A lack of natural snowfall dampens skiing conditions at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California. (Kendall Brunette)

First tracks are the coveted, cherished and committed signatures pursued by skiers and snowboarders alike. First tracks are reason for the early morning alarm clock that disturbs a heavy winter slumber. They provide the courage to pull back the covers and brave the frigid temperatures outside the comfort of a warm bed. They are the reason for one less beer the night before, and they silence the voice that says stay in bed, relax – the mountain will be there tomorrow.

But, what if it isn’t? What if our first tracks become our last?

The mountain will remain, but its snow-covered peaks will melt from white to brown. As this winter’s final snowflake evaporates back into the atmosphere, the question remains — will the snow return again?

This winter, skiers and snowboarders across the globe loaded onto chairlifts with feelings of doubt, angst and worry. How many more mornings will they be able to chase these elusive  first tracks?

Through goggle-rimmed eyes, it is difficult to envision a day when tight carves on corduroy become a thing of the past. Chapstick-clad lips refuse to talk about the end of winter — the end of a sport so many hold near and dear to their hearts. Helmet-covered ears still truly appreciate the quiet stillness of falling snow. Legs, trembling and weak from one too many mogul runs, know what it means to miss the mountain, to crave its steepness and to ache for its expanse. The love of skiing and snowboarding extends into every fiber of one’s being with the hopes of becoming contagious. It is this contagion that can effect change.

Conor Raney knows this contagion all too well. Raney grew up at the foot of the Wind River Mountains. He has spent his life climbing, backpacking and skiing in the mountains he calls home. On an unseasonably warm spring morning, he describes what he considers to be one of the most pivotal issues facing the mountains he knows and loves.

“We have the privilege of experiencing outdoor recreation — not a right,” Raney said. “The changes I’ve seen [are] worrisome for me because the future and the health of our mountains are in jeopardy. Humans are beginning to touch the mountains without even being there.”

It comes as no surprise that the man whose Facebook relationship status states, “In a relationship with Wind River Range,” harbors a great deal of passion for the mountains and the recreational pursuits they offer. At 25, Raney laments about the changes he has witnessed during his years in the mountains.

“Our passion for outdoor recreation will never be submerged by changes, but it definitely takes away from the pureness of any trip when you notice change, especially human-induced change,” Raney said.

In today’s warming climate, the symptoms of climate change are clear — shorter winters with late snow accumulation and early melt, the compromised ability to make machine-fed snow, decreased average snowpack and fewer annual skier visits. The patient in this case is the ski industry, suffering the symptoms and awaiting its diagnosis. What is the prognosis — the future of the ski industry?

Winter is on borrowed time.

The symptoms

Spring skiing at Greek Peak Mountain Resort in Cortland, N.Y. (Kendall Brunette)
Spring skiing at Greek Peak Mountain Resort in Cortland, N.Y. (Kendall Brunette)

The United Nations Environment Programme has identified the ski industry as one of the most vulnerable industries to climate change worldwide. As average winter temperatures rise, resorts struggle to keep chairlifts turning and money coming through the ticket window because of the shrinking duration of the ski season. Each resort is unique in its size, consumer base and elevation.

As snowfall shifts to rainfall, resorts must rely on cold nighttime temperatures to make their own snow and muster the financial and water resources to do so. Do they employ a more proactive business strategy — one that recognizes the threat of climate change and actively fights against it, prioritizing future generations of skiers and snowboarders and ensuring a sustainable business plan? Or, do they follow the reactive route — building more golf courses and mountain bike trails in an effort to ease the sting of shorter winters and transition to summer-focused activities and economic opportunities?

According to a 2012 report for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century under current energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission levels. Across the U.S., winter temperatures have warmed 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1895. The report states that snow depths could decline in the West by 25 percent to 100 percent. The length of the snow season in the Northeast could be cut in half.  Milder winters will impact local and national economies, including small resort operations and businesses associated with the snow sports industry.

As the final flakes melted away and resorts began to shut down their chairlifts for the last time this season, skiers and snowboarders put away their winter gear with a burdening apprehension. What will next season hold? This winter was bad, but next season could be even worse.

Since 1950, more than 600 U.S. ski areas closed for reasons that include decreased snowfall, according to the NRDC. Only 302 new ski areas have opened across the country in that same amount of time. In the last 50 years, the average length of the ski season decreased by an entire week.

Worldwide, nearly 95 percent of ski areas rely on snowmaking to offset the lack of natural snow.

(Infographic by Kendall Brunette)
(Infographic by Kendall Brunette)

Now more than ever the tangible evidence associated with climate change is undeniable within the ski industry. Professional skier Bode Miller recently announced his doubts of the industry’s future. After his breathtaking crash during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado in February, Miller told NBC Sports that he would not invest in the ski industry due to climate change’s influence on shorter, warmer winters.

Miller’s comment struck a chord with many, including Courtney Skinner, an avid skier, climber and mountaineer from Pinedale. Skinner says after spending his younger years ski racing, climbing Mt. Everest and conducting research in the Antarctic, he tends to agree with Miller’s sentiments. Skinner has witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand from all corners of the globe. He reminisces about his days on Everest, watching the glacier fields recede from year to year.

Like many, Skinner knows that you do not have to be a climate scientist to understand the impacts of climate change. All you have to do is strap on a pair of skis and get out on the mountain. The proof becomes obvious — winters are becoming a bit of an endangered species.

Jeff Deems, research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow & Ice Data Center, studies snow hydrology — the science of how snow moves and forms.

“We know that if you change the atmosphere, you change the snowpack,” Deems said. “For example, low-elevation snowpacks are relatively warm — just a couple of degrees below freezing. These snowpack temperatures tend to stay rather warm throughout the winter, so minimally warmer atmospheric temperatures turn a substantial fraction of snowfall episodes into rainfall events.”

On Jan. 16 this year, NASA and NOAA announced 2014 as the warmest year on record. According to Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist in the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, warmer atmospheric temperatures translate into higher moisture content. This can fuel stronger mid-winter storms. Trenberth’s explanation refutes one of the common arguments used by climate change deniers. Deniers like to use examples such as Boston’s record-breaking snowfall this past winter as an indication that climate change does not exist. In reality, these large mid-winter storms serve as proof that the climate is changing.

Scientists such as Dr. Jim White, professor of geological sciences and environmental studies and director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, estimate that some low-elevation resorts will lose their snowpack altogether, while others will subsist with a snowpack limited to the top quarter of their mountains, pushing resort infrastructure uphill.

“And then you’ve got to figure out what’s your business plan?” White said. “How much can you charge, given the fact that your mountain is smaller?”

According to White, the effects of climate change are felt more than 50 years after the cause. It takes almost 75 years for a certain carbon dioxide level to reflect itself in the atmosphere.

“If cause and effect are not immediate, it is hard to provoke action,” White said.

The Diagnosis

Two skiers enjoy the view from the top of Ischgl Ski Resort in Tyrol, Austria. (Kendall Brunette)
Two skiers enjoy the view from the top of Ischgl Ski Resort in Tyrol, Austria. (Kendall Brunette)

Organizations like Protect Our Winters, a California-based environmental nonprofit, have taken the warnings of climate scientists like Trenberth and White to heart.

According to POW’s mission statement, the climatic “symptoms” are clear and the prognosis is dismal. Without immediate action, the future of skiing and snowboarding is in jeopardy. Founder and professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones harnesses the support of his fellow professional winter athletes to advocate for climate legislation, education and responsible environmental stewardship.

“I am not an environmental saint,” Jones said, “but I have a voice in this world and I can make a difference.”

POW’s 2012 collaborative report with the NRDC really changed the national dialog about winter. The report came in response to pressure from politicians in D.C. who wanted to see numbers relating to the impacts of climate change on the winter sports industry. Politicians wanted to know exactly how climate change would affect their state’s ski resorts, recreation industry and tourism.

Billing and insurance

The stark contrast between Nevada desert and man-made California snow is obvious from the top of Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (Kendall Brunette)
The stark contrast between Nevada desert and man-made California snow is obvious from the top of Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (Kendall Brunette)

Nationwide, the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry, which includes skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, has lost more than $1 billion in aggregated revenue between low- and high-snowfall years over the past decade, according to the NRDC & POW report. Between 13,000 and 27,000 associated jobs were lost during this same time period. Decreased snowpack, rising average winter temperatures and economic instability caused a loss of  more than 15 million skier visits to U.S. resorts in the last 10 years.

More than three-quarters of the nation’s states benefit economically from winter sports. Climate change stands to negatively impact nearly 211,900 American workers within the winter sports industry, according to the NRDC & POW report. Ski resorts bear the brunt of climate change impacts, but the effects trickle down to rental shops, restaurants, hotels, ski apparel stores, gas stations, grocery stores and bars as well.

(Infographic by Kendall Brunette)
(Infographic by Kendall Brunette)

In a partnership of strange bedfellows, Aspen Skiing Company recognized an opportunity that would benefit both parties. Aspen’s Coal Mine Methane Project works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by coal by capturing waste methane from Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine. The project converts the methane into electricity, thus preventing a heat-trapping gas from entering the atmosphere. The project harnesses enough energy to generate 24 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually – enough to power all four of the company’s mountain resorts.

With support from POW, resorts like Aspen Skiing Company are making efforts to reverse the hypocrisy of ski resorts powering their operations with coal — a large contributor to climate change.

Not surprising however, is the fact that many ski resorts and related industries are slow to join POW’s mission. Most resorts have been shy to talk about climate change or address the issue in mainstream media because talking about a warming planet means talking about the end of skiing – a move that could be detrimental to business and large corporate interests.

Dismal backcountry snow conditions in Alta, Wyo., Grand Targhee Resort. (Kendall Brunette)
Dismal backcountry snow conditions in Alta, Wyo., Grand Targhee Resort. (Kendall Brunette)

Aspen Skiing Company is one of the few not-so-shy resort companies. As an economic powerhouse in the ski industry, it is able to show politicians in D.C. how shorter, warmer winters will impact resort operations, as well as employment rates and tourism revenue to the state of Colorado using hard data and dollar signs. The company claims that its number one priority is to use the snow sports community as a lever to drive policy change.

In doing so, Aspen Skiing Company joined forces with a coalition of businesses known as BICEP – Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy. This group of like-minded businesses, which includes Burton Snowboards, Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks, works to reduce risks to winter sports businesses, water resources, supply chains, snowpack and winter in general. Through lobbying on Capitol Hill, BICEP hopes to extend its impact beyond its home states of Colorado, Vermont and Washington.

Specifically, Aspen has invested in several sustainable initiatives including a micro-hydroelectric plant on Aspen Mountain, 170 kilowatts of installed solar power, local food sourcing and light bulb retrofits. The company also is increasing corporate philanthropy to programs and causes that match Aspen’s environmental values, including clean energy legislation, open space preservation and energy efficiency.

Within the ski industry, Aspen leads by example, showing other resorts that they cannot reject the consensus of the global scientific community on climate change. But, smaller resorts cannot afford to let environmental principles guide their business practices. They lack flexible capital and must focus on keeping afloat.


Paul Ulrich has worked 17 years in the oil and gas industry. He says climate change forces companies to evaluate their business strategy. Ulrich claims it is a matter of short-term profits versus long-term sustainability.

The reactive business strategy says, if we are losing our winter let’s invest in golf courses, mountain biking and summer recreation. It is a far stretch from the more proactive approach like that of Aspen Skiing Company, and it boils down to a difference in business strategy. With less money to be made on the once-lucrative ski holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter, then why not capitalize on summer holidays like Memorial Day and Fourth of July?

Whether it is a ski resort, an oil and gas company, a rental ski shop or an individual, everyone has a stake in the game. Many say it is a matter of not what you believe, but how you are going to adapt — proactively or reactively.

Scientists such as Deems, Trenberth and White are seeing less snow accumulation in the early ski season months of November and December.

“Winter snowfall is starting later, but the ski season [resort opening date] has not changed, because ski resorts depend on certain prime vacation times like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Presidents’ Day to make money and make their enterprise viable,” Deems said.

Many resorts make their own snow to ensure a Thanksgiving Day opening because there is little natural snow on the ground. But with warmer nighttime temperatures, artificial snow is increasingly hard to make.

The prognosis

Restaurants, bars, hotels and retail stores rely upon winter sports tourism for significant seasonal income. (Kendall Brunette)
Restaurants, bars, hotels and retail stores rely upon winter sports tourism for significant seasonal income. (Kendall Brunette)

Scientists agree on the symptoms and diagnosis, but it seems the ski industry is slow to accept the reality. As White says, “…step number one is to say I’ve got a problem.”

Tomorrow’s ski season relies on today’s advocacy efforts, many in the industry say. Education is the first stage of activism. Before people can be expected to change daily habits or enact any sort of climate legislation, they must first be informed. According to Gina McCarthy, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one of the best ways to raise awareness about climate change is to get people out on the ski slopes where the impacts are obvious, more intrusive and clear.

Skiing has the ability of helping people connect with the land in a very personal and passionate way. Days spent carving turns in the snow and enjoying time outdoors with family and friends help remind people of the fleeting nature of winter – the precious and finite reality of snow.

Conor Raney of Pinedale embarked on a three-day ski mountaineering trip in January. In a month that normally brings conditions too harsh for high alpine recreation, Raney and his friends were able to ski the Winds without difficulty.

“Just the fact that the weather was good enough for three days this year to make a trip up there in January made me think of what the future may hold for the mountains,” Raney said. “Beyond the recreational standpoint, the mountains are the crown of the planet for a reason. Healthy mountains are healthy people, and lately the mountains have been suffering due to our actions on the planet.”

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  1. I really appreciate the depth of analysis In Ms. Brunette’s piece. Probably the best way to convince climate change deniers is to make visible specific changes to specific locales. This article does that very well. And of course, the changes do not just affect us humans. Thanks for the good work.

    Janice Harris
    Laramie, WY

  2. Perhaps a companion article should be written to highlight other winter driven activities. Ice fishing, snowmobiling, motor coach touring, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing etc.

    All these activities are significant contributors to local and national economies. Just ask West Yellowstone who helps pay the bills.

    Brad Hill
    Lander, WY

  3. Article does not delve into Cloud Seeding. I believe our UW has experimented with cloud seeding, and anecdotally it has produced measurable results.

    Any good info on that ?

    P.S. I’m not in favor of cloud seeding , personally.

    Dewey Vanderhoff
    Cody, WY

  4. Excellent article about climate change and the many losses it will incur. Explaining the in-depth economic impact is a relevant and urgent revelation. Maybe this will help the naysayers to see the realities of climate change. I’d like to read more from Ms Brunette.

    Elaine Crumpley
    Pinedale, WY