Climate change: rising temperatures and the Sierra ski industry |

Climate change: rising temperatures and the Sierra ski industry

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunAn unknown rider links dirt and snow below Squaw Valley's High Camp on May 10.

Picture this: Strong gusts of wind are blowing in another storm and snow is dumping on the highest peaks in Tahoe.

But drop down a couple thousand feet or so ” into the valleys and canyons of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain towns and ski resort villages, to the shores of Lake Tahoe ” it’s raining.

Instead of the blanket of snow typically seen today, deserted chairlifts at the bases of ski resorts swing in the wind over bare rocks and patches of snow. A new state-of-the-art tram takes skiers up to the mountain’s upper elevations above the snowline.

The once legendary winters of the Sierra Nevada have shortened and drop less snow.

This portrait, according to climate change projections cast by local, state and national scientists, may no longer be fiction by the end of the century ” or even in fifty years.

And ski resorts are well aware of what climate change scientists are saying.

“It’s integral that we take on climate change,” said Savannah Cowley, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley. “It’s something that since we are directly impacted by [global warming], everyone [in the ski industry] is taking responsibility. And it’s a great thing.”

This is what the scientists are predicting: The snow line will rise, spring runoff will melt sooner and more precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, especially at lower elevations.

“There’s a consensus that we will lose snowpack,” said Dan Cayan of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego. “The degree of loss could range by quite a broad amount depending on how much warming occurs. And I think that’s pretty well agreed upon ” that higher amounts of warming will result in greater losses” of snow.

By the end of the century, if temperatures rise three to five degrees Fahrenheit, the Sierra Nevada ski season will shrink by a month, according to the 2006 California Climate Change Center summary report’s base projection.

If temperatures rise even higher, the state report says that in 100 years the Sierra Nevada may see many years without enough snow to ski at all.

“If the world economy continues on this sort of high carbon diet, it’s not good,” Cayan said. “And these changes will happen faster and to a larger degree than if things are moderated.”

As executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, it is Bob Roberts’ job to represent ski resort interests at the state capitol.

That includes lobbying in favor of green initiatives that will curb the impacts of climate change.

“Because clearly this is an issue for this industry,” Roberts said. “We sit on the snowpack. We see what happens.”

The ski industry must be engaged at the political level to see change, Roberts said. That’s why he has been working closely with elected officials and government agencies to support a number of environmental legislative bills, including legislation to lower vehicle emissions and the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which seeks to reverse statewide emissions back to levels seen 30 years prior.

“There’s no question that we’re going to have to become pro-active,” Roberts said. “We’re a small industry, but we have a voice.”

And while Roberts pushes “green” legislation at the capital, “green” initiatives remain all the buzz at ski resorts.

“It’s the most important thing. I think we have a responsibility to manage the environment that we manage,” said Art Chapman, president of JMA Ventures, which owns Homewood and Alpine Meadows ski resorts. “The people who visit these ski areas are people who love the outdoors. They certainly have an environmental bent. And I think that what we’re doing is entirely consistent with what we should be doing.”

The ski industry is not the biggest culprit of greenhouse gas emissions. But many eyes are watching resorts’ every move. Roberts said the ski industry’s voice in the climate change arena is like “the mouse that roared.”

“The impact is small because we are a very small industry,” he said. “We are small. But the fact of the matter is, we have a high public profile. And so, from an educational point of view, it’s really important.”

Cowley said such environmental initiatives as recycling trail maps or limiting disposable tableware seek to involve ski area guests in the solution.

“People love it,” she said. “And people love the idea that before they leave, they’re doing something. Even if it’s the smallest thing to reduce their footprint.”

Efforts to go green get traction beyond Tahoe, Mammoth or Big Bear, Roberts said.

Resorts are setting the example in terms of environmental responsibility for other industries to follow. And today, Roberts said he is seeing the entire tourism industry, including Disney, take a second look at themselves.

“This message is getting out,” Roberts said. “We’re singing soprano way back in the chorus of this choir. But we’re singing.”

At his post perched on the crest of the Sierra, Central Sierra Snowlab Director Randall Osterhuber is in a unique position to document the changes in Sierra climate.

Local data shows constant fluctuation in the amount of annual precipitation on the Sierra Nevada, according to more than 50 years’ worth of numbers recorded at the snowlab on Donner Summit.

But the form the moisture takes while falling to the ground is changing.

Rain is gradually replacing snow, said Osterhuber. Simultaneously, the average snowline is going up and the region’s maximum snow depth is decreasing slightly.

“So those things fit together of course,” Osterhuber said. “That’s what one would expect if throughout the winter, we’re seeing a higher percentage of rain.”

These observations are based on more than 60 years’ worth of data taken since the Donner Summit snowlab was built in 1946, Osterhuber said.

“Looking at this last winter doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that we’re getting warmer,” Osterhuber said. “But you can’t just take one of these snapshot views. You have to look at the bigger picture, the bigger trends.”

The state of California predicts a 1,500-foot rise in the Sierra snow line over the next 90 years, according to a publication issued by the Sierra Nevada Alliance. The alliance projects that in 100 years the spring snowpack will be 30 to 70 percent of what it is today.

The United Nations says that snowpack across the globe is diminishing, but Cayan said that the Sierra Nevada’s are a warmer mountain range than others because of its proximity to the Pacific coastline.

“The West Coast, the mountains that are closest to the coast are more vulnerable to climate warming effects,” Cayan said. “Just because we have warmer snows.”

Ski resort officials say they’ve already noticed a delayed start pushing the winter season further into the spring. The absence of early-season storms in the fall forces ski areas to become reliant on snowmaking to catch the holiday business between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Number one, we believe [climate change predictions] are real,” Chapman said. “Clearly the winters are coming later. So we’re having less early snow, which is a challenge for ski areas.”

Janet Tuttle, who owns Donner Ski Ranch with her husband, Marshall, said the late start hurts business because out-of-town clients are not as enthusiastic about winter sports once the seasons change on the other side of the hill.

“When we have more snow further into the season, people aren’t that interested in coming up,” Tuttle said. “People are thinking [in the spring], ‘We’re going to go to the beach. We’re going to go golfing’ … They’re not thinking about skiing anymore.”

According to numbers recorded by the U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center since 1911, the nightly minimum temperature at Tahoe City has increased by more than four degrees and the number of days experiencing average air temperatures below freezing is dropping.

“It’s not getting hotter at the hot end, it’s just getting warmer at the cold end,” said Heather Segale, Education and Outreach coordinator at the research center.

In 1911, 52 percent of the total precipitation came down as snow annually. Today, only 34 percent of the total precipitation is falling frozen, according to the U.C. Davis data.

“The research ” there’s so much of it ” we know what’s happening. The researchers know what’s going on,” Segale said. “And so now it’s just a matter of what to do with the land managers, the government and the different agencies and groups. What’s the best strategy to make a true difference?”

Despite predictions that point towards a bleak future of for the ski industry, resort officials remain cautiously optimistic. And for some, the answer lies in offering more than just ski tickets.

Tuttle said that operating at an elevation of 7,200 feet buffers Donner Ski Ranch from the warmest forecast. And the family-owned ski area offers trail activities in the summer ” diversifying their product from winter-only to year-round.

“Because we do have a higher base, we’re fortunate in that respect,” Tuttle said. “And you know, if we don’t get snow ever again ” at least I own 500 acres of the most beautiful land on earth. And I will go hiking every day.”

Homewood may sit at a low elevation of 6,200 feet, making the West Shore ski resort more vulnerable to warming than its higher-elevation neighbors. But the resort’s lakefront location works in its favor, Chapman said.

JMA Ventures is proposing to develop the lakefront ski area into a year-round destination resort. Homewood won’t just be a place to take your family skiing, it will be a complete mountain vacation ” with or without snow.

To successfully achieve the shift from a ski resort to a destination, however, Chapman said it is critical to raise the bar environmentally.

“Because that’s why people come,” he said. “Environmentally, it’s such a beautiful area.”

That’s why Chapman has embarked on ambitious revegetation projects and has replaced traditional snow-guns with those that are energy-efficient. Homewood captures storm-water runoff, cleans it and then re-uses it for snowmaking.

“And frankly, we started doing this way before we even started thinking about development,” Chapman said. “Because we thought it was the right thing to do.”

Michael Hogan, president of Integrated Environmental Restoration Services, was hired by Chapman and JMA Ventures to restore forest roads and implement erosion control measures on Homewood’s property. Hogan said that Homewood has been engaged in hands-on and quantitative environmental stewardship ” a quality more resort operators should embrace to truly balance their impact.

“A developer has a responsibility to try and create a net environmental improvement on their property,” Hogan said. “That’s the potential. Most of them aren’t doing it.”

Environmental responsibility is why Chapman said JMA Ventures is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for their proposed development, and why they intend to provide electric vehicles to guests.

“If we can’t keep them out of their car, we’re going to put them in environmentally friendly cars,” he said.

When it comes to addressing climate change, the most significant adjustment in Squaw Valley’s business plan has been to “green” the resort and build energy-efficient facilities, Cowley said.

“Those really are, I think, the measures that we can take at this point,” she said.

A geo-thermal pump heats up Squaw Valley’s children center. Heat-exchange systems are installed in the Funitel and High Camp facilities. And the Cable Car motor only uses the necessary amount of energy to power a load up and down the mountain.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a ski resort that isn’t doing anything to help the environment,” Cowley said.

Alpine Meadows and Sugar Bowl are buying carbon offsets to make up the energy they use from traditional sources. Educational campaigns are touring resorts to promote awareness about climate change. And replanting local vegetation on the mountains is the summer assignment for many resorts.

“If you aren’t taking care of your own natural ecosystem, and the natural plant and animal habitats in the Squaw Valley boundaries, then it’s hypocritical to be doing the larger initiatives,” Cowley said.

Hogan said that green initiatives can and are being used for positive ski resort marketing. Their “green” actions, however, must be measured by quantitative numbers to validate the resort’s stewardship. Hogan has developed a model that measures how much sediment his erosion control treatments capture at Homewood, the Resort at Squaw Creek and Northstar.

“That’s the essence of this thing,” Hogan said. “We know about sustainable slopes, we know about the great things they’re doing … but give us some data.”

Snowcat fleets operate on biofuels. Resorts are looking into wind power. Executive Director Bob Roberts of the California Ski Industry Association predicted that the future will see even more creative solutions and environmentally responsible development at ski resorts.

“There’s an understanding that we’re not going to eliminate the change,” Roberts said. “What we’re hoping to do is keep [the climate] from changing radically and rapidly.”

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