Boarders and skibums unite to save winters from climate change

What makes a perfect ski day?  Whether you are an easy-going recreational skier or a nationally ranked pro, it can be summed up pretty simply -- beautiful mountains, soft, pristine new fallen snow, and the rush of flying through the powder at speed.  Skiers and snowboarders, here is what you should know: Most of what you love about skiing is going to change dramatically because of climate change.

Professional boarder Forrest Shearer has already observed the effects of climate change on the slopes, “Snowboarding is my job. I see first-hand consequences of climate change. Shorter seasons, depleted snow pack, areas where last year there was snow and now it’s just rocks and dirt. Snowboarding might not be around for long.”

Climate change is a complicated concept to understand, especially when parts of the country have seen especially cold, snowy winters over the past couple of years. Winter 2011 has been a great powder year for resorts in the Rockies, so what’s the problem? 

The problem is that while any given winter can be severe in some places, the long-term trends are not good for winter sports; Skiers and scientists agree that the general trend in snow conditions and temperatures is deeply concerning. The number of extremely cold days is continuing to dwindle, and on average, so is snowfall. In a national study of snowfall change in the U.S., only a handful of regions experienced an increase in snowfall over the past 55 years. Most regions experienced a decrease in winter snow precipitation.  While the Interior West is now expected to get increasingly hotter and drier, the Northeast can expect alternating hot and wet conditions. In both regions, precipitation will increasingly come in the form of rain, not snow.

We have already seen drastic effects from global warming in Europe, where rapid melting and a decrease in snow precipitation are widespread. World Cup snowboarder Alex Deibold recently competed in the Snowboard World Championships in La Molina, Spain. It was an event he had “been looking forward to all year… It was more like a beach vacation than a snowboard contest. There was one trail open other than where our boarder-cross course was, and it was dirt on both sides. It was in the upper 40's almost every day and it hadn't snowed there since November.” These changes have not gone unnoticed by European ski areas or skiers.

European ski areas have been investing enormous amounts of money on new technologies to slow the melting rate of key recreational glaciers. Switzerland and Austria are both international ski destinations and provide a huge source of national income. In a desperate attempt to beat warming trends, the Pitzal Resort in Austria famously covered the namesake Pitzal Glacier in 2005 with white fabric and fleece to try to protect the glacier from the sun . The Resort has since invested in IDE All Weather Snowmaker, which creates snow in above-zero temperatures without the aid of chemicals. The artificial snow is sprayed on the glacier to prevent the glacier from melting drastically during the summer. These are expensive measures that only provide temporary relief if global warming proceeds unchecked.

Many U.S. states also depend on winter sports for their economic vitality. The outdoor recreation industry yields $730 billion every year and supports almost 6.5 million U.S. jobs. In Colorado, a state famous for ski resort towns like Aspen and Vail, the outdoor recreation industry adds $10 billion to the state economy every year and supports 107,000 jobs. More than one-fifth of the Colorado population participates in snow sports.  Other big recreation states like Idaho, New Hampshire, New York, Wyoming, Vermont, Utah and California also generate billions in economic activity every year from outdoor recreation, of which skiing is a major component.

After reading this you’re probably feeling a little grim about the future of skiing, maybe a little down that one of your favorite winter activities might not be around for future generations to enjoy. There is a lot that needs to be done, but organizations like Protect our Winters (POW)  and The Wilderness Society are fighting to spread the word about climate change.

Image of professional snowboarder Forrest Shearer courtesy of Protect Our Winters