Remember when snowbanks seemed to tower above school buses, winter reigned from November through March and faceshots were plentiful at the local ski resort? Those good ol' days may be more than nostalgic memories—they could be evidence of today's pattern of global warming.
After suffering two difficult winters that were squeezed on both ends by unseasonably warm weather, the ski industry is facing up to the specter of warmer climes, the potential for reduced snowfall and more radical changes in traditional weather patterns. This means that some ski resorts could actually receive more snow, others less. Last season, for instance, Snow Bowl Resort, outside of Flagstaff, Ariz., was open for only a few weeks due to high temperatures and low snowfall.
At its spring convention in searing hot Orlando, Fla., the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) named global warming as one of its major barriers to growth. Going public on the issue didn't come without dissension and gnashing of teeth, particularly since many resorts are owned by publicly traded companies that rise and fall on finicky stock prices.
Indeed, the industry has come a long way in a short time. "When I brought up global warming just two years ago," recalls Chris Lane, environmental affairs director for the Aspen Skiing Co., "I was laughed at."
While skeptics remain, the facts indicate a troublesome trend. The Nineties was the hottest decade on record, and 1998 and 1999 were the two warmest years in recorded history. Average global temperatures have increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, and even more over land masses. While that may not sound significant, it's what may lie ahead that scares skiers—and, indeed, the world. Some scientific estimates show average temperatures increasing by as much as 6 degrees over the next century. This rate of warming is much faster—nearly 100 times faster—than anything in the past 20,000 years. Even the slightest change in average temperatures has huge ramifications. Consider that the Ice Age was only 9 degrees cooler than the global temperature today.
Despite the temptation, it is difficult to blame poor U.S. ski conditions on global warming, as Europe has enjoyed great snow of late. But there's no question that the past two North American winters have been mild. On March 1, the thermometer reached 84 degrees at the summit of a Michigan ski area, and resorts from Maine to California have reported weather-shortened seasons. And it's not just the weather at the resorts that's troubling the ski industry: If there's no snow in skiers' backyards, they are less likely to travel to the hills. Perhaps Sunday River, Maine, skier Jeff Broumas sums it up best. "I really don't know what's going on here, but I know I don't like it."So what is global warming? How does it occur? How can it be reduced? And what does it portend for the future of skiing?
The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that helps regulate the planet's temperature. Global warming is the result of a buildup of greenhouse gases that work like a wool sweater, trapping heat at the earth's surface. These gases are healthy in moderation: Without them the earth's average temperature would plummet 60 degrees to 0 F. The primary source of greenhouse gas is the evaporation of water; things like humidity and clouds help to keep the planet warm.What's not so good is a dramatic increase in human-triggered greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, which is released by industry (burning coal and oil), cars and use of electricity. While it is not possible to unequivocally pin global warming to increased emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks, the hard evidence is mounting. "There is," Lane says, "a discernible human influence on climate."
Though the ski industry isn't a major culprit in producing greenhouse gases, it has proposed reduction programs that it views, if nothing else, as good PR. Not surprisingly, the Aspen Skiing Co. is at thhe forefront.
"We plan to develop the ski industry's first position on global warming," Lane says. The company, which has won dozens of environmental awards, already has taken extensive steps to improve the environment and reduce global warming. The Cirque surface lift at Snowmass runs on windpower, a clean energy source that also provides 30 percent of the energy to the Sundeck restaurant at the summit of Aspen Mountain. The company also has retrofit lighting fixtures, taken recycling to a new level and built employee housing at the base of its runs so the staff doesn't have to drive to work. Full-price Aspen lift tickets may cost $60, but they come with an Eco-Card that spells out five things guests can do to help the environment, as well as five steps the Aspen Skiing Co. is taking.
Lane is optimistic that Aspen—and the ski industry as a whole—can make a difference, but he realizes that it will take education and commitment. He's right. When one ski industry CEO was asked about global warming, his answer was chilling: "I don't have an informed opinion."
For its part, the NSAA has aggressively joined the battle. At the Orlando convention, it unveiled the new Sustainable Slopes program, a comprehensive environmental charter that includes dozens of ways to reduce greenhouse gases. "There is no downside to being proactive on this," says Geraldine Hughes, NSAA's director of public policy. Almost 200 resorts have since signed the charter.
On the international front, the U.S. Congress has balked at agreeing to greenhouse gas reductions proposed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which involves 38 industrial countries. Vice President Al Gore was instrumental in drafting the Kyoto agreement, a pact that calls for a 7 percent reduction of 1990 greenhouse gas levels by 2010.
Meanwhile, Gore's opponent in the 2000 presidential election, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, says he recognizes that global warming is a serious problem. But he opposes the Kyoto accord because he believes it places an unfair burden on the U.S. while allowing Third World countries carte blanche.
Aspen's Lane emphasizes that in the long run, addressing global warming makes environmental and economic sense. "When it becomes smart business, it's not so radical," he says, ticking off a number of green projects that are saving the Aspen Skiing Co. hundreds of thousands of dollars while reducing greenhouse gases."We want to find a way to have our cake and eat it too," Lane says. "I think we can."
What can you do to improve the chances of a good ski season?
1 Car-pool or use mass transit on the way to work and the slopes.
2 Turn off lights when leaving your hotel room. Reuse bath towels and bed linens.
3 Encourage the use of washable tableware and silverware in cafeterias and lodges instead of paper or plastics.
4 Drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. A car that gets 10 more miles per gallon will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2,500 pounds in a year. (Both Ford and GM have pledged to produce SUVs by the year 2005 that are 25 percent more fuel efficient.)
5 Use compact fluorescent light bulbs, which cost more but last up to 10 times as long and require 75 percent less energy.
6 Buy energy-efficient appliances that can reduce energy use by 30 percent to 40 percent.
7 Be ready and willing to make the move from fossil fuels (oil and coal) to clean energy sources such as solar and windpower.