It was maybe 15 years ago when Daniel Scott found himself in Vermont speaking to ski area CEOs. He felt less than welcome.
Scott was a guest from Canada, a leading researcher on climate change’s threat to the slopes.
“They were real honest with me,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Half of our board wants you here, half of our board doesn’t.’”
He came with an inconvenient truth.
He was learning what he and colleagues would detail in reports later: More than half of the industry in the Northeast would be unable to carry on a 100-day season by 2039. New York ski areas will have shrunk from 36 to nine, with New Hampshire and Maine being left with 15 between them. Connecticut and Massachusetts would be rendered obsolete.
Vermont would fair comparatively OK. But for some of those CEOs, Scott was the party pooper.
Now the director of the Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo, he similarly felt like a pariah in Colorado.
“It’s really changed,” he said.
Executives have made a shift. Rather than ignore the boogeyman in the closet, they’re swinging the doors wide, facing him head-on.
No longer are they hiding under the covers, sleeping soundly, believing climate change’s creep to be slow. It’s true, Scott said: The near future appears brighter up in the Rockies.
“Higher resorts like ours are gonna do better,” said Auden Schendler with Aspen Skiing Co. “But that’s no solace.”
Mountains like Aspen’s, he said, depend on hills across the country, where skiers build their appetite and dream of legendary terrain out West.
“The industry depends on the whole range of skiers. You learn at your little resort in New Jersey and then one day you ski Aspen,” said Schendler, the company’s senior vice president of sustainability and community engagement.
“So we see (climate change) as a clear and present danger to our business in the short term.”
The losses will indeed be tangible, according to Scott’s projections.
Based on his models accounting for natural snow averages and snowmaking capacity, warming trends could melt away 21% of the state’s ski season by midcentury. Scott’s research shows that would be 14% under the Paris Climate Agreement, which the U.S. withdrew from in 2017.
But the industry is doing its part to abide by the pledge. This past legislative session, Colorado Ski Country, the trade group representing most of the state’s ski areas, alongside Vail Resorts, Inc., stumped for House Bill 1261, which sets the state on an ambitious, carbon-cutting course.
Individual goals are being set across resorts.
After President Donald Trump’s decision on the Paris accord, Vail announced its Commitment to Zero initiative to eliminate net emissions by 2030, including at its five Colorado holdings. By then, Aspen expects 70% of its energy to be renewable. And Copper Mountain and Eldora are also on a greenhouse gas-reducing mission, as set by their owner, Powdr Corp.
The Utah-based conglomerate joined the effort out of founder John Cummings’ fears for winters to come. He’d been noticing changes on the big mountains he skied.
He enlisted a partner to study global warming’s impacts, leading to an ominous 2007 report that was met with “mixed emotions,” said Laura Schaffer, Powdr’s sustainability director.
“But I think in recent years, the industry as a whole has really started to understand that it’s part of our business,” she said, “and it’s something that not only needs to be talked about, but also taken action against.”
Action has come in the form of more snowguns and upgrades to infrastructure. Vail in particular has invested heavily in snowmaking, positioning Keystone to open early in October each year and Breckenridge to stay in business past Memorial Day.
Keystone relies on a robust fleet of automated snowguns, set to fire the moment conditions allow — no waiting on work hands.
“We’re making the very best use of potentially tightening windows,” said Chris Ingham, the director of mountain operations.
They are tightening, according to Scott’s analysis. With the dawn of snowmaking in past decades, he noted generally longer ski seasons across all regions. It seemed technology was winning.
“We’re finally seeing this decade, in the 2010s, that’s just starting to tick down the other way,” he said.
The inventions of man only go so far in combating climate change. And in-house sustainability goals are only so effective, Schendler said.
“We’ve realized for all the things you can do as a company trying to be green, climate change was gonna trump everything,” he said. “You could even zero your carbon footprint, and climate change would march on until you make changes in state and national policy.”
Aspen Skiing Co. has been on the front lines of political battles, using its clout to help influence such decisions as Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the landmark 2007 case that made the agency responsible for regulating carbon and greenhouse gases. Last year, the company launched a campaign called Give A Flake, targeting senators across states for being bystanders.
Schendler said he’s been glad to see industry counterparts join the resistance.
They’ve converged at Protect Our Winters, the nonprofit pressuring lawmakers with an alliance of resorts, major brands, scientists and athletes. It was one who started it all: professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, who sensed snow vanishing.
The sport’s survival might depend on those: its practitioners.
“The more skiers can do to get their state and federal leaders to act on climate change, that makes all the difference,” Scott said.
What We Believe
We are driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone - from all backgrounds and cultures - to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. Learn More