Climate change hits the snowboard and ski industry

In a recent post, we talked about the cold hard climate facts that skiers and snowboarders face in the very near future. But how much weight should we give the individual observations of snowboarders who say their snowpack is disappearing? Actually, quite a lot.

Here’s the straight skinny on climate change, how it’s impacting winter sports economies and how professional winter athletes may be part of the solution:

Some resorts had good powder this year. So what's the problem?

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 ski resorts in the Rockies, so what’s the problem? 

Long-term trends

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.

“We need to all work together and get the word out there about climate change. Engage a movement, stand up for something you believe in. For me it's winter and snowboarding. I need your help.”

Forrest Shearer

More rain, less snow

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 United States, 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, according to the United States Global Change Research Program.

Drastic changes underway already

Europe is already experiencing drastic changes. Rapid melting and a decrease in snow precipitation are widespread. As World Cup snowboarder Alex Deibold observed in our last blog, the Snowboard World Championships in La Molina, Spain in January “was more like a beach vacation than a snowboard contest.” These changes have not gone unnoticed by European ski areas or skiers. 

Desperate measures to protect winter wonderlands

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.

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.

How snowboarders fit in to the solution

Despite all the evidence, a recent Yale study found that 64% of Americans believe global warming is happening, but most of them don’t understand why or how. Only 50% understand that global warming is caused by human activity, according to the study.  The term “climate change” has name recognition now, but its definition is still often misconstrued. In Congress, many conservatives have repeatedly tried to deny the science behind climate change and reject federal carbon pollution regulation.

Our country is in need of climate change education that leads to solutions, especially for today’s youth who will inevitably inherit a world deeply affected by global warming.

Pro snowboarders, including Wilderness Society supporter Forrest Shearer, are doing just that. “Through snowboarding I can be a role model for kids and hopefully influence their lives in a positive way,” Shearer told us.

Shearer is a supporter of Protect Our Winters (POW), an organization of winter athletes who are working to spread the word about climate change. Founded by legendary boarder, Jeremy Jones, Protect our Winters and Alliance for Climate Change Education (ACE), have teamed up to create “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes,” which brings elite athletes into public schools to talk to students about the negative effects of climate change.

The “Hot” Program has featured a number of big names for their Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California workshops, including pro boarders Gretchen Bleiler, POW’s Jeremy Jones and Forrest Shearer. Jones told ESPN in a recent article that he started POW “to unite the voice of the winter sports community to have a much larger impact. There are 12 million of us in the US alone, so if we can have a single voice, that's pretty powerful.”  

Climate change is happening now and while we may not have the tools to stop it in the near term, limiting carbon emissions and protecting forests from degradation or development that releases stored carbon emissions are paramount in slowing the rate of climate change.

Climate change will have the biggest impact on future generations, so educating our nation’s children about how a warming climate will change their lives and encouraging them to demand climate-conscious decision-making from their local elected officials will be incredibly important for their future.

“Today’s youth have the power to change our world. Students can influence their parents, their community and local government to take action,” Shearer said.

“We need to all work together and get the word out there about climate change. Engage a movement, stand up for something you believe in. For me it's winter and snowboarding. I need your help.”

In the meantime, The Wilderness Society continues to work on securing legislation that ramps down dangerous heat-trapping emissions, as well as policies that keep our wildlands resilient in a warming world. Having these amazing — and influential athletes — join our ranks is wonderful development that will help in the fight to finally put climate change denialists out of work.

Photo: Jeremy Jones. Courtesy Protect Our Winters.