Current Issue

Colorado’s Big Melt

Climate change could threaten Colorado's $2.62 billion ski industry. Photo: Marc Piscotty

Colorado’s powder-covered mountains have long been a top destination for skiers and snowboarders from around the globe. Every year from Thanksgiving through the end of March, the glistening white peaks turn into one of the world’s biggest playgrounds.

But climate forecasts predict the Rockies will stay lushly green for ever longer periods in coming decades, casting an uncertain future for the state’s ski resorts. Rising temperatures will put the ski industry at risk, a 2001 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Assessment Synthesis Team predicted. As the climate warms, snow seasons will become shorter and snowline elevations will rise, according to the report.

Climate scientists base predictions such as these mainly on computer models, but researchers can also gain important information by looking at what’s happened in the past. Geography assistant professor Mike Kerwin and his team, for example, hunt for climate clues that are locked away in century-old tree trunks.

“Environmental conditions, such as temperature or precipitation, can affect the tree ring width,” says geography master’s candidate Ben Sedlak, who is trying to correlate the Engelmann spruce — the predominant high-elevation tree in the Aspen Highlands ski area — with past snow pack and climate variations.

By analyzing straw-sized samples taken out of trees in the region and comparing them to current climate records, he is looking for a link between the two. Instrumental climate records go back only about 100 years in the region, but the trees are almost more than 400 years old.

“If we find a good relationship between the tree rings and the climate records, then we can infer what was going on with temperature, precipitation or snow pack over the life of the trees in that area,” Sedlak says.

Illuminating the climate history can help scientists determine whether past episodes are likely to repeat themselves in the future. Researchers have found, for example, that the last time the Earth’s climate warmed the way it currently is, the Colorado River experienced a 60-year drought, Kerwin says. “Now the question is whether it is possible to kick the climate system into such a drought again.”

Such a scenario would be catastrophic for the region, including Colorado’s ski resorts. “There is a good deal of concern about global warming among the Colorado ski industry,” says David Corsun, director of DU’s School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management.

As a result, ski resorts across the state are exploring ways to confront the challenge. One of their responses to a warming climate has been an intensive effort to turn themselves into four-season resorts. “They know that they can’t rely just on ski season any more,” Corsun says. “We are beginning to see very strong business in the resort communities during spring and summer because they are increasingly adding activities and opportunities for people to experience nature when there is no snow on the ground.”

One such activity is mountain biking, Corsun says, adding that this sport attracts the same demographics as skiing.

Those resorts with enough capacity are also working to attract more group business, such as conferences, to supplement their non-skiing business, he says. “So with the exception of a week or two between the end of the ski season and when people begin to show up for non-skiing activities, there really is no off-season any more.”

Growing concerns about climate change have also prompted the industry to adapt a greener lifestyle. Vail Resorts, for example, has committed to offset 100 percent of its electricity use by purchasing 152,000 megawatt-hours of wind energy for its lodging properties, stores, corporate headquarters and its five mountain resorts(Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly.

The town of Vail is in the process of replacing its conventional buses with a hybrid-electric fleet, says Vail Mayor Pro Tem Andy Daly (MBA ’80), former Vail Resorts president. “We certainly feel that we can be very involved in reducing our impact,” he says. “And I think among those in the ski industry there is a higher sensitivity and a greater willingness to get involved and respond to the environmental issues that we are faced with because the industry is so closely tied to the use of the natural environment.”

The future success of the Colorado ski industry will ultimately depend on how well it manages to attract clientele in the other three seasons and promote its areas as four-season resorts with destination spas, great restaurants and summer activities, Corsun predicts.

Currently, about 12 million skiers and snowboarders come to visit every year, according to Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade organization representing 26 ski areas in the state. Those visitors contribute an estimated $2.62 billion to Colorado’s economy by spending money on lodging, lift tickets and rentals. However, that’s only a small percentage of the gross state product of over $200 billion.

Shorter ski seasons don’t necessarily mean less state revenue, Corsun says. “State revenue will be influenced by how operators respond to the challenge of driving demand through all four seasons.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *