The United Nations Environment Programme has identified the ski industry, which needs cold weather and snow to thrive, as one of the most vulnerable industries to climate change worldwide.
In the northeast United States, at least, it may not be the Killington's, the Stowe's or the Sugarloaf's that are at risk. Most endangered are smaller, regional operations at lower elevations farther south that either can't adapt or can't afford to adapt as warmer temperatures and less reliable snowpack shortly become the new norm.
Across the country, climate change impacts will likely vary by region. For the West, for instance, water scarcity and drought could end up having a big effect, as ski areas lose the ability to reliably make snow.
But generally, less predictable winter weather means a tough road ahead for any ski area. And in the Northeast, increasingly unreliable winters could affect more than half of the region's 103 active ski areas, according to a report published in September in the journal Tourism Management.
Shorter ski seasons and a lower probability of being open during the lucrative Christmas-New-Year holiday week could doom many of the smaller resorts, the researchers concluded.
"Climate change is like any other business risk it will create opportunities for some, misfortune for others," said Daniel Scott, a professor of tourism management at the University of Waterloo in Canada and part of the team of researchers studying climate change's impact on Northeast ski areas such as Jiminy Peak.
By 2039, the researchers found, only half of the ski areas in the Northeast will be able to maintain a 100-day season a measure of economic viability in the ski industry.
For smaller, southern-tier resorts closer to the major metropolitan areas, the view is especially grim. Within 30 years, no ski areas in Massachusetts or Connecticut will be able to maintain a 100-day ski season and only one-third of the resorts in New York could regularly expect to be open during the holidays. Even with the most efficient snowmaking technology available today, climbing temperatures will make it tough to make enough snow to stay open, said Scott.
The big mountain resorts of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, in contrast, are expected to thrive through mid-century and may even stand to gain more clients as smaller, more southern areas fail and the industry contracts northward.
It's not just about latitude and elevation. The researchers did not account for other aspects of the ski resort business, such as investments in state-of-the-art snowmaking technology, sources of revenue, or capital available for adaptationother factors, said Dawson, which may ultimately determine if the business floats or sinks.
"In the Northeast, it's going to be a mixed bag," said Jackie Dawson, a geographer at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study. "Climate change is going to help create some winners and some losers."
"A ski resort isn't an easy business to run. You have to learn how to respond to the immediate conditions at your hill. You have to be a little nimble to make it," said Troy Hawkes, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, an industry group based in Lakewood, Colo.
Since 2000, more than 190 ski resorts across the country have endorsed the Association's environment charter, known as Sustainable Slopes, to collectively address the potential threat that climate change poses to the industry. As a group, the industry has lobbied for clean energy legislation, wind energy production tax credits and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"If there are two industries in the world that know that climate is changing, it's the insurance companies and the ski resorts," said Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire.
According to Hamilton, the industry began experiencing the effects of climate change nearly 30 years ago. A series of unusually warm winters in the 1980s and 1990s was one factor in the closure of nearly 600 small, locally owned and public ski hills across the U.S. Northeast, because they couldn't afford to make snow. $1 billion loss
Nationwide, the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry has experienced an estimated $1 billion loss over the past decade and seen 27,000 jobs evaporate, according to an analysis prepared for the nonprofit groups Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Diminished snowfall patterns and the resulting changes in outdoor habits of Americans were to blame, according to the report, released last week.
This is a shorter version of a report that was originally published by The Daily Climate.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.