Ski resorts grapple with climate change.
By Martinique Davis
The morning of March 15, 2019, dawned clear and cold and bottomless, the remnants of a series of epic multiple-day storms lingering only in the veneer of thirty-three inches of new snow plastered over the San Juan Mountains.
The Telluride Ski Patrol dispatched avalanche mitigation crews to Prospect Basin, where later that morning explosives control work dislodged a sizeable avalanche—capable of burying a car, destroying a small building, or breaking trees, in snow safety-speak. It was the largest controlled, in-bounds avalanche most of the staff had ever witnessed.
The massive avalanche was the product of a “bomb cyclone” weather pattern that dropped weeks’ worth of wet, heavy snow in a matter of days, triggering avalanches of historic proportions and severely hampering travel across the state of Colorado. This was in a ski season that started bone dry, with unseasonably warm and dry conditions causing the Telluride Ski Resort to delay its traditional Thanksgiving Day opening. Later record-breaking snowfall in February and March culminated in the “snowpocalypse” of 2018-19, which to many felt like a once-in-a-decade, if not once-in-a-lifetime, ski season of colossal snow conditions.
Some climate studies predict future weather patterns will favor more of these extreme events, coupled with longer spans of warmer, drier conditions, all activated by human-caused climate change. This new climate reality begs the question: What lies ahead for the future of skiing?
It’s a question scientists and weather observers can’t answer definitively, as the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Snow Survey Supervisor for Colorado, Brian Domonkos, explains. “Overall snowpack and snow accumulation data in the mountains of Colorado are indicating slight downward trends,” he says, but warns that long-term weather forecasting can be capricious. That said, current trends and some long-term forecasts indicate continued decreases in annual snowpack due to warming temperatures and other factors, he says.
In Telluride, a higher relative elevation could help keep things cooler for natural snow versus rain, says Telluride Ski Resort Snow Safety Director Jon Tukman. But it’s possible ski seasons could get shorter, especially on the front end. “Anecdotally we have been seeing a few more midwinter rain and ice events, but we don’t have much historical data on that. The midwinter spell of high pressure that we have in many seasons and we like to call the ‘January Thaw’ may be getting longer,” he says. “It’s difficult to chalk this up to climate but smart people are wondering if these weather patterns are becoming more persistent.”
With long-term trends indicating the potential for warmer temperatures and the American Southwest entrenched in a seemingly endless drought, it’s an issue that is now woven into the snowsports industry’s long-range planning strategies.
“In the past five years we have seen one of our biggest winters ever as well as one of our leanest snow years,” says Scott Pittenger, Director of Mountain Operations for the Telluride Ski Resort. New climate realities such as warmer-than-usual Novembers (making opening on time difficult), an uptick in major wind events that blanket the mountains with dust (causing snow to melt faster), and generally more variable and extreme weather events (like the 2018-19 snowpocalypse) have led to markedly greater operational challenges for the resort, he says.
Telluride, like many resorts, has leaned harder on technology to help manage the effects of a less snowy future, specifically in the realm of snowmaking. “It’s imperative that we are able to capitalize on the winter weather we are provided. This means having efficient snowmaking capabilities and equipment that helps us get big jobs done faster,” Pittenger says, pointing to recent upgrades to the mountain’s snowmaking systems that make the process more efficient, allowing the resort to “do more with less.”
Conservation of natural snow has also become a more front-and-center aim for the Telluride Ski Resort, whether it be early season packing of fresh snow, altering operational routes to preserve snow in key areas, or the general management of opening terrain, Pittenger adds.
Telluride has also diversified its offerings to provide more non-snow activities like mountain biking and canopy tours, joining the trend of other ski destinations around the country in trying to stay ahead of the climate change curve.
Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, believes the ski industry is uniquely positioned to wield influence when it comes to calling for large-scale action on the national stage. Referencing an Aspen Global Change Institute study released in 2019, Aspen and surrounding mountain communities have seen greater warming than the rest of the country: Data collected from weather stations in Aspen show an average of thirty-one more frost-free days per year since collections began in 1940, meaning winter is a full month shorter now than it was decades ago. “Most important is for us, and the industry, to wield political and movement power to help actually solve the problem: Force elected officials to act, as they are beginning to,” he says.
Organizations such as Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that focuses on legislation regarding climate change, has galvanized members of the outdoor community to advocate for climate action. For Schendler, these types of movements will be critical for the future of skiing in Colorado, and around the world. “Don’t settle for resorts telling you their climate fix is to cut their carbon footprint. That’s not meaningful. They need to be wielding power and speaking up publicly. Hold us, and others, accountable,” he says.