The Ski Industry’s Complicated Relationship with Climate Change

December 7, 2018

Climate change is getting more and more attention, particularly after the recent landmark report compiled by 13 federal agencies that details the scientific results revealing how damage from global warming is intensifying throughout the country. President Trump on Nov. 27 in response to the National Climate Assessment said he is not among the “believers” who see climate change as a pressing problem, according to The Washington Post.

While the political debate shows no end in sight, and as deadly wildfires and shrinking ice caps take up much of the national discussion, probably the last place one might expect climate science to enter the fray is on the ski slopes.

That discussion focuses on manmade snow and the ties ski resorts have to its production. After all, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reports that 88 percent of its ski areas make snow. The NSAA advocates for ski owners and operators which represent over 300 alpine resorts which account for more than 90 percent of the skier/snowboarder visits nationwide.

As for the process itself, snowathome.com explains “Snowmaking is a heat exchange process. Heat is removed from snowmaking water by evaporative and convective cooling and released into the surrounding environment.”

The Sierra Club in 2017 detailed the “surprising” support Vail Resorts, the multinational ski conglomerate, provides to politicians who either deny that climate change exists or refuse to take action. The report noted that, despite documented warming trends, “100 percent of (Vail’s) profits still came from winter activities,” seemingly putting a ski industry reliant on snow at odds with rising temperatures.

“Total snowfall has decreased in many parts of the country since widespread observations became available in 1930, with 57 percent of stations showing a decline,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in a report as a direct “climate change indicator.”

Artificial snow is becoming increasingly common as natural snowfall levels aren’t always sufficient to keep up with warmer weather.

Why then would a ski industry beholden to snow support politicians who deny climate warming science? As Sierra’s Hannah Norman reports, “It’s all about the water.”

“Vail’s response to climate change reflects a company split between short-term economic gains and the long-term health of the industry,” the report examined. “If Vail takes the long view, it’s clear that a stable climate is the best thing for its bottom line. But because of erratic snowfall, the company is already scrambling to come up with the water necessary to manufacture snow that used to fall for free out of the sky.”

More to the point, the issue revolves around controlling that water. Donna Bebb, the author of a 2015 Stanford climate and financial analysis of Vail, explained to the Sierra Club how artificial snowmaking is both energy- and water-intensive, and “pits ski resorts against farms, cities, and conservationists during drought years, when water supplies are lowest.” In 2012, the Stanford investigation continued, Vail Resorts reported its water rights as an intangible asset valued at $18.3 million.

As a result, Vail has financially contributed to politicians who support the Water Rights Protection Act, which seeks to block the U.S. Forest Service from ever taking control over the water rights for ski resorts that operate on public lands.

“The ski industry has loudly endorsed the act,” Norman reports.

For its part, the NSAA offers differing perspectives on water’s role in artificial snowmaking.

“It is important to keep in mind that water used for snowmaking is not considered a ‘consumptive’ use of water. Most of the water diverted from streams for snowmaking returns to the watershed,” the agency notes. “Since the majority of water used for snowmaking is water purchased by a ski area and brought onsite through diversions, snowmaking greatly benefits the watershed in which it is taking place by adding water that would not otherwise be there.”

It also claims that snowmaking water is vital in fighting wildfires.

“Ski area snowmaking storage reservoirs play a critical role during the summer months in supporting fire protection,” it states. “Snowmaking reservoirs provide helicopters easy access to water in remote areas during fire suppression operations. In addition, extensive water pipe systems at ski areas allow for water to be transported to remote areas during firefighting activities.”

A reservoir of water used for snowmaking

Discussions will no doubt continue as to measuring the importance of preventing wildfires in the first place versus the benefits of snowmaking water when fires do occur.

Like climate science itself, the debates will last long beyond ski season.