Grand Targhee opened Nov. 22. Other Wyoming resorts are scheduled to open this week and through December. (Photo Courtesy Cody Downard)

New book shows climate change impact on skiing

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton
— November 26, 2013

About two and a half years ago Ned Hutchinson went surfing with friends in Nicaragua. Talk amongst the Jackson residents turned to rising sea levels and how climate change could impact the surfing and whether the break they were on that day would even be there in the future.

As they talked, Hutchinson’s mind wandered to his other favorite sport- skiing. Why was no one talking about climate change in terms of skiing?

When he returned to Wyoming Hutchinson talked to his friend, fellow skier and Jackson resident Steve Tatigan. The more they talked, the more curious they felt about finding out about climate change’s impact on snow. Skiing is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide and the reason why so many of his friends live in Jackson in the first place.

Find out more about “Deep” and where to buy it at >deepthebook.com.

They turned to their friend, journalist, skier and former Jackson resident Porter Fox. The result is a book documenting the history of skiing and the changes the sport and industry faces as snowpack dwindles on a warming planet.

As Wyoming’s ski areas prepared to open for the season, Fox, Hutchinson and Tatigan released “Deep: The story of Skiing and the Future of Snow,” on Nov. 16, a book celebrating the sport they love, while drawing attention to the threat that could end it.

***

Fox grew up skiing in Northern Maine. He moved to Jackson after college in 1994 and worked for the local paper, leaving town in 1999 after taking a job with Powder Magazine. He spent most of his free time in Jackson skiing. While he was environmentally conscious and aware of global warming, he never connected it to his favorite sport.

“I just never thought of it in terms of snow and I don’t know why,” he said. “It gets warmer. Snow melts. It seems obvious.”

It was a phone call in 2012 from Hutchinson and Tatigan, two of Fox’s old skiing buddies, that finally connected the dots. Fox, an editor at Powder Magazine agreed to do a little research and see if there even was a story. The statistics he found the first day stunned him.

“This is the biggest skiing story of probably the century and we’ve missed,” he said.

Author Porter Fox is an avid skier and former Jackson resident. (Photo courtesy David Reddick)

He learned alarming facts; one million square miles of snowpack have disappeared in the last 45 years in the Northern Hemisphere. And the Rockies lost 20 percent of its spring snowpack in about the last 50 years. And half of the ski resorts in the Northeast will close in the next 30 years if trends continue.

Tatigan and Hutchinson created a publishing company to expedite the process and print the book. They paid Fox an advance to spend the next year traveling the world reporting, talking to scientists, avalanche forecasters, ranchers, farmers and other skiers, and used a Kickstarter campaign to help with printing costs.

“There was this feeling of urgency of actually doing this project and actually getting it done,” Hutchinson said. “It really became super important to all three of us.”

 ***

Many people’s memories go back only a few years, when climatology looks at centuries. That means to many skiers there doesn’t seem to be a problem. “When you talk to a skier on the slopes, they are like ‘look around, there’s snow on the slopes, there’s snow on the trees, everything’s fine,’” Fox said.

The data says otherwise. The scientific data and empirical evidence clearly shows snow disappearing in the last 100 years and continuing to diminish. Fox said he learned two-thirds of European resorts will close in the next 50 to 70 years due to lack of snow. The Western United States’ spring snowpack could decline 25 to 100 percent by 2100 ending skiing at resorts like Park City and allowing skiing at Aspen on only the top quarter of the mountain.

The decline of snow will have repercussions far greater than taking away a recreational activity, Fox said. Around the world 1 billion people depend on snowmelt for fresh water. Agriculture depends on snow for crops.

The book dives into the economics on climate change and food production and what the world will look like warmer. “It’s ugly,” Fox said. “Very ugly. It’s a catastrophe.”

The lack of skiing might be one of the least of the world’s problems if warming trends continue, but Fox wanted the story to focus on skiing as a way to galvanize the ski community. “This movement needs several foot holds of people to dig in and say ‘enough,’ or we’re screwed,” Fox said. “The ski community can be one of those footholds.”

Appealing directly to skiers about the impacts on the sport they love makes a global issue resonate personally, said Hutchinson. “This is a way to tell their story,” he said, “within our story.”

***

The ski industry lost $1 billion due to bad snow years in the last decade, according to Fox. Last year a record number of people visited Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, but that doesn’t mean the ski industry can afford to be complacent, said Jerry Blann with Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Blann, who has not yet read “Deep,” said there is no question climate change could have major repercussions on the ski industry.

“There are entire industries at risk — and we are one of them,” he said. “We take it seriously.”

The warming temperatures impact skiing, from shorter seasons to less natural snow — which means higher costs to make snow. “It’s not good for our industry, it’s not good for recreation,” said Blann.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort receives an environmental assessment each year to earn an international certification. Each department within the resort sets specific environmental goals like increasing recycling, composting and use of biofuels. A few years ago the resort received the Golden Eagle Award from the National Ski Areas Association for environmental performance.

The resort was one of the first ski areas to sign onto the Climate Challenge, a voluntary program to help ski areas reduce carbon emissions. It also was one of more than 100 ski areas to sign a climate declaration in May urging policymakers to address climate change.

“Could we do more?” said Blann. “We can always do more.”

Skiers, and those who love a mountain lifestyle also have a responsibility to the environment in being selective in the companies they support, as well as their own actions, Hutchinson said. “I am not so naïve to think every passionate skier is going to go out and buy a Prius,” he said. “But I am optimistic enough to believe that the general outdoor consumers, the people out being recreationalists, can wake up and realize they can affect change through the companies that they use.”

There’s still a chance to make a difference, he said. There’s still a chance for future generations to wake-up on a winter morning giddy because it’s a powder day and they are going skiing.

A guide to skiing Wyoming this year

Grand Targhee Resort opened November 22 with almost 100 inches of snow, said Ken Rider, director of marketing at the ski area. Sleeping Giant near Cody is also open, although only partially and with man-made snow. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s winter outlook report

Above average precipitation is expected in the Northern Rockies, specifically over Montana and northern Wyoming, said Kelly Allen with the National Weather Service’s Riverton office. That above average precipitation is expected for the next three months. The Tetons, Yellowstone area and Absaroka Mountains will likely see an increase in precipitation in the next month, Allen said.

“It’s going to be really good for the ski areas in the Western part of the state,” she said.

To help plan your winter of skiing Wyoming, below are the opening days to the state’s ski areas.

Update on Antelope Butte

It’s not quite ski season at Antelope Butte, but it could be soon.

Efforts to raise money to open Antelope Butte ski area in the Big Horn Mountains are underway. A fundraiser November 16 brought in more than $32,000 toward the $3 million needed to reopen the area which last operated in 2004. So far the Antelope Butte Foundation  has raised about $190,000 and hopes to open the ski area for the 2014-2015 season.

The foundation is also looking at partnering with the Mountain Rider’s Alliance  which helps small ski areas by grouping them together for things like purchasing, said Mark Weitz with the Antelope Butte Foundation. As a larger group they can receive discounts for buying items- like rental skis and snowmaking equipment- in bulk. It could bring the cost of reopening the ski area down.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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