Climate models

With climate models predicting less snow, local ski areas seek to adapt


This winter is shaping up to be good, with a 70 to 80% chance that a La Niña will bring buckets of snow.

If that happens, skiers and snowboarders will be thrilled, especially after a lackluster winter last year. The millions of dollars that local ski resorts have invested in improvements will start to pay off.

But climate modeling suggests that the region’s snowpack will only decrease. According to research published this year by scientists at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, the Cascade Mountains could be largely snow-free by 2070.

“Climate change means more water when you don’t need it and less water when you need it,” said Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, which published research similar to that of the Berkley study.

Ski resort managers and owners are aware of this possibility and are doing what they can to adapt proactively. At 49 degrees north, this required the installation of snow machines, said Eric Bakken, the station manager.

“It’s definitely better than doing nothing,” he said.

These machines can lay down a solid base layer of snow. In good snowy years, they allow earlier openings and can extend the season. During bad years, they can prove invaluable, said Rick Brown, director of skier and rider services.

“We’re lucky we haven’t needed this in the past,” he said of the snow machines. “But when you look across the continental United States… there are areas that couldn’t function for years. For us there are seasons here and there where it will make a huge difference.

We have seen the struggle in other areas and we don’t want to be put in that position.

The ski industry as a whole grapples with this existential question. Most ski areas in the United States are expected to have a 50% shorter season by 2050, according to a 2017 study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and published in the journal Global Environmental Change. Meanwhile, the ski season in the western United States has already declined by 34 days on average.

Advances in snowmaking technology, especially automation, have made it possible for ski areas like 49 degrees North to produce snow as soon as the weather conditions allow and can help at least in the short term. Changing snow dynamics have also prompted resorts to diversify, offering mountain biking and other activities to compensate for the shortened seasons.

“We have actually put in snow on our Midway and Musical Chairs tracks since 2008 and it has been an amazing tool in helping us open up when the temperatures are good to snow, but we haven’t. seen the natural snowfall that we would like, ”Schweitzer spokesperson Dig Chrismer said in an email. “Concerns about climate change also helped us decide how the new elevator configuration would play out when we installed Cedar Park Express and the Colburn Triple. The old Snowghost chair had a loading station that was lower than the new Colburn Triple station, making it difficult to open the rear bowl when snow was scarce at lower elevations. Last year we were able to run Colburn Triple even though we lacked snow further down.

Lookout Pass, on the Idaho-Montana border, sits in the Snow Belt and receives more snow on average than other resorts in the area, spokesman Matt Sawyer said. He hopes this continues to be the case.

“Snowmaking in other parts of the country is a great insurance plan if it covers 50% of your land, but most parts of the Pacific Northwest don’t have that coverage,” said Sawyer in an email.

The existential threat climate change poses to the snow sports industry has prompted changes in the approach and message to environmental activism, according to a report released in September. A once resolutely apolitical industry has largely contributed to the defense of the environment. For example, this year, the four largest ski resorts in North America – Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, POWDR and Boyne Resorts – agreed to coordinate their climate advocacy.

“We’re a weather dependent business, so it’s important to do what we can to protect and save our winters so that we can continue to ski and snowboard for generations to come,” Chrismer said.