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Rising temperatures, extreme drought and giant wildfires batter Colorado ski industry

Experts say ski seasons could be permanently shortened in coming decades if large strides aren't made in fighting climate change.
Image: Glenn Cain and Mary Taylor walk on exposed pavement after backcountry skiing in Summit County, Colo., on Dec. 3, 2021.
Glenn Cain and Mary Taylor, after backcountry skiing in Summit County, Colo., on Dec. 3. Jason Connolly / AFP - Getty Images

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — During the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at Breckenridge Ski Resort in early December, thousands of people crowded onto Main Street under a bluebird sky.

The event was preceded by a dog parade featuring hundreds of Bernese mountain dogs and a foot race with runners dressed as Santas and elves. When the sun finally set, the countdown began as a massive evergreen in the square was bathed in golden light.

The festive scene stood in stark contrast to what could be coming for Colorado and the Rocky Mountains: a severely shortened ski season by 2050, with some areas closing permanently by the end of the century.

Few industries in Colorado are experiencing the effects of climate change more than the once-robust ski industry, which experts say could fall victim in coming decades to rising temperatures, extreme drought and huge wildfires. 

Home to some of the most iconic names in world-class downhill skiing — such as Vail, Aspen and Snowmass — Colorado collects $5 billion a year in revenue from the outdoor sport. But many wonder whether the industry can withstand its greatest challenge.  

Denver, which lies at the foot of the Rockies, blew away records this year when measurable snow didn’t fall until Dec. 10, making for 232 straight days with no snow. Pitkin County, home to Aspen and Snowmass, had 30 more frost-free days this year than in 1980. And warming temperatures, even at night, prevent early snowmaking, which is essential to a profitable holiday season.

A typical downhill ski season in the Rockies starts in early November and ends in early April, but a 2017 study in the journal Global Environmental Change found that virtually all winter recreation areas in the U.S. could see the lengths of their seasons decline by 50 percent by 2050, and by 80 percent in 2090 for some downhill skiing locations.

The authors estimated that changes in season lengths under extreme emissions conditions could result in a loss of more than $2 billion for downhill skiing in the U.S.

Ideas vary among managers at Colorado’s 32 main ski areas on how to battle the crisis, but most acknowledge that what they’re doing now isn’t working.

“We’re failing terribly,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and a 30-year mountain resident who is alarmed by the increasing lateness of snow and its early departure, which he called the “March meltdown.”

Schendler said he grew especially worried when the Grizzly Creek Fire chewed through 33,000 acres near Aspen in 2020. It threatened the town and led to mudslides along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, temporarily cutting off access to Aspen.

“My concern initially was that the industry would be taken out by warmth and lack of snow. But in the last four years, we’ve had two giant, catastrophic fires that basically shut the town down,” he said, referring to Grizzly Creek and the Lake Christine Fire in 2018.

Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said Colorado is experiencing shortened winter seasons with first snows coming late and final ones falling earlier.

“We need below-freezing temperatures to get that snowfall, and with the temperatures going up, that is what shortens the winter season,” he said

Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group, said snow is becoming more unpredictable.

“Business doesn’t like unpredictability,” she said. “It’s a major existential issue for the ski industry.”

Skiing is the largest economic engine for western Colorado and drives its second-largest revenue generator, tourism, according to Colorado Ski Country USA.

Ski areas have been working aggressively to switch to renewable energy to generate electricity, conducting energy audits to track their progress and using water more judiciously because most of Colorado’s water comes from mountain snowpack.

Despite efforts by ski resorts to reach zero emissions, zero waste and zero net operating impacts, Mills said it’s not enough.

“We can all be carbon-free, and we still won’t make a dent in the problem,” she said.

To that end, the industry is shifting its focus to advocacy by pushing policymakers to do more to fight climate change.

“This is not a problem that we’re going to solve locally,” Mills said. “And it’s not a problem that the ski industry is going to solve. We want to be part of the solution, but we need action at the national level and the international level.” 

Schendler had hoped President Joe Biden’s all-but-doomed Build Back Better plan would be successful because it included some $550 billion in climate-related programs that would have put the U.S economy on track to zero emissions by 2050.

Scientists say that without that kind of action globally, nations will be unable to limit climate change to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius, and avoid its most catastrophic effects.

Lisa Whitaker, who lives in Summit County and serves on the volunteer safety patrol at Copper Mountain, worries the late start to the season is putting too many people on too little terrain, increasing the risk of accidents.

“I would be sad not to be able to ski again,” she said. “I would be devastated if a whole community is wiped out. But when I think about hundreds of thousands of acres burning and the loss of  wildlife, that’s much more sad to me than not being able to ski.”

Schendler said it will take a national effort to save not only skiing but other outdoor industries that rely on the weather for survival.

“We have to be noisy,” Schendler said, “and the bulk of the United States business community is not doing what’s required on a problem that costs more to leave alone than to solve.”