Within the next 70 years, snow melt triggered by climate change could devastate snow sports — from snowboarding to nordic skiing — and snowy-weather destination resorts, according to projections in a recent study.
Mt. Bachelor’s ski season could dwindle from its current average season of 180 days to an estimated 68 days by 2090, according to the study. Hoodoo Ski Area’s season could be reduced to six days.
The study, published last year by peer-reviewed journal Global Environmental Change, identifies changes in winter recreation season lengths across the United States, and the potential of losing winter recreation activities almost completely by 2090. How quickly those changes occur is the difference between curbing fossil fuel emissions and not, according to the study.
Climate change will, in part, cause warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation throughout the globe, forcing the winter recreation industry to reckon with shorter seasons, according to the study.
The phenomenon could halve current seasons by 2050 and further reduce them by 80 percent by 2090. This could cost ski resorts tens or perhaps hundreds of millions in lift ticket profits. It could cost some regions the existence of snow sports altogether, according to the study.
Seth Ganzhorn, a natural resources instructor at Oregon State University-Cascades who has a doctorate in ecology and systematics, has pored over the study. “Bend’s economy is so dependent on winter sports. (Less snow) has a lot of economic implications.”
The study, which Ganzhorn intends to use in a climate change course as a case study of how global issues affect local economies, offers two scenarios for the future — one in which fossil fuel emissions are curbed, and the other in which they aren’t. The first scenario is what Ganzhorn calls “the hopeful model” — by regulating emissions now, greenhouse gas levels will peak around 2040 and begin to taper off through the coming centuries. The other, which he dubs the “business-as-usual scenario,” assumes the globe’s economic development is going to keep being driven primarily by fossil fuels.
Drew Jackson, Mt. Bachelor’s director of marketing, said the ski resort hasn’t seen any change in snowfall or temperature it can pin to climate change.
“Our relatively high elevation has helped us,” he said, adding that the resort makes snow on a single run called Thunderbird under the Pine Martin Express, a high-traffic area under the first main lift to open each season.“We haven’t seen a reduction (in snow). At some point, I’m sure that will change.”
Some think climate change has made itself present.
In 2015, Bend’s multisport race Pole Pedal Paddle had to cancel its nordic skiing leg due to a dearth of snow — a rarity in the event’s 42-year run. The alpine section on Mt. Bachelor that kicks off the race barely had enough snow.
“There was dirt everywhere except for where (Mt. Bachelor) preserved this snow and made a run for us,” said Molly Cogswell-Kelly, the event director at Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation. “They know how important the race is. They do as much as they can. There was nothing on the nordic route,” which was changed into a running leg, she added.
Dry spells are a looming problem for MBSEF, a nonprofit that organizes the Pole Pedal Paddle as a fundraiser.
“It’s a huge concern,” said Cogswell-Kelly. “It weighs on us in February. We’re like, ‘Aaaah!’ (Climate change) is a new reality for us. It’s something we have to seriously consider every year.”
This year, MBSEF permanently rerouted the nordic ski leg through shadier trails.
“That way the snow is not baking in the sun, melting,” she said.
The only other time the PPP went without one or both of the ski legs was in the early 1980s, she added.
Researchers for the study simulated 300,000 possible outcomes for the years 2050 and 2090, Ganzhorn explained. They considered 247 ski resorts throughout the country — including Mt. Bachelor, resorts on Mount Hood and Hoodoo Ski Area — and drew regional conclusions about how rising temperatures will change season lengths, critical snow-making threshold dates and opening dates.
“Those are important because if a lot of resorts don’t open by that winter break time, they don’t do so well from a profit standpoint,” Ganzhorn said.
According to the optimistic scenario for Mt. Bachelor, the season could dwindle to 38 days by 2050 and 156 days by 2090.
“Thirty-eight days is a lot of money,” Ganzhorn said. “The seasons are going to get shorter, and I hope we can start curbing our use of greenhouse gases so we stay more on the (hopeful) scenario, because the (business-as-usual) scenario is not looking good for Oregon resorts.”
Taken as a state, Oregon’s winter afforded $2.2 million worth of nordic ski visits in 2010, according to the study. In 2050, the hopeful scenario places the industry at $1.6 million worth of visits. The business-as-usual scenario values it around $1.4 million. Oregon’s downhill skiing/snowboarding industry will be hit hard, too, according to the study. In 2011, snow enthusiasts spent $119 million on lift tickets. According to the hopeful model, that number will shrink to $94 million in 2050 and $81 million in 2090. According to the business-as-usual model, $81 million will be spent in 2050 and $45 million in 2090. Inevitable ski resort closures are not reflected in those figures. The study also does not take into account that snow users may change the ski resorts they visit or when they take vacations.
No quick fix
Snow-making can’t always make up for a lack of natural snow. Generally, air temperatures need to be 28 degrees or lower for snow machines to work. Snow makers also use more energy and water, the latter of which would be ecologically disruptive, especially in areas prone to drought.
“There’s definitely an environmental cost with snow making,” Ganzhorn said.
About 70 percent of U.S. resorts require about 450 hours of snow making to open by the holiday period, the study says. According to both scenarios, only about half of resorts would be able to make enough snow in time for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. By 2090, only 20 percent would be able to make enough snow according to the hopeful scenario, and only 10 percent by the business-as-usual scenario.
“This will be devastating to the industry because some of the smaller places can’t afford to stay open if they’re not open during the holiday period,” Ganzhorn said.
Throughout the country, nordic skiing has a wide range of season lengths, from one week in some areas in the upper Midwest, where elevations may hover at 1,000 feet, to 24 weeks in Central Oregon, where Virginia Meissner Sno-park and Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center range in elevation from 5,350 feet and 6,350 feet, respectively.
Elevation is the biggest driver of this, Ganzhorn said.
The ample snow seasons Ganzhorn remembers from his childhood in Ohio will increasingly be a thing of the past.
“That’s one of the main findings in this paper — no matter what we do, we’re going to have shorter winter sport seasons. Whether you’re in the Northeast, the upper Midwest or the West Coast — it’s not looking good.”
The business-as-usual scenario predicts that the U.S. will lose winter sports activities almost completely in the eastern half of the country. Elevation is a much more key determinant in whether any particular region will get snow — much more so than latitude.
Steve Roti, the new president of Meissner Nordic, which grooms the 40 kilometers of trails at the sno-park, said snow making is likely forever out of the picture. Even if the U.S. Forest Service, which allows the nonprofit permission to groom a section of the Deschutes National Forest, were to allow snow making, installing infrastructure, such as a water and electricity, would carry a six-figure price tag — far beyond the nonprofit’s grasp, Roti said.
Gliding on “natural snow is what it’s all about for nordic skiing,” said Roti, who’s never plied his favorite ski discipline on machine-made snow.
Jackson at Mt. Bachelor said additional snow making may help the resort combat paltry winters, but the practice is not the cure that it might seem.
“Snow making is a challenge with our specific terrain and topography and the nature of weather in the Pacific Northwest,” Jackson said. “Ideal snow making conditions are when the air is very cold, very dry and very calm. Those are three factors that pretty rarely come together in the Pacific Northwest and the High Cascades. Snow making isn’t going to be a savior for us in the future. But it can be a helpful tool in the situations when it’s possible.”
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