The ski season and winter weather are arriving a little later
It just hammered snow in Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. So much so that a roof caved in on a suburban hockey rink, and airline services have been disrupted, to put it lightly. Snowfall in southwestern Colorado is hovering near average to date, though things have been pretty lean on the Front Range. If you believe in El Niño, then Colorado will see more late-season snow than usual.
February just took a turn for the better in our neck of the woods, after the mountain got a couple of feet through the weekend and even more snow fell in the backcountry. But last year the Headwall had enough snow by late December to open, while this year it was mid-January. There are a number of factors that address the “why,” but “how” ski areas like Crested Butte Mountain will deal with increasingly odd weather patterns poses many questions.
To get a sense of how dramatic winter conditions can impact our culture, consider the 2010 Winter Games under way in Vancouver. After the warmest January on record, February rain pummeled some of the venues and caused delays, postponements, and decreased training time for the athletes. If fact, so much rain fell at Cypress Mountain outside Vancouver that they had to refund 8,000-plus general admission tickets to the snowboardcross events because the spectators’ area literally washed away and was too dangerous for people to walk on—as in the workers were postholing waist-deep down through the snow into the haystacks below. Yes, Cypress had to bring in bales of hay to augment its withering snowpack.
According to a recent report from the National Wildlife Federation released on January 28, none of this should come as a surprise, and oddball, unpredictable weather may be here for the long term as the climate changes. They compared Colorado’s spring snowpack in 2007—50 percent below normal—to the snowpack in spring 2008, which was about 80 percent above normal. That’s quite a difference year to year.
“Oddball winter weather is yet another sign of how uncontrolled carbon pollution amounts to an unchecked experiment on people and nature,” said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist for the National Wildlife Federation. “While global warming means shorter, milder winters on average, some snowbelt areas will see more heavy snowfall events. Disruptions to tourism and recreation economies will become increasingly common—for example to skiing and ice fishing that depend on predictable conditions.”
How that will affect the Elk Mountains remains to be seen, and hopefully we’re located in one of the “snowbelt” areas that will see more heavy snowfall. If not, we could be talking about a shorter ski season and more dependence on snowmaking—which doesn’t come cheap compared to the free snow that falls from the sky.
John Sale, Director of Planning for Crested Butte Mountain Resort, provided some insight into the ski area’s take on an uncertain climate future, and how it is adapting on the fly.
“What we are seeing is the ski season and winter weather arriving a little later each year,” said Sale. “However, Crested Butte is probably in a better situation than most ski areas to accommodate warmer temperatures, given that we are at an elevation of 9,300 feet. There is little doubt that the earth is warming, as we observe the Arctic summer ice and the world’s glaciers melt away at dramatic rates. Locally, the spring runoff seems to be happening earlier than it used to, indicating that temperatures at the edges of the season are rising.
“Whether you call it ‘oddball’ or as Alison Gannett puts it, ’global weirding,’ there has been a change in early-season temperatures for the past 10 to 20 years. If this trend continues it may have a major impact on the ski area,” Sale explained.
“I say may,” Sale cautioned, “because who really knows? As a ski area we are acutely aware of what the potential impacts to our business could be from a shorter and warmer winter season—however, the entire issue of climate change is very tricky and controversial. What does it really mean and is there anyone who really understands or can forecast the next 10, 50 or even 100 years? Unfortunately, we do not employ a world-renowned climatologist on the payroll to answer these very complex questions… so you are stuck with me explaining what I do know, and it has nothing to do with global prediction.”
Chip Knight is the project coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation and a former Olympic slalom skier.
“More oddball winter weather is terrible news for skiers,” said Knight of the NWF report. “The mountain snow sports that depend on reliable snow conditions provide about $66 billion to our economy—and the local economies that rely on those dollars are becoming increasingly vulnerable. The extreme efforts necessary to provide snow for the Vancouver Olympics are a startling example of what’s at stake.”
From coast to coast, the NWF report details recent oddball winter weather events in regions that are expected to see more of the same if global warming pollution continues unabated.
“We need to take these trends toward more oddball winter weather events into account when planning for snow removal, flood management, and recreation and tourism,” said Dr. Staudt. “We can no longer plan based on the climate we used to have.”
Snowmaking requires intricate planning around temperatures, and the more they fluctuate the tougher it is for ski areas to know when to turn on the guns. Otherwise, ski area management risks throwing money out the window, blowing snow and then watching it melt away.
“Mark Voegeli, our assistant mountain manager and snowmaking guru for over 15 years at the resort, has seen a visible change in temperatures,” said CBMR’s Sale. “We used to make snow consistently at the beginning of November, Halloween night. Then a storm would blow through the valley and it would remain cold for the season. In the past five or 10 years this has not been the case. This past year we really didn’t start making snow until November 14. Because of this, Mark and his crew did something different this season—they worked with Mother Nature and waited until the temps were right to make snow. Fortunately, the cold temps did arrive and we had two good weeks to blast out coverage for the Red Lady Lift and in the meantime save 22 percent in our electrical bills compared to last season, using less energy and a smaller carbon footprint.”
CBMR has taken several other proactive measures to inventory and limit its impacts on the climate and environment. According to Sale, “CBMR is conducting an energy inventory to calculate its carbon footprint for all mountain facilities and lifts. This should be completed by April 2010, and will establish the baseline for energy use in 2005, which is consistent with Gunnison County’s Energy Action Plan. All future improvements of carbon reduction will be based on this inventory and provides CBMR measurable results instead of just throwing darts.”
The resort used to purchase renewable energy credits, until they became too expensive. “Crested Butte and Triple Peaks, LLC was the third ski company in the U.S. to offset all of the resort’s electrical power by buying Renewable Energy Credits [RECs] from 2005 to 2008,” said Sale. “Since that time, the cost of RECs skyrocketed and we felt that it was better to use the money for energy-efficient measures at the resort instead of funding projects outside of the Gunnison region with offsets.”
On the snowmaking side, Sale said they were able to take significant strides to save energy. “By managing the snowmaking operation this season and evaluating the nightly conditions, the Mountain Operations management was able to reduce electrical use by 22.3 percent compared to last season, while pumping 14 percent more water,” he said. “Even more impressive, the management of ‘peak demand’ cost saw a savings of over 49 percent in the cost of electrical power! Once again, this was accomplished by a common sense approach to monitor temperatures closely, electing to not run one compressor and reducing air output from 8,000 cfm to 7,000 cfm to maximize our highly efficient HKD snow guns for the correct application.”
CBMR is also part of the Office for Resource Efficiency’s Energy Wise Business Program; is working with a Western State student to conduct an energy savings study of the Grand Lodge; and is running one fewer snowcat this season, thus reducing diesel-fuel consumption. Sale said CBMR spent over $18,000 on an experimental power surge protection device on the Red Lady lift, designed to reduce electrical energy use by more than 20 percent. “Units were installed last summer and we are currently monitoring the effectiveness,” Sale reported.
What does it all add up to? A whole lot of unknowns as far as the ski industry is concerned. As Sale said, being at 9,300 feet is an advantage. Coastal mountain regions in places like Vancouver and the northeast, where the elevations are lower, may suffer worse if winter weather becomes more unpredictable and rain events replace snowfall. The interior mountains, like the Elks, could be drier, or deeper, depending on where the snow falls. No matter where you live, oddball weather events could become the norm rather than the exception. And CBMR is looking at every way possible to deal with the changing situation.