Racing Against Time

For many, the winter months mean more than holidays and spending time with family; breaks from work or school are often associated with a long awaited trip to the slopes. Skiing has become an important tradition for people looking to escape the bustling city streets of their busy everyday lives. However, this beloved recreational activity could soon be a relic of the past, thanks to the far-reaching effects of global warming.

Ski resorts are likely the last place one would think of when considering the pernicious effects of global warming. However, ski resorts hold the roots and implications of climate change. The economic life of resorts is inextricably linked to global environmental conditions, and resorts themselves contribute to the very global warming that harms their business. Ski resorts, which are simultaneously damaging to and damaged by the current environmental situation, will soon rely heavily on decisive environmental action to keep their business economically and physically viable. Resort owners must be cognizant of this and continue their work to increase sustainability on the slopes.

Climate change affects ski resorts in a myriad of ways. In order to be most profitable, ski resorts strive to offer the longest ski season possible as the number of skiers on the mountain and the amount of days spent during trips directly correlate to a net rise in profits. Unfortunately for resort owners, a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report estimates that resorts in popular ski areas such as Colorado could see their seasons shortened by 10 to 50 percent by 2050. The report went on to say that some resorts could experience a decrease in season length by as much as 80 percent by 2090. Arapahoe Basin, which has the longest season of any Colorado resort due to favorable weather conditions, may see its season reduced from 7.5 months to just 1.5 months if the most dire projections are proven true. The shorter season can be attributed to the dwindling snowpack, which is the amount of snow on the ground required for people to ski safely. In recent decades, the EPA reports that snowpack has declined by 20 to 60 percent across most of Colorado. Without sufficient snowpack, a resort may not be able to open as early in the fall or close as late in the spring. As the trajectory of the global climate issue continues to worsen, resorts will struggle to operate profitably. With resorts in danger, the economic sustainability of the communities in which they exist will also be forced into a precarious situation.

Beyond the detrimental impacts on resorts, climate change is also changing the economic futures of the towns, cities, and states in which these resorts operate. Ski vacations place as much value on the resort experience—lodging, shopping, and dining—as they do on the actual skiing. Some resorts have capitalized on this by purchasing some of the retail and dining services around the mountain. For instance, Vail Resorts makes only 46 percent of its money on lift tickets, raking in most of its profits on ski schools, dining, and retail. In addition, there are just as many independent businesses that rely on the heavy traffic of skiers to keep their businesses afloat. Vail Village, the shopping area at the foot of the Vail mountains, boasts a wide variety of ski shops, boutiques, art galleries, and candy shops that all financially depend on skiers who purchase their products after a long day on the slopes.

"Ski resorts, despite their detrimental environmental impacts, rely on a healthy planet for continued operation. As such, resorts have both an opportunity and a responsibility to preserve the natural world."

The economic costs of climate change may impact residents in the ski areas as well. During low-snow winters, Colorado resorts employ 1,800 fewer people than during regular seasons since fewer skiers flock to the resorts. As the planet warms, low-snow winters are expected to become the norm. This would result in lower revenues and higher unemployment, affecting not only individual incomes, but also taxes collected by local, state, and federal governments. On a larger scale, federal and state governments rely on ski resorts to keep tourism revenue high. In 2010, the snowiest winter in the past decade, ski-related employees alone contributed $2.2 billion to Colorado’s economy. However, in winters that weren’t as snowy, the total revenue difference between low-snow and high-snow winters was $1.07 billion and 6 to 13 percent fewer people were employed in Colorado.

Although ski resorts are adversely affected by climate change, they also contribute to warming climates. Snowmaking is often touted as the solution to decreased snowfall. If not enough snow falls from the sky, resorts can easily make up for it by using water and freezing mechanisms to supplement natural snow. Snowmaking, however, is an unsustainable solution that comes with a slew of environmental problems. Snowmakers are costly when it comes to water use: In order to cover about an acre in 6-inches of snow, these machines require 75,000 gallons of water. Put into perspective the 5,289 acres of Vail terrain that will likely require snowmaking given the trajectory of climate change and it becomes easy to recognize the potential strain of snowmakers on the environment.

Apart from wasting water, the ski resort industry also contributes to climate change through its expansionist agenda. Infamously, in 2000, Vail Resorts added a third face to their main mountain called Blue Sky Basin. This area had previously been identified as a potential habitat for the reintroduction of the Canada Lynx, which had disappeared from the area in the 1970s. It’s no wonder that environmentalists reacted to the expansion with vehement opposition—a radical group called the Earth Liberation Front set fire to one of Vail’s on-mountain restaurants as well as several lifts in 1998 to protest the construction of Blue Sky Basin. And more than just harming wildlife, resort expansion also leads to deforestation since developers cut down scores of trees to make mountainous area more skiable.

It’s important to recognize that ski resorts, despite their detrimental environmental impacts, rely on a healthy planet for continued operation. As such, resorts have both an incentive and a responsibility to preserve the natural world. Encouragingly, some resorts are taking steps to neutralize their environmental impact and work toward a more sustainable future. Protect Our Winters (POW), an environmental advocacy group centered around snow, has partnered with many major resorts, including Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin and Aspen Snowmass. To support POW, these resorts are standing behind lobbying efforts that work to create more environmental accountability and slow the rate of global warming. Other resorts have developed their own sustainability goals. In 2017, Vail Resorts unveiled their ‘Epic Promise,’ which commits the company to zero net emissions, landfill waste, and net operating impact on surrounding habitats by 2030. Though these plans are ambitious, Vail has been making progress already by restoring acres of forest, investing in renewable energy and more efficient snowmaking, and switching to LED lighting. As more resorts commit to curtailing their environmental effects, other industries could potentially follow suit, leading to a positive ripple effect. The federal government is slow to take decisive action against climate change, so private companies must also work to diminish the country’s greenhouse gas emissions—potentially to even reach the levels agreed upon in Paris—despite the lack of policy backing. The longevity of ski resorts may not seem dire right now, but the effects of climate change are omnipresent. As we inch toward a climate-related tipping point, businesses and governments must work together to diminish greenhouse gas emissions. On that front, they can look toward ski resorts, which are already trying to soften their own environmental impacts. Change will always be slow, but an earnest effort is vital to ensure that our beloved ski resorts are still around in the near future.

Photo: “Ski Resort

About the Author

Zander Blitzer '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Zander can be reached at alexandra_blitzer@brown.edu

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