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Snow's Melting. What Next?

Proposed pollution limits might help stymie climate change, but can they save our snow?

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By Michelle Fredrickson

It’s no secret. Climate change is happening, and it’s the snow that’s hurting.

“I want my kids to be skiing. I want their kids to be skiing,” says pro skier Julian Carr. “It’s completely conceivable that within a few generations, they could not be [skiing], at the rate we’re at.”

The U.S. government is now taking aim at the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. In early June, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations to slash carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Produced mostly by fossil-fuel-fired plants, carbon pollution is the main source of greenhouse gases in the U.S.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, says in a statement.

For the winter sports industry, climate-change trends look abysmal, and evidence of global warming is everywhere: decreasing snowpack, retreating glaciers, shorter ski seasons, warming winter temperatures, and erratic weather patterns that include droughts and fires.

“A way of life for millions of people is at risk of simply melting away,” says Phil Huffeldt, coordinator for Snowriders International, a non-profit group working to preserve winters from climate change.

The proposed EPA regulations are headed to a public comment period the week of July 28 in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., and will likely face challenges in court and Congress. The proposed rules allow states to meet targets numbers according to the states’ needs. Some states have already taken action by reducing coal plant emissions, installing energy efficient power plants, or taxing pollution.

Mountain towns threatened

Climate change has real consequences for the winter sports industry—and the economy. For example, the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry lost an estimated $1.07 billion since 1999, resulting in fewer hires and days operating, according to a University of New Hampshire study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters.

Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit aimed at mobilizing the winter sports community against climate change, says low-elevation resorts, particularly in the Northeast, are suffering from climate change.

“It’s the inconsistency that’s really starting to hit these resort communities,” Steinkamp says. “They can’t plan on a really strong Christmas season; they certainly can’t plan on a strong Thanksgiving season. When you don’t have that kind of planning involved, it’s really hard to make money.

To ultimately save mountain town economies, says POW’s Steinkamp, winter has to be stabilized. And he says the EPA’s proposed regulations are a big step forward.

Not just a local’s problem.

While the proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, they will have a minimal impact on snow levels, says Daniel Scott, professor of geology and environmental management at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario.

“That initiative on its own won’t matter much to the future of the ski industry,” Scott says. “It’s positive. It helps. It’s part of the solution, but it’s not the solution.”

Unless the issue is addressed on a global scale, climate change will continue. “The atmosphere doesn’t care where the emissions came from,” Scott says.

Perhaps the U.S. will act as a trendsetter, suggests Mark Williams, a University of Colorado geology professor whose students have affectionately dubbed the Professor of Snow.

“The new EPA rules are a tipping point,” Williams says. “They show the world that the U.S. is serious about dealing with greenhouse gases and climate change. The rest of the world has already taken notice.”

In fact, China announced a cap on emissions shortly after the EPA proposal was announced.

“I’m much more positive that humans are starting to address climate change at a global level,” he says. “And that makes a difference to the future of snow, ice, and snow sports.”

What’s next?

Though casual headline readers might think the rules are already in effect, Carr cautions that they’re still only an idea.

“I think a lot of people are getting pretty excited,” he says, “thinking it’s already been passed, and it’s happening. But it’s just been proposed.”

So groups like POW and Snowriders International are trying to continue conversations about the issue.

Protect Our Winters is already arranging to have Carr, an athlete spokesman to visit classrooms in order to get kids excited about keeping ski resorts open. He tries to bring the topic up whenever he can, and recommends talking to non-skiers about it.

“We still need to make sure that mountain and snow sports communities come together in support of keeping the rule strong and implementing it quickly,” Snowriders International’s Huffeldt says. “It’s the war that we’re waging, not the small battles.”

One Snowriders campaign sends letters straight to the EPA in support of the proposed regulations. The fossil fuel and energy industries may spend huge amounts of money trying to stop the regulations, he says, but the mountain community needs to make sure its voice is heard.

“The voices of 23 million snow sports enthusiasts are going to be stronger than hundreds of millions of dollars,” Steinkamp says.