It’s been a long wait for winter in Colorado ski towns. Mixed temps from high 50s to freezing lows without snow, the weather thus far has been anything but predictable. Though Colorado is in the midst of a La Niña winter, the effects of climate change are undeniably present.

For those who need to brush up on what’s happening to our home planet…

Ski towns (and those whose livelihoods revolve around them) operate and and depend on consistencies in ecological, climatic, and hydrological systems. All of these areas are impacted in this current anthropocene era, and unpredictability is rampant. Climate change is the driving force behind this uncertainty. Climate change refers to a measurable change in the statistics of the atmosphere over decades of time. The planet has warmed 1.4 degrees F since the beginning of the industrial revolution, an unprecedented increase in such a short period of time. While this increase may not seem like much, the implications are enormous. Temperature records are increasingly shattered, making the current decade the hottest ever recorded. These increasing temps are due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions that alter the atmosphere’s delicate life-giving balance.

Chairlift at Breckenridge Ski Resort - December 2017 - Gabby Palko
A look underneath the chairlift at Breckenridge, December 2, 2017, which saw highs of 44 degrees F. Photo Credit: Gabby Palko (OutThere Colorado)

So why does this matter for Colorado?

While impacts of climate change already are (and have been) life threatening in other parts of the world, this warming is also evident close to home in Colorado’s ski towns. Anyone who lives in ski town this season can tell tales of late open dates, minimal open trails, huge patches of grass and brush, and extremely warm temperatures.

Skiing is not only central to Colorado’s culture, but also its economy. Nationally, snow-based recreation is estimated to contribute $67 million annually to the US economy, and supports over 600,000 jobs. So what is the future face of Colorado if its favorite culturally (and economically vital) pastime melts away?

Breckenridge local Geoff Watson, who owns the arcade at Downstairs At Eric’s, says this is one of the worst, driest winters he’s seen in 15 years. He can’t recall the last time winter has been this dry. This is bad for business, as Geoff’s operation is dependent on ski-area visitors. He feels that Front Rangers might not be coming up yet this season due to the lack of snow. And while this holiday season has seen the typical influx of tourists, Geoff can’t help but wonder if they’ll keep coming back.

So, for Colorado ski bums bumming about this winter, your sentiments are backed up science.

Your daily grumble about craving powder days matches the climate data trends put out by agencies like NASA and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency). A look at a graph tracking the earth’s atmospheric greenhouse gas composition and rising temperatures would predict this unseasonably warm and dry winter.

Stills from NASA’s global temperature visualization.

Stills from NASA’s global temperature visualization.

Looking closer to home—say, Breckenridge—snowfall totals for the month of December is just another point on a negatively-sloped graph.

Graph prepared by author using data made available from the Western Regional Climate Center.

Some of the most comprehensive studies about climate change and the ski industry come from the Aspen Global Change Institute. Knowing that climate change is an existential threat to the ski industry, they prepared several scientific studies to project the future of the ski industry in their hometown.

The results were stark.

Possible outcomes from AGCI’s Climate Change and Aspen: An Assessment of Impacts and Potential Responses Report see Aspen’s temperature increasing 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030 (past 1990 levels). This could have devastating impacts for snowfall and resort start dates and end dates. But the scariest projections lie not so far into the future. Looking into the year 2100 (barring any serious advances in greenhouse gas reductions, policy advancements, or major human behavior changes), a “high greenhouse gas emissions scenario” could yield the following results in Aspen:

  • More of Aspen’s annual precipitation falling as rain, rather than snow
  • Majorly deteriorating snow conditions
  • Maximum snowpack reached in February
  • No consistent natural snowpack at the base of the ski area
  • An approximate 2-4 week later start date of the ski season, with melt dates starting 3-5 weeks earlier
  • Natural snow depth non-existent for entire lower two-thirds of mountain
Backcountry Skiing 2 - Summit County - December 2017 - Gabby Palko
A skier tries to ski Summit County’s backcountry in December 2017. Photo Credit: Gabby Palko (OutThere Colorado)

According to the data, the future of skiing in Colorado will be dismal unless there are drastic changes to prevent it. So skiers, savor your powder turns and do what you can to keep them coming!

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