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In Our Nature: How are Warming Winters Changing Snowsports?

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If you've noticed your favorite ski slope is receiving more or less snowfall than past seasons, you're not imagining things. Is climate change to blame for this change? We set the record straight on 9 misconceptions about the climate’s impact on changing winter weather.

As a co-op, we believe that a life outdoors is a life well lived. We’re dedicated to protecting and advocating for the lands we love, and that starts with understanding the macro issues and trends that impact these outdoor places and the people who recreate in them. The “In Our Nature” series is designed to help us all become more informed and active stewards of the environment. Have a topic you’d like us to explore? Let us know in the comments below.


Climate change isn’t a simple subject. With complicated science, endless data and varying projections of what the future could hold, it can feel hard to know what’s what. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, you’re likely already seeing the impacts of our changing climate, including shifting winter seasons, erratic storms, warmer temperatures in mountain settings and a greater reliance on snowmaking at ski resorts. To shed some light on the topic, we called up a few climate change experts and ski industry insiders to get their take on the biggest misunderstandings people have when it comes to climate and how it affects snowsports. Here’s what we found.

 

Misconception: It seems like winter is bringing bigger storms with more snow, so climate change must not be real.

Reality: “A warming world means less precipitation will fall as snow than in the past, with midwinter drizzles becoming more frequent,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book, Getting Green Done. “But because a hotter atmosphere holds more water, when it does dump, it could be all-time.” So, just because you’re experiencing an epic winter with feet upon feet of snowfall, that doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening.

 

Misconception: Changing temperatures are just natural variation, not related to human contributions to a changing climate.

Reality: There are certainly natural cycles of warming and cooling on our planet, but research shows there’s no doubt that human impact has caused the current warming. Some people think that humans are playing only a small part or no part,” said Max Boykoff, director at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado. “That’s simply not true. From how we get around, to how we use energy in our homes, to how we grow our food, it is our impact.”

 

Misconception: Ski areas have found other ways to make money, so they don’t have to worry about climate change.

Reality: It’s true that ski resorts have created alternate revenue streams, like boosting summer recreation offerings and increasing profits from food and drink, real estate and events. Part of the reason they’ve done this is because ski seasons are becoming less predictable and ski resorts know they need to become year-round, all-season destinations if they’re going to survive. “Science shows the effects and results of climate change; the balance sheet shows us what we stand to lose as an industry,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, the trade organization for ski resorts owners and operators. “Not to lessen the fact that this is the biggest existential crisis of our time and preserving the outdoors for both future generations and the overall health of the planet is the biggest priority in this effort.”

 

Misconception: In terms of reducing their impact, ski resorts are just changing light bulbs and aren’t actually impacting meaningful change.

Reality: It’s true that ski resorts don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to fighting climate change. But portions of the ski industry have long been outspoken advocates and the broader industry is also beginning to expand its efforts. For example, the National Ski Areas Association has been supporting and advising on climate legislation for decades; Colorado Ski Country and other associations came out publicly in support of climate-friendly legislation and regulation last year; and Ski New Hampshire and Ski Vermont have been working hard at the federal level for climate legislation. The list goes on. “I think the power that ski areas have—the power of messaging and igniting passion for a place and the power to do something about a problem—can be a game-changer for both ski-area employees and guests who care about the effects of climate change,” Isaac said. “The reach of a ski area to an impassioned base of outdoor enthusiasts is what can help move the needle.”

 

Misconception: Snowmaking is both the problem and the solution.

Reality: Big ski resorts rely on snowmaking more than ever to help create a base if early-season snowfall doesn’t arrive. And yes, traditional snowmaking machines require a lot of water and energy resources, as well as cold temperatures that sometimes aren’t even possible. Snowmaking has been around since before scientists recognized the climate crisis, but it’s changed and improved a lot over the decades, becoming more efficient and using fewer resources. “Ski areas are working with their local utilities to power or offset their snowmaking operations with renewable energy, and snowmaking companies are increasingly investigating new automated technologies to make the processes more efficient,” Isaac said.

 

Misconception: I’m just one person. I can’t do anything to help this massive issue.

Reality: “There are so many ways we can change the path we’re on,” Boykoff said. “From every meal we eat to every decision we make about how we get around to how we use energy where we work, at home, and what kinds of companies we support. And especially how we vote. The scale of the challenges feels big, and the best way to address them is through large-scale shifts. But it’s important to remember that our everyday decisions matter, too.”

 

Misconception: The best thing I can do to combat climate change is recycle, drive less and eat less meat.

Reality: Individual actions can add up to make a big difference. But according to Mario Molina, executive director of the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters, it’s also important to tell “our elected officials we want to see large-scale systemic changes, like carbon pricing, more renewable technology and electric vehicles.” Here’s how to get started.  

 

Misconception: It’s too late to do anything. We’re doomed.

Reality: “There’s an old proverb: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now,’” Boykoff said. “We could have done all kinds of things in the past that would have lessened the burden now. But there are all kinds of things we can be doing now that will lessen the burden in the future. It’s not too late. We can reduce our emissions, invest in important adaptation strategies, and we can help those who are at the forefront of the climate impacts.”