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What will the ski industry look like in 50 years? Study paints bleak forecast for Western snowpacks

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People ski with a background of bare trees at Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah.

People ski with a background of bare trees at Solitude Mountain Resort on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Big Cottonwood Canyon. A new study projects that in about 35 to 60 years, mountainous states may be nearly snowless for years at a time if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked and climate change does not slow.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

If greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, Utah’s billion-dollar ski industry is in trouble.

The negative impact climate change could have on winter has been discussed at length, but an October study paints maybe the bleakest forecast to date: In 35 to 60 years, mountain regions in the American West could see little to no snow.

Published in Nature Reviews Earth and Environment, the paper compiles findings from a number of other studies and climate models that portray different warming scenarios to forecast when snowpacks around the West could start to decline. The paper also details past winters to provide an overview of current snowpack trends.

“One important takeaway from this is maybe not all of these studies agree on when the low-to-no-snow future is going to happen, but all of them agree that it’s likely and that it’s really not that far into the future,” said McKenzie Skiles, assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Geology Department.

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People get in line to go up the hill to ski at Solitude Mountain Resort on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Here are some key findings from the paper:

  • Across the West, snow water equivalent — essentially the water that comes in a snowpack — is expected to decline about 25% (plus or minus 5%) by 2050, 35% (plus or minus 10%) by 2075 and 50% (plus or minus 10%) by 2100.
  • The predictions are more dire for maritime mountains like the Cascades or Sierra Nevada, which could see a 45% loss of snowpack by 2050. Continental ranges like the Rockies, Wasatch or the Uinta, could see a 20% to 30% decline.
  • Snow loss is estimated to reach a cumulative cost of $120 billion to $850 billion.
  • From 1955 to 2016, 90% of the reporting stations across the West’s mountain regions have lost 20% of their snowpack. That’s roughly the water equivalent of Lake Mead.
  • Researchers have “high to very high confidence” that Western snowpacks will continue to decline and peak earlier in the water year.
  • Worsening wildfires and land use changes are contributing to the deposition of light absorbing particles — including dust and black carbon — that increase solar energy absorption and accelerate snowmelt.
  • About 71% of water experts believe current water management strategies are insufficient.
  • It is unlikely snow in the West will completely disappear before the end of the century, even in a “high emissions scenario.”

If the study’s predictions prove to be true, whether Utahns can continue to enjoy skiing or snowboarding the “greatest snow on Earth” will be low on the list of concerns.

“The potential for persistent low to no snow to disrupt the (western United States’) water system is substantial, potentially even catastrophic,” the authors wrote.

Western water storage and conveyance infrastructure is designed and managed around snowmelt, according to the study’s authors. Rural economies that rely on agriculture, relationships between the Colorado River Basin states, food production, air quality, soil health and daily life as we know it, could change — likely for the worst.

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Part of Big Cottonwood is pictured on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

But the ski industry is a canary in the coal mine.

“We see impacts from climate change across the board, but maybe they’re not as visible, or visible to us, as the snow sports industry,” Skiles said.

The study comes in the wake of an incredibly snowy October. Parts of the central Wasatch Mountains saw the most snow that month since 2004. Alta Ski Area is reporting 89 inches to date, the bulk of which fell in October. For comparison, that’s nearly as much snow as some Eastern resorts see over an entire winter.

But then November came, bringing with it warm temperatures that forced many ski resorts to push back their opening dates. Though most of Utah’s resorts are now open, there are still plenty of rocks poking through the snow. On Friday, The Washington Post reported snow cover across the country is only at 6%, the lowest since the National Weather Service started keeping records in 2003.

Skiles said it’s hard to attribute this year’s warm and dry November to climate change.

“It could just be a weather pattern,” Skiles said. “But when we get those patterns year over year over year, then we can start attributing it to warming temperatures and potentially changing weather patterns due to climate change.” 

Despite the study giving a three-decade window before the worst-case scenario, when it comes to climate change, Skiles said “we’re absolutely living it now. We’re no longer talking about climate change impacts on snow in the future tense. It’s the current tense.”

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People ski at Solitude Mountain Resort on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

The ski industry’s future amid a declining snowpack

The economic implications of the study’s predictions could impact every corner of American industry.

But let’s zoom in on tourism in Utah, especially the ski industry, which during the 2018-19 season raked in $1.6 billion in visitor spending, according to data from the University of Utah. That marks the biggest year for ski visitor spending in state history.

“As tourism goes, (skiing) has the largest economic impact in Utah. Even though we have five popular national parks, our ski industry brings in more money,” said Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Most metrics suggest Utah’ ski industry is growing. Consider this:

  • Last winter was record-breaking for all of the Beehive State’s 15 resorts, which collectively saw 5.3 million skier days, according to data compiled by Ski Utah.
  • Data from the Utah Department of Transportation shows a steady increase in skier traffic over the last five years, a sign that more people than ever are driving to the mountain.
  • Utah has three new high-end resorts in the works — the long anticipated Mayflower resort in Park City, Wasatch Peaks in northern Utah, and a new Club Med resort at Snowbasin. And whether it’s replacing old equipment, a new parking system or early opening times, most resorts in Utah will have something new this season
  • Backcountry ski traffic is also increasing. The nonprofit Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, which tracks trailhead use, reported a 20% increase in traffic at some of the more popular backcountry trailheads.

Leaver said historically, a bad snowpack doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in revenue for the ski industry.

There’s a direct correlation between the snow and whether locals go skiing — but those skiers spend about one-third of what tourists coming from out of state or internationally spend. And tourists will still book ski vacations whether it’s a great winter or a dismal one.

“There’s very little to no correlation between our snowpack and the interest in skiing. And over time, we’ve seen a slow trend downward in snowpack, and we’ve also seen this trend upward in visitation and skier visits,” Leaver said.

If the study’s predictions begin to take shape, the industry could see a tipping point in the future. If it does happen, Leaver said it will likely be due to resorts being forced to open later and close earlier.

On average, every skier spends $300 for each ski visit — a shorter season means a considerable hit to a resort’s bottom line.

“If you’re cutting your season down in the spring or upfront during Thanksgiving or Christmas, which can both be popular times, you’re going to lose quite a bit of money,” she said.

“People may still want to come, but I think that’s going to really have an impact.”

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Isaac Miller bikes at Solitude Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Pivoting to summer

Any avid mountain biker will tell you the last decade has been great for the sport — almost every ski resort in Utah now maintains a summer trail system, and many offer lift access for biking.

Whether resorts are getting behind an expanded hiking and biking trail system to get ahead of the climate change curve, or if it was simply in response to an exploding sector of outdoor recreation, they’re positioned well if snowpacks do decline.

“I think the infrastructure that’s in place will continue to benefit and generate money in the local economies because of creativity and pivoting to other popular sports or new popular sports,” Leaver said. “People like to be in the mountains.”

Data points to a growing investment in summer tourism, especially in Summit County. Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found:

  • During the offseason, total transient room tax revenue shot up across the county over a nine-year stretch, from 26% in 2010 to 36% in 2019.
  • The county saw a 275% increase in offseason transient room tax revenue from 2010 to 2019, jumping from $1.04 million to $3.9 million — that’s double the increase in tax revenue generated during the ski season.
  • Summit County hospitality jobs increased 71% during the offseason compared to a 42% increase during the ski season.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly spelled the last name of McKenzie Skiles, referring to her as Stiles in several instances.