Last year brought the fourth-warmest temps in more than 115 yearsand the third lowest snowfall since the start of satellite tracking in 1966. It was either a rude awakening or the nail in the coffin, depending on how closely you’ve paid attention to the effects of climate change on snowfall. Overall, our winters are 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in 1970.
But until now, the economic fallout from the low-snow trend has been a bit fuzzy. Today the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Protect our Winters (POW) released their findings from a joint study of the impact of climate change on the winter sports economy. The future, they say, is not bright.
“In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, snow is currency and climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons,” it says. “This spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.”
The study shows that from November 1999 to April 2010, the downhill ski resort industry lost an estimated $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue during low snow years. In the past decade, skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers and others have hucked themselves into the wintery wilds 36 percent less during seasons when snowfall suffers. Last year’s devastatingly dry winter caused 50 percent of ski areas to open late and 48 percent to shut lifts early, according to one poll.
It’s not just the ski resorts that suffer: Restaurants, lodges, bars, gas stations and grocery stores that rely on winter-sports tourism lose out as well. “The damage to the environment goes hand in hand with damage to local economies and individual businesses,” according to the study.
This holds true for all regions of the U.S. Most states – 38 in all – benefit from winter-sports tourism. But Colorado has the most riding on solid snow. The Rocky Mountain State, which by the NRDC’s and POW’s estimates can lose as much as $154 million in ski resort revenue during a single dry winter, is more dependent on winter sports tourism than any other state. California, New York, Vermont, and Utah round out the top five snow-sport-dependent states.
The study authors also pointed out that snowmaking, which the majority of downhill ski resorts rely on in tough times, could itself succumb to climate change. As nighttime temperatures continue to heat up — at a quicker pace than daytime ones, it should be noted – snowmaking could cease to be a viable option.
So far we’ve seen some promising early snowfall this season, namely dumps in the Cascades and the Sierras. But by the end of the century, winter temps are expected to spike 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, sending snow depth plummeting. The grim prediction for the Northeast is that the winter-sports season could be half its current length by 2100.
The overall pricetag for all this climate change? A loss of 211,900 jobs and $12.2 billion in value added to the U.S. economy per year.
Here are more of the key findings:
- Only four out of 14 major ski resorts will remain profitable by 2100 under a higher-emissions scenario.
- A reliable snowmobile season (more than 50 days of natural snow cover) will be completely eliminated.
- Park City, Utah will lose all mountain snowpack by the end the century while Aspen will be confined to the top quarter of the mountain under a higher emissions scenario.
- Snow depth is expected to decline by 25 percent in the western United States and will disappear entirely at lower elevations.
The snow sports industry is the canary in the coal mine in terms of the economic impact of climate change, and, according to this report, the message is clear: “Winter as we know it is on borrowed time.”
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