As a young child, I remember cross-country skiing with my father and aunt in the woods of Connecticut. Cold, often wet, days with toes attached to long thin waxless skis, one foot in front of the other. Tall, tall trees creaking in the wind with bright sun, and narrow trails through mountain laurel. I recall wishing my heels were locked down, asking when I could go downhill skiing. After much pleading, I began alpine skiing at Mohawk Mountain at the age of 10. This lasted through my early teen years. Towards the end of high school I started snowboarding — the natural progression since I had been skateboarding all this time too.
Bitten by the snow bug, my college experience began in Colorado and ended in Vermont, logging over 80 days a year snowboarding. Though last year was a stunner in terms of snow, New York City just witnessed its warmest Christmas Day on record. So I hit the surf instead of the mountain. The beach temperature hovered around 70. With wetsuit on, the water was just barely cold. I can easily move from one form of recreation, exercise, and natural connection, to another.
The Ski Industry
For the US ski industry, all $12.2 billion of it, this variability is the sort of thing that can kill business and jobs. Stats from NOAA show that the December through February temperatures have increased 0.55°F each decade since the 1970s. Even that amount of warming causes declines in snowpack, reducing spring runoff, and therefore water availability. At the same time, a low snow year costs ski areas $1 billion in lost income, resulting from 15.2 million fewer skier visits, with 13,000 fewer jobs created, and an additional $810 million less value added to the US economy than in a high snow year.
If there’s any good news in this trend it is that despite the way things are heading, for the next decade or two, winter isn’t going away entirely. Global warming won’t be turning January into June anytime soon, and hopefully, not ever. For a time, due to increased moisture in the atmosphere, some places may see significant snowfall.Remember the record-breaking dumps in Boston last year?
As we approach mid-century and temperatures continue to rise, more and more precipitation could fall as rain rather than snow. To some degree, investments that ski areas made in snowmaking systems will help for a while (an energy, resource, and financially intense undertaking), but only when temperatures are cold enough. Already nearly 90 percent of resorts rely on snowmaking to stay open. And snowmaking does nothing for the increasing number of people heading into the backcountry, where many of the films that draw people into the sport are made. The way things are going, by mid-century half of the resorts in the Pacific Northwest will be forced to close. By the end of the century iconic resorts such as Aspen Mountain will only receive snow on the top quarter of the mountain.
As Auden Schendler, VP of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, puts it,
“The ski industry doesn’t have a real vibrant future.”
A growing number of ski areas clearly see this grim trend, and have plans to forestall this future. Lowering resource and energy usage, including installing on-site renewable energy, and increasing efforts to diversify into year-round resorts, offering hiking, mountain biking and zip-lining in the summer, are the order of the day.
What can parents do?
In a way, we have the most critical role to play — in our kids, we can cultivate a love and connection with nature, that creates a protective caring for the world around us. This will sustain long-term action needed to tackle climate change — and our myriad environmental problems. PPM of CO2 is invisible; having no snow to slide on is visible. Moms Clean Air Force partner, Protect Our Winters, make sure lawmakers listen to those whose livelihoods depend on snow when considering climate and environmental policy.
Aaron Teasdale recently wrote, talking about what he does with his two sons,
“We have a family rule: no school on big snow days. Instead, we go to the mountains. I love to think it’s my way of teaching them life’s priorities. Last winter, we waited and waited, but the powder days never came. Big deal, you might say. So people don’t ski — we’ve got bigger things to worry about. But losing skiing means a generation of kids further removed from the joys of nature in winter…People fight to save what they love. What happens if there’s no snow to love?”
A dad’s snow-loving plan:
At three years of age, my son defiantly proclaims that he hates the cold. “Snow’s yucky!” he’s told me in no uncertain terms, spitting at it for emphasis. In a couple of years, I plan to introduce him to the joys of sliding down a mountain standing sideways on the snow. I’ll probably do it in the same way I learned, by hiking up some small side hill when there’s a couple inches of good snow over a solid base — enough that the floaty feeling of snowboarding is there but not so much that turning is more difficult. He’ll probably get frustrated. He’ll probably take a huge number of falls. But then, in all likelihood, given his already developed love of going fast on a scooter and jumping off anything in sight, he’ll make it to the bottom of one run without falling and with a huge grin on his face, hooked for life.
That smile, that excitement, that joy, is the strongest foundation for future conservation that can ever be created.