With the growing popularity of outdoor tourism, particularly skiing, Colorado has experienced a huge increase in tourism over the past years but growing concerns over climate change may affect this industry’s future. The majority of scientists agree that climate change is a prevalent issue and it has a direct impact on the rate of snowfall. Changes in temperature lead to changes in precipitation patterns. Therefore, warmer temperatures will lead to less snow and more rain which spells out bad news for the ski industry’s future.
Colorado is one of the biggest and most popular destinations for skiing in the world. Around 23.7% of tourism visits are ski related and they receive the most out-of-state visitors of any place in the United States. 10 out of 20 of the top ski resorts in North America are located in Colorado and 8 out of the 10 most visited resorts as well, (Ski Magazine). Many of these mountains and resorts have hosted Olympic, World and extreme sports downhill championships and are expected to host more in the future. These mountains are expected to receive a lot of tourists and revenue but the real question is whether the snow conditions will hold up to increase or at least keep this current level of attraction.
“Climate change has various impacts on the hydrological cycle, depending on where you are on the planet,” says Dr. Thomas LaVanchy, visiting professor in the department of geography at DU. “We tend to experience here in Colorado a decrease in precipitation, I.E. the form of snowfall in the winter, and equally it can affect the timing of that so in a given year we could reach our average amount of snowfall but with a different timing, I.E. late in the spring.”
This is an important finding that all ski mountains and resorts must consider before making long term plans for their businesses. The seasons are changing in the fact that they are happening later with first snowfalls happening later and later each year in Colorado.
Per Journal, “Observations over the last half century have demonstrated that across a broad region of mountainous western North America, spring snow accumulation has declined and snowmelt has come earlier in the year.”
The month that accumulates the most snowfall in Colorado is March but a study that analyzed snowfall rates in this month for Colorado between 1949-2004 found a steady decline in snowfall patterns. Another one of their findings was that temperature was gradually increasing overtime in this month, (Climate Outlook). With the temperature warming up in late winter and early spring, storms that would normally give a lot of snow to these ski mountains and resorts are turning into rain storms that end up washing the little snow they have left away. There is a steady shift of the amount of precipitation each year going from snow to rain. If the average winter day temp keeps going above -5˚C then these patterns will continue to increase overtime till the point of very little snow falling.
For right now ski seasons have started later and ended later. This doesn’t seem so bad to a lot of ski resort operators for the short-term financial future.
“Last year the ski industry stayed open later than normal, so you could make the argument financially that it’s a wash in terms of how late or how soon the industry stays open,” Dr. LaVanchy continued. “Now it’s really late for resorts to be opening but nobody really has any snow.”
The ski industry does have some solutions to climate change such as making artificial snow. In places like the Alpes in Europe, ski mountains and resorts do not have any other choice if they want their seasons to start on time. Climate change has affected these mountains the most with increased temperatures. Ski mountains in France, Italy and Austria are 59% covered with artificial snow due to the lack of snow reliability and estimates show that that percentage will increase in the close future due to the increase in temperature around these regions, (bioone.org).
When asked if these were the present conditions for the Colorado ski mountains, how would it impact their decision to go skiing, DU sophomore Loui Bogolub responded, “It would definitely have a huge impact on my decision to head for the mountains on the weekend. Artificial snow just isn’t the same as the real thing, I think the chemicals they use to make it change the usual traction and friction of the snow to my board.”
The artificial snow process has been used for the past two decades but cannot supply the whole mountain with snow. Many of the back basins of ski mountains are at risk of becoming un-skiable with the lack of snow they are getting. Many places in the Alpes have not opened some of their runs for entire seasons because they did not get enough snowfall and none of their machines can reach those runs. Artificial snow must be made in -2˚C to -6˚C for is to stay and not melt away, (bionne.org). With current temperatures rising this looks to be a problem for European ski resort operators who initially thought that artificial snow was the long-term solution.
For the short to medium term however, ski resorts across Colorado have a bright future, the 2015-2016 season was their biggest yet in terms of total overnight stays, ski tickets bought and overall revenue. For the 30 ski mountains and resorts in Colorado total ski/snowboard trips increased by .2% for a total of 12.7 million visitors in 2015-16, (Colorado.edu). Visits to Colorado in total were approximately 77.3 million. Total snow-storms were down last year but the ones that did occur were well timed and produced enough snow to keep up with the average snowfall amount.
Although Colorado’s future is promising other places in the United States like California are suffering. Snowfall rates have dropped significantly more on the west coast then in mid-west. Snow reliability has dropped with these rare bad conditions which means more business for Colorado. Overnight tourism trips are expected to increase by 8% in the 2016-2017 ski season totaling 33.6 million. Taxes accumulated from these visits are estimated to make $1.1 billion which could be used to solve the problems caused by climate change, (Colorado.edu).
“I’m really excited for this ski season. We’re gonna get a lot of fresh powder which is perfect for back-country skiing,” said DU junior Devin Toth. “Me and my friends will probably be going every weekend and I have some friends from out of town that want to visit as well.”
Snowfall predications do look great for this season in Colorado where they are expecting over 70 inches of snowfall. This is largely in-part due to the predictions of a strong El Niῆo. This weather front will change the position of the jet stream creating greater precipitation than usual. Although this sounds positive for the ski industry it can also be a potential hazard.
“There are implications, temperature and moisture content is gonna influence the actual type of snow that falls,” said Dr. LaVanchy. “And all of that has implications on how snowfalls in our back basins and then the potential for avalanches….all of that will be expected to change with climate change.”
The hazards of climate change look distant for most people but there are potential hazards in the immediate future with the increase in visitation.
“Increasing populations where there are hazards for potential avalanches will be at risk in the spring when the temperature starts to melt the snow pack. These places are going to be more at risk then usual and will have more visitors than usual which all adds up to a potentially very dangerous situation,” said Dr.LaVanchy.