For those living in the West, the winter of 2014-2015 went down as one of the worst ski seasons in memory. Snow levels were so low that some ski resorts didn’t open, whereas others limped along with subpar snowpacks. Skiers and snowboarders at Whistler Blackcomb, a resort in Vancouver, British Columbia, rode trams to midmountain to reach snow.
According to new research from the University of British Columbia, the winter of 2014-2015 may become the new normal.
Climate change could significantly lower the number of skiable days across western North America, forcing some ski resorts to shut down entirely. The study, which uses historical data and model projections, forecasts that more than 90% of western resorts will have ski seasons shorter than 120 days by 2085 if countries don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions. Although many more severe risks could come from climate change, losing recreational skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling opportunities could cost the United States billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs per year, according to the nonprofit Protect Our Winters.
“I think a lot of people can’t wrap their heads around what scientists are saying about how climate change is going to change their life,” said Michael Pidwirny, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. “But a lot of people ski, and a lot of people do winter activities.”
“It’s kind of an interesting canary in the coal mines,” he added.
Ski resorts need two ingredients for a good season: freezing temperatures and a healthy dose of precipitation. Pidwirny and his master’s students Ethan Clark and Kalim Bahbahani investigated how climate change would jeopardize the necessary conditions for a healthy snowpack.
First, the team calculated baseline air temperatures at 154 ski resorts stretching from Canada to California using historic weather data. Next, they modeled future mountain temperatures with 15 different general circulation climate models seeded with two scenarios of future greenhouse gas concentrations. In one scenario, countries curb emissions and cap warming at about 2℃ above preindustrial levels; in the other, countries do not act as aggressively to curb emissions, and global temperatures soar by 3°C to 5℃. These scenarios are widely used across climate sciences and come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In the first scenario, only a third of 154 ski resorts have seasons longer than 120 days. Pidwirny said that some researchers regard 100 days as an economic cutoff for breaking even. In the same scenario, 21 resorts have zero skiable days, meaning that temperatures never dip below freezing to bring snow.
In the second scenario, when countries do little to curb emissions, only 9% of resorts would pass 120 days, and nearly a third of resorts wouldn’t have a skiable day all season.
Not all ski resorts are impacted the same, however: Resorts in coastal states fare far worse than those in inland states. In the second scenario, the only resort in Oregon with a ski season is Mount Hood, and all resorts in California have no ski seasons. Yet the higher temperatures in that scenario help some resorts in interior states like those around the Rocky Mountains because warmer subzero air can hold more moisture and produce more snow.
“Skiing is in trouble,” Pidwirny said. Although there is year-to-year variability, his prediction for resorts is bleak: “For most of them, they’ll shut down.”
Money Melting Away
Jessica Lundquist, a professor at the University of Washington who was not involved with the research, called the latest study important and in agreement with other scientific studies. She said that one way scientists could help resorts stay open is advancing seasonal snow forecasts.
“Ski resorts are doing their staffing early in the fall, and the ones at lower elevations need information that can let them make the hard decision of when to either delay opening or skip a winter season entirely,” Lundquist said.
Ski resorts may welcome the help. If the low-snow season of 2014-2015 was any indication, shortening ski seasons will bleed money from local economies. Whistler brings in $800 million per year, according to Pidwirny. But in 2014-2015, he said, “they estimate they lost about $200 million.” In the study’s more dire scenario, he added, the snow pattern of 2014-2015 “roughly represents the average for 2085.”
—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow
10 January 2020: The maps’ caption has been updated to clarify that the left-hand map contains historical data from 1971 to 2000.