

Right down the slope, G.D. Maxwell, the Whistler Pique’s legendary columnist, is less than staggered. He says, “Despite all the good words about what the mountains are doing to fight climate change, you don’t have to stumble very far from the bottom of the mountain before you find a mountain-owned heated patio burning propane so skiers can drink cold beer outside in a cold climate because … because it’s a money maker. Not burning fossil fuels to warm people too dumb to drink inside seems to me like what consultants call the low-hanging fruit. Like the lowest of the low. Why not just set the snow on fire? Oh yeah, it doesn’t burn. It just melts.”

Maxwell warms to his theme: “The inconvenient truth is the entire ski industry is a poster child for climate crimes. We entice people to jump on jet planes and punch holes in the ozone so they, too, can rent an SUV and drive to the ski hill to enjoy those cold beers on heated patios.

“Don’t get me wrong — I’m not stopping any time soon. But in a rational world, one where we really believe this climate-change crisis is a matter of life or death for homo sapiens, there wouldn’t be any downhill skiing the way it’s configured today. We’d be back to skinning up and sliding down. So smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em.”

Converging in Crisis: Driving Action to Meaningful Change

Now, let’s look at responses from the ski biz. If alpine skiing is facing massive climate challenges, double that for Nordic. Reese Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, says, “The Nordic side of the ski business is especially sensitive to climate change and the lack of consistent snow associated with it. Snowmaking, long considered an amenity if you could afford it, is now becoming more important to ensuring a lengthy season. There are, however, many smaller ski areas where the price tag is out of the question.

“For those that get snowfall, snow farming is a popular option with very limited start-up cost. There are several options here: 

  • Installing snow fences.
  • Stockpiling snow into large piles.  
  • Storing snow over the summer months.
  • Building future trails at higher elevation and in more shade.

Brown adds, “Alternative activities are being considered now to bring in revenue and keep staff busy when the skiing is limited. These include fat biking during the winter months and mountain biking, hiking, weddings and more during the non-winter months.”

Before becoming director of marketing at Snowsports Industries America (SIA), Chris Steinkamp was executive director of Protect Our Winters (POW). His comments show how much the two extremely different organizations have converged. 

With his SIA toque on, Steinkamp says, “The industry has recognized the threat of climate change and understands what needs to be done. Every company needs to look at their carbon emissions, and more companies need to engage in this now. The UN Report on Climate Change said we’re not meeting our science-based goals. We need to de-carbonize entirely by 2050. Our backs are against the wall.” 

I point out that this doesn’t sound like the SIA of old. “True. A year ago, SIA realized we can’t do this alone. We teamed up with NSAA and OIA to form the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership. The goal is to galvanize the business voice of the $887-billion outdoor industry to drive action on climate through policy change.” 

Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for NSAA, the traditionally conservative National Ski Areas Association, also faces not only a challenging future but a vexing present. With a sigh, she says, “There are about 476 ski areas in the US. In 1982, there were 735. There are many reasons for this shrinkage, but lack of snow is one of them.”

Perhaps as a result, she says, “Nobody in the ski industry is just sitting back and letting things take their course. They’ve been very vocal on the impacts of climate change on recreation and on humanity. They’re taking local action to green their operation: investing in renewable energy, sustainable purchasing practicing, starting recycling and composting programs.”

When I ask her what could NSAA do better, she turns it to what they are doing better.

“In recent years, operators have been more vocal on the advocacy side for a climate-friendly regulatory agenda. We’ve brought business leaders to Washington to advocate for climate regulation, especially setting a price on carbon. Something we’re also doing better is mobilizing our guests to take action, from changing lightbulbs to advocating for change. We’re going to need as many solutions as possible — it can’t wait.”

Despite the fact that the next two people I spoke with come from different states and run very different organizations, their views are surprisingly convergent. 

Mark Menlove is the Idaho State Director of the Nature Conservancy; he’s also the former executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance, and, before that, president of Ski Utah

Here’s Menlove on off-piste: “In the backcountry world, three organizations are doing outstanding work: Protect Our Winters (POW), Winter Wildlands Alliance, and Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of skiers, climbers, hikers, kayakers and surfers. They’re all getting the outdoor community engaged in planetary conservation. What they all have in common are the athletes, guides and community leaders who are using their social media platforms to speak out on climate action. 

“The best example is POW, formed by Jeremy Jones, a rock-star snowboarder. He’s gathered this amazing cohort of snow-world athletes. They’re being really sophisticated about helping elect candidates who support a carbon tax or other climate action. These athletes committed to climate action recognize that the only way we’re gonna make headway is through business and government.” 

Farther west, Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California, takes a similar view from a different perspective. “One of the first things we have done as an industry is realize that we have to be bigger than we are individually, or even as Ski California. There’s no doubt that the proverbial changing of our light bulbs and reducing our carbon footprint is a net positive. But the simple fact is that we, as an industry, are merely one drop in a much larger bucket. That’s why we joined together with other state associations, a larger group, to support the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership, an even larger group. We have to push our government (not so much California) and other governments around the world to lead the change.”

Jules Older is author and publisher of the ebooks DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love and SKIING THE EDGE: Humor, Humiliation, Holiness and Heart

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22 responses to “How the Ski Industry Is — And Is Not — Dealing with Climate Change”

  1. Kudos to Liftopia for publishing interesting, realistic, relevant content with real reporting, rather than just shilling resorts’ deals. Most of all, for recognizing we are ALL in this climate change fight, not just those of us who love to ski.

  2. Frank W. says:

    “There’s no doubt that the proverbial changing of our light bulbs and reducing our carbon footprint is a net positive. But the simple fact is that we, as an industry, are merely one drop in a much larger bucket.”

    As long as China, India, Russia and others continue to pollute at astounding rates the “experts” and “athletes” are NUTS if they think we are going to make a difference by changing our carbon footprint. Yes, NUTS. If the U.S. and Canada stopped all carbon output today, it would not change the trajectory of what’s happening with our planet. Continue your research/reading. Clearly, you haven’t done enough.

  3. Rob Payton says:

    I don’t think any reasonable person, including the US and Australian leaders, says the climate is static. What is missing is the clear thought process of adapting to a changing climate. We simply will not curb China and India and the other 44 countries who are increasing their CO2/ SoX releases as their poor move from a rural farming lifestyle into an industrial revolution such as experienced by the united states in the 1800’s/ 1900s.

    While climate change will effect our ski days and our lifestyles; there is little that is BAD about a climate change to the warmer. More temperate climate means more people will have food through better farming. There will be MORE moisture due to evaporation and rainfall which will also reduce acidification of the oceans. Those northern countries will have less use of energy (less burning of fossil fuels). The world will be slowly moving back to the Medieval Warming Period in 900-1150 AD. It was these periods where people thrived. The reasons for this were not CO2 output but increased solar activity, reduced volcanic activity, and changes to ocean currents in the Atlantic. Immediately after this warming, we entered into a mini Ice Age. Theories are all over the place; however, from a climate perspective if you have more surface area covered in water and more evaporation; then that evaporation creates water vapor. With large amounts of water vapor, you have immediate cooling by shielding UV energy from the sun hitting the earth.

    In any case, these are natural and unpredictable events however, by no means did climate warming result in massive deaths and destruction. But rather humans and wildlife flourished during these times.

    Another unknown is how the magnetic reversal will effect the planet. The magnetic lines are rapidly moving since 1930 and lends to another theory that corresponds to climate change by the orbit of the earth being effected by our molten core changing. fascinating!

    Since we truly don’t know what is the CORRECT temperature of the earth truly is; we truly can’t say whether the earth needs to be. We can say its warming or its cooling over the course a few hundred years; but to say we can control any of these climate drivers is insane.

    We can, however, be as efficient as possible with our energy use, our industries output and personal decisions. But make no mistake, these steps will NEVER change the climate drivers nor impact our weather in the least. It’s just good ecology and in some cases, a feel good step we can do in 1st world countries all the while 3rd world countries are finding their industrial revolution and starting to feed their people and building homes, cities, technologies that help their people. We morally cannot tell them they should starve while we ski.

    I hope for more snowfall. I hope for longer ski season…I live in two mountain states (Alaska and WA) and ski in both. I have stock in Vail (ticker MTN) (so I’ve put my money on this!) and my family has resort property so we are affected more than most. But I look at the ability of these companies to manage and they have thrived. Vail stock price has gone from 160 to over 250 in 3 years!

    The doomsayers have consistently been wrong about our ability to adapt and thrive. In ALL historical cases, this is the truth. And while my boards may not see enough days; I will continue to use the Alps, the Cascades and the Alaska Range to enjoy this outdoors.

  4. Merida says:

    I look to this site for information on lift tickets, conditions, etc. Not someone’s opinion on climate change. I’ll unsubscribe.

  5. Anna Slattery says:

    little snow. I’m concerned about climate change as well, with some winters that are green,) happening now in my town in Sweden. I don’t know about the situation in Mora, Dalarna, where the biggest cross-country skiing event takes place every year; but I’m pretty sure they store snow in order to make the events happen .

  6. Stony Tony says:

    Me too!

  7. Michael McDermott says:

    As REO Speedwagon said you have to “roll with the changes”. I skied today here in the East and it was 64 degrees on January 11th. Unless winters get colder and lift ticket prices drop skiing will be a sport of the past. I’m only 50 and I’ve seen a huge decline in kids learning to ski. Cost and availability plays a major factor in this. Shorter seasons plus higher prices to cover operating cost doesn’t help as well. I’m glad I skied when I did because I honestly have no idea what the future will hold.

  8. Geoff says:

    My worst carbon trasgression is the 4 and 6 hr cartrips to hit northeast resorts. Why can’t resorts start running more efficient vsnpools to help mitigate travel co2?

  9. John Wendolowski says:

    It may not be a big impact to the planet but I continue to be amused by the number of skiers who let their cars run in the parking lot. Everyone wants the corporate ski areas to be carbon neutral, etc but then they burn gas in the lot. Let’s see, there’s the one who has to keep checking their phone while the car runs. Fully dressed in winter gear and ready to spend the day outside but gotta leave those seat heaters on. Another is the music lover. Can’t boot up without tunes so the doors and the hatch are all open and the car is running. Do none of these tech savvy geniuses know that a car has an accessory mode? So what’s my point? Can industry advocates like yourselves get the word out. All ski areas need a policy that allows the parking guys to tell people to shut off their engines. Maybe some signage is needed. Maybe a flier on a windshield. How do we get the word out and change habits? Every little bit will help and we have to stop always blaming others.

  10. Rex Pickett says:

    Hmmm. A travel writer is now an expert on climate change? Despite what angry Al Gore says the science is not settled. More and more respected scientists are questioning the supposed science behind this. I am old enough to remember the early 70’s panic that we were going into another ice age. Shouldn’t take a very critical look at all this before spending trillions of dollars? I recall a study that found that we implemented everything in the UN Climate Accord it would change the global temperature by 0.2 degrees Celsius. Ok, so we are going to bankrupt our world economy for 0.2 degrees Celsius?
    I am an engineer and in engineering the numbers have to make sense or people die. This whole climate change thing is more political than scientific. More critical thinking is required before destroying our way of life to solve a problem that may or may not exist and even if it does exist, we may not be capable of fixing it.

  11. wil says:

    You Lost me at Carbon Tax

  12. Stillman Rogers says:

    Great, informative post by a well informed expert! Thanks Jules!

  13. ML says:

    I agree with Merida. Bye Liftopia and your propaganda.

  14. Karl H says:

    Thank you Liftopia for the article and thank you to the commenters engaging in discussion here. I would like to respond to a few themes expressed above.
    As some commenters have stated, climate and weather are complex systems which are difficult to model and there is uncertainty in all climate forecasts. It is possible that changes will be more muted that current forecasts project. However, it is also possible that changes will be more severe than projected. For some commenters to suggest with authority that a warming world will be better for living organisms exposes hubris in their own thinking.
    To the commenters who bemoan India/Russia; let’s not forget that the United States is still likely the second largest contributor of greenhouse gasses and our per capita contributions are much higher than those of developing nations. Just because America and/or the EU cannot solve this issue alone doesn’t mean we can’t meaningfully move the needle and set a model for more sustainable growth.
    To the commenters who seem to have lost hope, say that the problem is too big, that if it does exist humans cannot make a meaningful impact, and suggest we just role with the punches… I’d encourage you to look within yourself from some sense of personal responsibility and agency. No matter how big a problem is, you can take meaningful steps towards tackling it. Ultimately, you might not get to where you hoped you’d get, but you’ll be a hell of a lot closer than if you’d done nothing.
    To the two commenters saying they will unsubscribe from Liftopia because of an article on climate change or the poster who can’t accept the idea of a carbon tax; I’d ask you to reconsider and try to be more open to ideas that conflict with your own.
    Happy to join in the conversation with you all. Stay safe on the slopes and enjoy the winters, even if they are getting shorter and less predictable.

  15. Jules Older says:

    Thanks for all these comments. We’re facing something not just big, but mammoth, and the more we learn and talk about it, the better our chances of keeping the sport we love alive and thriving.

  16. Jules Older says:

    Thanks and thoughts, one by one. Ready?
    Sonicle Media & Stillman Rogers: Thank you. The task is to continue to work to stop the heat.
    Frank W: Totally agree, and does the visionary I talk to next.
    Rob Payton: This is a most thoughtful and most appreciated commentary. While I disagree about the benefits of a heating planet — I fear we’ll become Medieval in many ways, this is the sort of discussion we must have. Thank you.
    Merida & Stony Tony & ML: Please, please stick around. LIFTOPIA still gives ticket and conditions info; sometimes, something beyond that.
    Anna Slattery & michael McDermott: Yes, Sweden, and New Zealand and Switzerland and Japan. And more. No snow is real.
    Geoff & John W: Amen, brothers.
    Rex Pickett: I am a simple writer, true. But please re-read: Nowhere do I state my opinions. These are the industry experts speaking, and speaking very differently than they did even a short time ago. (If you DO want my opinions, stay tuned; they’re coming soon.)
    Karl H: You’ve said it beautifully. Onward!

  17. gac says:

    This screed is a piece of journalistic crap. Even more importantly, it is a mountain of scientific crap. Starting with the 2nd paragraph…

    Off-piste, the situation is even more dire. In the Arctic and Antarctic, mammoth sheets of ice are plummeting into the sea. From Greenland to New Zealand, glaciers are melting like never before. The Earth is experiencing the warmest years ever recorded, year after year after year.

    Antarctic sea ice has been increasing slowly for a few decades now as temperatures on the land mass have been falling very slowly. Water temps in the Southern Ocean have been falling at a faster rate for many years now. Your comment about “mammoth sheets of ice falling into the sea”, as it relates to the Arctic, is downright laughable, given that the “Arctic” is itself a sea. If you don’t know what the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation are, you have some homework to do to learn what truly impacts the changeable nature of Arctic sea ice extent. Your comment that the “Earth is experiencing the warmest years ever recorded, year after year after year” is patently false….a bald faced lie. And you are undoubtedly blissfully unaware that the trend for autumn and winter snowfall and extent in the northern hemisphere in the past 50+ years is decidedly upward, according the highly reputable data from the Rutgers Snow Lab. I could go on and on about how clueless this piece is as it relates to science, but I am leaving for a day of skiing in about an hour and have to load the car with my gear. My opinions are mine, based on a 45 year career as a meteorologist and more than 60 years on skis. If you believe that a colorless, odorless trace gas that comprises 4 TEN THOUSANDTHS of the atmosphere, of which only 3 to 4 per cent is generated by man and ALL of his machines, is the control knob of the atmosphere, you need to be re-assigned to something that has absolutely nothing to do with science.

  18. Jules Older says:

    Gac, I hope your ski day went well. Re the article and my “piece of journalistic crap,” once again, I must point out that the evidence and opinions in the article come from scientists and industry leaders, not this simple writer. While I respect your own opinions, they are decidedly in a minority — a rapidly shrinking minority. Kinda’ like those glaciers.

  19. Jules Older says:

    And now, Germany and Austria. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-15/climate-change-is-killing-alpine-skiing-as-we-know-it?fbclid=IwAR3YLvlka1lMzdxVyDkCR4mvceVFixjCtMW5tBvu20zxX36ypnPIE71iOj8

    These folks may not “what the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation are” but they do know what snowless slopes look like.

  20. Jules Older says:

    Skiing is far from the only sport affected by global weirding: https://www.wired.com/story/rising-seas-are-coming-for-miamis-super-bowls/

  21. Umm. Am I an expert on climatology? Nope. Am I willing to be passive, indifferent about the (perhaps excellent) chance that we’re triggering a disaster? No — to me, that would be a mighty poor bet.

  22. Jules Older says:

    Jonathan, we share that belief. If we’re wrong, the world ends up cleaner and healthier. If the nay-sayers are wrong, kiss skiing (and a lot else) good-bye.

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