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Is Colorado's Ski Industry Doomed Due To Global Warming?

by:    13 April 2006

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Global warming may spell disaster for much of the Rocky Mountain West's ski industry by the year 2050, according to a climate-trends model showing dramatic snowpack loss due to climate warming. The climate model results are part of the 2006 Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card, released this week.

A downscaled climate model was run on a regional scale for the eight-state Rocky Mountain region to see the potential effects of global warming in the Rockies, using data from 1961-1990, and projecting future trends from 2070 to 2099. The climate model generated the temperature, amount of precipitation and depth of snowpack at each of more than 15,000 data points evenly distributed throughout the eight-state region.

The climate-trend model shows that in every eco-region, springtime snowpack decreases by at least 37 percent, and in 14 eco-regions, snowpack decreases by more than 70 percent, which would have devastating effects on ski areas in the region.

Projected ski-area snowpack loss by 2085 in Colorado includes...

82 percent loss: San Miguel County, location of Telluride Ski Resort

57 percent loss: Eagle County, location of Vail Resorts and Beaver Creek Resort

54 percent loss: Grand County, location of Winter Park Ski Resort

50 percent loss: Summit County, location of Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort, Keystone Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area; Routt County, location of Steamboat Resort; and Gunnison County, location of Crested Butte Mountain Resort

43 percent loss: Pitkin County, location of Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass resorts

As conditions worsen for ski sports including downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, participation in these sports is likely to decrease and may become unviable by 2050, the report says. Mountain climates will have warmer winters and shorter snow seasons, and more of the region's precipitation will come in the form of rain, rather than snow.

Aspen Ski Company Chief Executive Officer Patrick O'Donnell, an advocate of reducing the impact of climate change on the ski industry who is quoted in the report, said that if climate change shortens the ski season, it is going to be an economic disaster. O'Donnell said a ski resort such as Aspen Ski Company is open for about 140 days each year; it takes the resort 100 days to break even. If the season is shortened by a few dozen days, the resort would become unprofitable. As temperatures warm and snowpack melts earlier, some say the industry may fold.

Others say climate change is less of a worry in the Rockies region because lower-altitude resorts such as those in the Pacific Northwest, New England and Europe will suffer rising snowlines and warmer winters before the Rockies.

The 2006 Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card's section on climate change also looks at the effect of greenhouse-gas emissions and includes warming-trend predictions in two scenarios, which were included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report on Emissions. They are: a "business-as-usual" scenario of rapid economic growth, where global population peaks about 2050 and then declines; and a reduced-emissions scenario that assumes a transition to alternative energy as fossil fuel resources decline. The reduced-emissions scenario assumes extensive use of conventional and unconventional gas as the cleanest fossil fuel during the conversion toward renewable technology.

Greenhouse-gas scenarios show the following data...

Business-as-usual scenario: temperature increases of 7-10 degrees Celsius during the summer

Reduced emissions scenario: temperature increases of 3-6 degrees Celsius during the summer

Business-as-usual: temperature increases of 3-7 degrees Celsius during the winter

Reduced emissions: temperature increases of 1-5 degrees Celsius during the winter

Projected snowpack percentage changes are as follows...

Business-as-usual: most areas lose more than 50 percent of their snowpack

Reduced emissions: about half of the snowy areas lose 50 percent of their snowpack

The report also found that water issues are likely to become more critical in the Rockies region as climate warms. Because 85 percent of the Rocky Mountain region's water originates from snowpack, winter weather strongly influences water supply. Research found that most river basins will experience increased mean winter temperatures and decreased April 1 snowpack. Earlier runoff, due to higher winter temperatures and decreased springtime snowpack, combined with more frequent droughts due to higher summer temperatures, will strain reservoir supplies in the summer, when water demand by irrigated agriculture and municipal use is at its height.

The annual Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card was released at the State of the Rockies Conference, April 10-13 on the Colorado College campus. The climate-change session today included talks by Roger Pielke Sr., Colorado state climatologist and professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University; Roger Pielke Jr., former scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, professor of environmental studies and fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Company.

This year's report also examines environmental justice, the effect habitat threat and fragmentation of land has on biodiversity, the political voice of the Rockies Region on a national level, changes to ranching in the Rockies, land conservation, and how effectively each county nurtures its youth.

The report also features the updated "Rockies Baseline" section, which illustrates the region's essential demographics, including population and age, language, race and ethnicity, families, housing units, home values and costs, education attainment, income, poverty, income by type, employment by occupation, employment growth by occupation, employment by industry, and employment growth by industry. These baseline statistics track vital signs that depict a region in transition.