Reduced snowfall from warming harms winter sports industry

Peter Fimrite / San Francisco Chronicle /

Snow and ski industry dollars have been vanishing at an alarming pace around the country as winter temperatures have risen, but California’s Sierra Nevada has yet to feel the full effect of what researchers said this week is an impending global disaster.

The ski and snow sports industries in 38 states have lost 27,000 jobs and as much as $1 billion in revenue over the past decade alone as a result of reduced snowfall and shorter winters, according to a study commissioned by the environmental advocacy groups Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We need to protect one of America’s greatest assets — a stable climate,” the report, titled “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States,” concluded. “Without it, a vibrant winter sports industry, the economies of mountain communities everywhere, and the valued lifestyle of winter will be gone, not just for us, but for our children.”

But while the rate of warming has tripled in the rest of the United States since 1970, California has partly sidestepped Mother Nature’s temperature tantrum, the report and previous scientific studies revealed.

The study’s temperature charts show that the mountainous regions of California, including the Lake Tahoe region, were the only places in the country where wintertime temperatures remained stable or went down over the past 42 years. That information is largely backed up by Scripps Research Institute studies showing the southern Sierra snowpack has actually gotten larger and the central Sierra has generally remained the same over the past 50 years.

“There have arguably been shortened seasons because of a lack of snow, but there have also been seasons when the snow was great and jobs were created,” said Andy Wirth, president and chief executive officer of the Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley resorts near Lake Tahoe, where jobs and revenues have remained relatively stable. “This last ski season we had people really strongly suggesting that the impacts of climate change were upon us, but I remind them that the year before we had over 800 inches of snow and we were skiing on the July 4th weekend.”

That doesn’t mean things are hunky dory in the Golden State, said Chris Field, the director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

While winter snowfall has not declined over much of the Sierra, “California temperatures have increased dramatically over the past century,” said Field who is also a professor of biology and environmental earth systems science at Stanford University and co-chairman of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group.

The state has warmed 1 degree Fahrenheit, from an average temperature of 58.5 degrees to 59.5 degrees since 1895, he said. Consequently, the snowpack in the northern part of the Sierra has been shrinking. So too has the amount of annual snow over three-quarters of the Western United States, an area that includes Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico, he said.

“In general across the U.S. we see more precipitation across the northern tier states and less precipitation in the southwest over the past 50 or 100 years,” Field said, “but the warming trend year round is clear across the whole U.S. over that time.”

What that means, he said, is that the Sierra snowpack is likely to shrink over the next 30 years, largely as a result of climate change. Projections have shown that the Sierra snowpack in 2100 could be as little as 10 percent of what it is today, he said.

The winter tourism study, conducted by two University of New Hampshire researchers, went a step further, projecting that winter temperatures will be 4 to 10 degrees higher by the end of the century, causing snow depths to decline “25 to 100 percent in the Western United States.”

As a result, thousands of jobs could be lost at ski resorts, which would impact local businesses, including restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, gas stations, winter snowmobile and sports equipment rental, and retail outlets. That could mean billions of dollars in lost revenue and tax dollars.