Study: More rain, less snow – and thus, fewer ski dollars likely for Sierra Nevada |

Study: More rain, less snow – and thus, fewer ski dollars likely for Sierra Nevada

Axie Navas
Courtesy Matt Palmer / Squaw Valley A skier slashes through fresh powder at Squaw Valley during Wednesday's snow storm. Lake Tahoe's ski resorts reported anywhere from 12 to 16 inches of new snow by Wednesday evening, allowing for more terrain and lifts to open throughout the region heading into the weekend.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE – Skiers, boarders and winter-dependent business owners might find themselves praying to the snow gods more frequently if the findings from recent studies prove accurate.

The $12.2 billion snow sports industry has lost more than $1 billion in revenue and up to 27,000 jobs over the last decade due to warmer winters and less snow, according to a study published this month commissioned by Jeremy Jones’ nonprofit Protect Our Winters and environmental action group Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report – titled “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States” – found that, on average, winter temperatures have risen steadily each decade since 1895, and will warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

“If we don’t do anything, it’s going to be a pretty bad situation. But hopefully the numbers will have woken people up,” POW Executive Director Chris Steinkamp said.

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Steinkamp, Jones and other professional athletes like snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler visited Capitol Hill last year with accounts of how they’d witnesses climate change firsthand, but stories weren’t enough for the senators they spoke with. Steinkamp said he hopes the numbers presented by the study can help enact major policy changes.

“I guess that’s how Washington works. You have to bring up the economic impacts,” he said.

The warming trend doesn’t mean that every ski season from here on out will be like the 2011-12 winter, California Department of Water Resources State Climatologist Michael Anderson said. Those warm, lean seasons will just become more common.

Anderson said that as temperatures rise, so to will snowlines.

“In the future, lake level will be snow free. The higher peaks will still have snow, so there will be a variant of what we have now. But because we have wide variability in California, not every year looks the same. We’ll still get monster snow years, but on average we’ll have more years like last year and fewer monster years,” he said.

Less snow means more rain – possibly lots more. A 2011 Scripps Institution of Oceanography study predicts that flooding magnitude in the Sierra Nevada will increase by 50 to 100 percent by the end of the century due to warmer temperatures.

“It will have great impact on current water management infrastructure. We expect to get more extreme precipitation events, but overall precipitation might be smaller. More snow will fall as liquid, and snow lines will rise,” lead author Tapash Das said.

It’s a trend that has global ramifications. Das, who grew up in Bangladesh, said he’d seen the impact flooding could have on a country. It’s important to start collecting the information early to prepare for these events, he said.

California will have four new observatories by 2014 that scientists say will better monitor and predict the impacts from “atmospheric rivers” like the ones that drenched the state earlier this month and threatened to flood areas from Sacramento to Truckee.

“We can now see which watershed will be affected and when. In the past, the satellite imaging that works over oceans doesn’t work well over land. Now we can actually track the atmospheric river on shore,” Anderson said.

The four observatories will enable scientists to determine which watersheds will be affected when a storm lumbers onshore, how long the rain is likely to last and how high the snow line will be.

It’s short-term forecasting compared to Das’ long-range model, but the technology is still an important step forward in predicting when and where floods will occur, according to Anderson.

“There won’t be a marked increase in flooding, but they will be noticeably larger. In the Northern Sierra, it’ll get to the point where we can expect bigger events,” he said.


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