Praying for snow

Caleb Diehl
Skiers on a warm day at Mount Hood Meadows

The skiing industry responds to climate change. 

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Skiers this season don’t know what to expect. One week brings nine-degree temperatures and powder, and the next, fifty-five degrees and rain. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, dramatic swings in weather are becoming the norm in the 21st century, forcing ski resorts to rethink their business models.

Climate change could devour more than 70% of annual ski resort revenue, the Climate Assessment reports. Much hand-wringing centers on the rising snowline and receding glaciers. While these are real problems, the more immediate issue for resorts is volatile weather patterns.

Average winter precipitation is actually expected to increase, but more will fall as rain or in larger one-time weather events. Seasons once marked by steady snowfall will vacillate between record-breaking droughts and intense winter storms. It will become harder to tell what the next year, or the next month, will bring.

“It varies from year to year but there’s definitely a trend,” says John Burton, the spokesman for Timberline Lodge and Ski Area. “The weather is more severe one way or the other, either really cold or really hot.”

Timberline’s historical snowpack data shows relatively constant snowfall in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by larger fluctuations from the 1980s to today.  

In 2015, a punishing drought reduced Oregon’s snow levels to 89% below average, even worse than the average drop climate scientists expect for the coming century. The mercury shot up to six degrees above the historical winter average. High temperatures and blue skies forced Hoodoo Ski Area, located 130 miles south of Portland at a base elevation of 4,668 feet, to shut down lifts in mid-January, recording its shortest season in 77 years of business.

“The skiing industry is being hit hard by climate change because what used to fall as snow around the 5,000-foot level increasing is falling as rain,” Philip Mote, an Oregon State researcher who authored a portion of the report, said in a press release.

Snow droughts put jobs and business growth at risk. A low snow year means on average 2,100 fewer employees and a $173 million drop in ski resort revenues. It also cuts into winter tourism spending from out-of-state visitors on hotels, food and gear rentals. The climate assessment reported that in the Northwest Region, which stretches from Idaho to Alaska, Washington and Oregon are seeing the biggest drops in skier visits.

Climate scientists warn that 2015 foreshadows warmer years to come, writing that “the warm 2015 winter temperatures are illustrative of conditions that may be considered ‘normal’ by mid-century.”

Snow droughts will happen more often. With 3.6 degrees of warming, the extremely dry conditions recorded in 2015 in the McKenzie River Basin in the central Oregon Cascades, the report notes, could reoccur every 12 years.

The two biggest resorts on Mount Hood, Timberline and Mount Hood Meadows, are stepping up their responses to climate impacts. Timberline sits at a 4,850-foot base elevation, Meadows at 4,523 feet, so the two ski areas see similar snowfalls.

“We’re keeping our operating days constant, but we do work at it really hard,” says Matthew Drake, CEO of Mount Hood Meadows.

“It varies from year to year but there’s definitely a trend. The weather is more severe one way or the other, either really cold or really hot.”
—John Burton, Timberline Lodge and Ski Area

The increased threat of snow droughts, Burton says, demands “more strategic thinking about our snow.” One way resorts are doing that is through “snow harvesting.” Timberline debuted a high-tech snow harvesting program three years ago. Snowcats outfitted with sophisticated sensors can detect the snow depth beneath them and compare it to the resort average using an algorithm. Then the machines redistribute snow for the greatest all-around depth. The resort recently added fleet management software, allowing staff to deploy the cats efficiently and save on fuel.

Burton declined to say how much this program costs, but he says it represents a “multiple six-figure investment.” He says the resort expects returns through energy savings and extensions to the season.

Mount Hood Meadows also redistributes snow throughout its boundaries using snow cats outfitted with highly energy-efficient engines. This method, Drake says, releases fewer emissions and requires less energy than the more common practice of producing snow with a snow machine.

1291996844 35746a635f bMount Hood in warm weather. Photo: Ken Lund / Flickr

The dramatic weather patterns brought about by climate change mean that resorts can’t depend on snow sports alone to carry the business. Resorts are diversifying their offerings, placing more emphasis on year-round recreation.

Meadows is promoting more snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and hiking in its boundaries. The climate assessment notes that in the wake of the 2015 drought, Mount Ashland, a non-profit ski area, is creating more summer recreation opportunities so that revenue depends less on snow-related recreation.

After investing in trail building, Timberline plans to offer mountain biking for the first time this summer. That is a common way for ski resorts to use their existing infrastructure (lifts) to earn revenue in the warmer months.

The effects of climate change aren’t limited to warming. Weather is becoming more extreme in both directions. In addition to droughts, resorts over the coming years will get hit with more intense winter storms. That can mean more powder, but also clogged roads and frozen equipment. Drake says Meadows is seeing a slight uptick in ice accumulation and high winds that can delay lifts from opening on time.

Besides making changes to operations, resorts are looking to get ahead of the long-term impacts by cutting emissions. Meadows put in place no idling policies and efficient engines for equipment. The resort also supports the cap and trade bill released last week in the Oregon legislature, a carbon trading and investment initiative opposed by many larger businesses.

Drake says it’s troubling to see President Donald Trump withdraw from climate initiatives like the Paris Climate Accord, but encouraging to see state leaders address the problem.

Three months ago, Timberline added a staff person dedicated entirely to encouraging green practices throughout the resort. “It goes way beyond flagging boxes for recycling,” Burton says.

“We’re looking at more farm-to-table food, reducing waste and rethinking packaging practices.”

These steps fall in line with the National Ski Areas Association’s statement that resorts across the country need to do everything they can to mitigate climate change.  

So far Meadows hasn’t seen any drop in revenue from climate impacts, but Drake says, “if we hadn’t started adopting these adaptation strategies there certainly would have been. We’ve been at it for a while and we’re going to continue to be at it for a while.”  

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