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Study: NW ski areas may be hit by global warming

by: SARAH SKIDMORE    9 March 2006

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Global warming could hurt the quality of future ski seasons in the Pacific Northwest, according to a study released Tuesday by Oregon State University.
OSU researchers estimate if average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius in the next 40 years as some scientists anticipate, the region's ski areas could see more snowy days turn to rainy ones and experience warmer winters overall.

The study, which will be published soon in the Journal of Hydrometeorology, looked at 3,600 square miles of low-elevation areas in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana. The region has already experienced some of the largest declines in snowpack in the western United States. This study attempted to identify more precisely where the snow may disappear.

Outcomes varied greatly among the 19 ski resorts included. Mount Hood Meadows outside of Portland could see rain instead of snow about seven times more often during the winter. Another Oregon resort, Willamette Pass, could see rain instead of snow 22 times more often.

"We consider our industry the poster child of sorts for global warming," said Dave Tragethon, marketing director at Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort. "From an operation standpoint, this is a long-term concern."

Although the study's projections are uncertain, authors Anne Nolin and Chris Daly said results make it clear the area's snowpack is highly temperature sensitive.

"Even the slightest increases in temperature could have serious implications for Pacific Northwest snow and water issues," Daly said.

Although the western portions of Oregon and Washington represent a smaller portion of the area studied, they are the most at risk, according to the authors. In Washington's Olympic Range, for example, 61 percent of the snow cover may disappear in the next 40 years, the study said.

The Pacific Ocean influences the winter weather on the western side of the mountain ranges, while colder continental air affects weather on eastern areas.

Actual outcomes may vary based on numerous conditions such as climate changes or storms.

Changes in snow and rain patterns would affect much more than ski resorts. Stream flows, fisheries, hydroelectric power and agriculture are all tremendously influenced by these conditions.

The authors said their study is simply a measurement of a sensitive geographic area as a modeling example for future studies.

The study was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA.