The winnowing of winter

As the climate crisis worsens, what will happen to snow?

Snow is alchemy, the exact right mix of cold, water and air. You can feel the difference of man-made — the stiffness and the catch — and the unbroken crystals of newly fallen fresh. Snow is sound, too, the creaky stick of cold storms, the ball-bearings swish of slush corn or the crackle of rime-y ice. That thing about the thousand words for snow is right.

If we lose the ebb and flow of winter — which we soon could — we also lose storm chasing, and the barometric adrenaline of waiting for a storm. There’s a risk in pinning your heart to weather, and we skiers hang everything on snowfall. You know you’re in trouble when you’re constantly watching storm tracks and snow gauges, trying to predict the places where it’s going to be the deepest. Letting the real-life logistics of where you’re going to live, for instance, fade into the background while you focus on La Niña storm tracks and Farmers’ Almanac predictions.

 

The greatest existential threat to skiing is the winnowing of winter. The viability of ski towns, and of the sport, is dependent on snowpack, which is being decimated by global warming. Depending on the emissions scenario you choose, snowfall is predicted to shrink by up to a third by the end of the century. That thin margin of weather is going to have a huge bearing on the future of skiing, and on whether or not people can keep counting on the seasons to eke out a way of life. Not just in the dry Southwest, but in British Columbia, where freezing levels keep creeping higher, and in New England, where almost every ski hill now depends on man-made snow. That problematic future is easy to forget in deep winters, but it’s abundantly clear in shallow ones. Skiing is one of the most carbon-intensive outdoor sports, and as it snows less, or rains more, it takes more energy and water to create snow.

The worst winter I lived in the mountains, I volunteer ski patrolled at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, and in the early season we sidestepped the steeps of Pallavicini Face, packing down the snow with our skis so it would stick to the hills. We were trying, vainly, to hold onto some kind of base, to keep the mountain open. Mainly we were trying to hold onto our sanity, and protect everyone else’s. When it doesn’t snow, the land doesn’t look right. A low-slung depression takes hold of the community. Everyone gets antsy. A couple of dry weeks in a ski town makes you wonder about the value of waiting for weather. Desperation sets in, and that particular season turned into a series of pray-for-snow parties and burnt-ski bonfire sacrifices to the snow gods. I did a lot of groomer skiing dressed like a hot dog to make things feel even a little bit interesting.

But every new season hinges on hope for deep powder days. Did we used to talk about climate this much? Was it always this dry in December? Can we actually keep doing this if it gets worse?

Backcountry skiers climb bare and rocky slopes to ski the south face of Mount Fairchild in Colorado’s Mummy Range.

THE EROSION OF WINTER isn’t just a bummer for single-focused ski bums and weather nerds. Rising temperatures and shrinking snowpack impact water supply, food security, and economic viability. Shorter, warmer winters, and precipitation that falls as rain instead of snow, screws up everything from electricity generation to fish migration. When the skiing is bad, everything is bad.

The scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the snow season in the western U.S. has shrunk by 34 days since the early 1980s. “The overall decline in snowfall has dampened profitability given the fact that industry operators have to incur significant costs in using snowmaking equipment,” the study read. It’s a hard economy to hold onto even when snowfall is consistent. Ski resorts have launched and faded in the lifespan of people who have witnessed the evolution from rope tows to mega resorts, and by the time today’s kids are old enough to work at a ski resort, the world of skiing could change even more.

Liz Burakowski, a climate scientist at the University of New Hampshire, says modeling the future of winter storms isn’t easy, because interconnected factors like El Niño, sea ice or snow cover in Siberia, create a complex puzzle. But despite the range of variables, there’s a clear warming pattern thanks to the way carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere and warms it up. “The trend toward the end of the century is to see winters that are 8 to 10 degrees warmer,” she says. “That puts a lot of places right above the freezing level; the margin is small.”

 Ski resorts have launched and faded in the lifespan of people who have witnessed the evolution from rope tows to mega resorts, and by the time today’s kids are old enough to work at a ski resort, the world of skiing could change even more.

That means some resorts, especially the tiny ones that don’t have the capacity to create their own winter through snowmaking, and which are in low elevations or Southern latitudes, are going to have a hard time staying economically viable in the very near future. And as winter gets warmer, even the places that have invested in snowmaking won’t be able to do much. Even if you have the equipment to make snow, if it’s raining or hot you won’t be able to keep it on the ground.

Burakowski is the kind of scientist who can both rationally look at the facts and the modeling, and hold the emotional side of losing winter in her head, which makes her good at talking about it in real terms — a piece of her job that’s feeling increasingly urgent and important.

She says it can be hard to make sense of it just by modeling ranges and temperature spikes, so a big part of her mission is making the science accessible through storytelling. Talking about how her mother used to ice fish in lakes that no longer freeze over, for instance. She says a big concern for the ski industry is back-to-back terrible winters, because after a few strikeouts, casual skiers start to lose their motivation. If a family of skiers skip a few seasons, their kids may move on to other sports. Suddenly you have a declining population, along with a weakening weather pattern.

The biggest imbalance of climate change, in almost any capacity, is that the burden isn’t spread out fairly. The people who are most impacted by warming are often those who are least able to insulate themselves against it. As winter gets warmer and shorter, ski hills that struggle the most — the small ones in low, dry places, where funding is short — start to require more assistance. They need snow guns they can’t afford, or water rights for snowmaking, or ways to pass the buck in years they can’t open. Some ski areas will actually fare better in the face of climate change, at least for a little while, and those are categorically the ones that are already at a financial advantage, thanks to corporate cover. If the number of skiers remains the same, but the number of viable resorts decreases, somewhere like Mammoth Mountain in California, which sits at 9,000 feet and has a stacked fleet of snow guns, will be busier, while lower-elevation and lower-dollar operations — say, Ski Santa Fe — won’t fare as well. The snowy backbone of the country is already stippled with failed ski resorts.

I’m afraid for places like this, and what might happen if they can’t survive. Ski Santa Fe, despite the fact that it has thousand-foot-long chutes and steep, peppery tree skiing, caters to families and church groups. It reminds me of places like Cannon, where I grew up skiing icy bumps, or community-owned Mount Ashland in Oregon. It’s eastern Washington’s Loup Loup or southern Colorado’s Hesperus, where you can night ski the creaky slow double chair. Places like that are still hanging on to the idea of winter, even if it comes infrequently now, but could easily disappear.

A lone skier is enveloped by clouds created by snowmakers at Keystone Resort in Colorado.

THE REALISTIC FUTURE OF SKIING is a question of what counts as natural, what we try to create or maintain, and how long we can hold on to the past.

There’s a halo of goodness around the outdoor industry, a sense that it engenders environmentalists and breeds people who want to protect the mountains. But just because you love skiing doesn’t mean you’re doing anything concrete or impactful to preserve it. Half of American ski resorts operate on government-owned Forest Service land, because of last-century ideals about public-land use. That means that anything those ski areas do to gin up visitors, or improve the ski experience, impacts collective resources, be it water supply or wildlife migration. And that’s before you even consider the fallacy of federally owned public land, and how the American government came to consider it public after taking it from Native American tribes. We’ve historically viewed attractive outdoor economies as benign, but just because we love being outside doesn’t mean we’re not overusing resources or damaging landscapes. It’s not just climate change and large-scale warming that impact the skiing experience, it’s the way we skiers use resources, and the cascading impacts of snowmaking, transportation, trail cutting and energy demand.

We’ve historically viewed attractive outdoor economies as benign, but just because we love being outside doesn’t mean we’re not overusing resources or damaging landscapes. 

Think about snowmaking — which 88% of resorts in the U.S. use to keep their operations running in shallow winters. “When the snow was great, it was great, but when there was no snow, we wouldn’t open,” J.R. Murray, the general manager of Arizona Snowbowl, told me a few years ago, when they were trying to figure out a snowmaking water supply. “We’d have ski seasons that were 20 days long and some where we got 400 inches. The difficulty is you can’t plan. You can’t hire and retain staff. So we needed snowmaking to stabilize things.” It adds some crucial smoothing to the climate curve, but it’s expensive and resource-intensive, hard to sustain in a different way, especially because you can only make snow when it’s freezing.

In 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last five winters were the five warmest on record, and that’s not likely to stop. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that under a higher emissions scenario (the path we’re currently on), the total amount of seasonal snowfall is projected to decrease by 10% to 30% by the end of the 21st century. That impacts far more than skiing. In New Mexico, where the Rio Grande is the main water source for many of the biggest population centers, the river often runs dry in the summer because of overuse and overallocation. Low snowfall in the mountain headwaters makes it even more precarious. It’s all connected, and it’s crashing.

Liz Burakowski and other climate experts are trying to translate those numbers and predictions into feelings, to make us act, even when it feels overwhelming and dire. I get a deep gut ache when I think about losing snow, about the contrast between my childhood memories of snow and the gray slush of right now. I’m scared and sad and somewhat perpetually grieving. How could it have gotten this bad so fast?

“Solastalgia” is the name for the feeling of the world changing around you, when you were told it would be stable. It’s the existential distress caused by climate change, and the unmoored feeling of the landscape shifting under your feet. It makes you homesick for your own life and uneasy when the weather changes. It’s the deep unease of hot, snowless winters. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht, the man who coined the phrase, mashed up solace, nostalgia and desolation to capture that wavy feeling of loss. I feel it almost constantly these days, persistent and creeping in.

Psychologists say that the best way to deal with climate grief is to go to the places that restore you, to remind yourself of the tenacity of our connection to land. But that’s extra painful when those spots that are supposed to sustain you can’t hold snow anymore.

Up until now, the narrative about exploring in mountains has been about first ascents and descents, but going forward we might more likely be talking about last ones.

Excerpted from Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow by Heather Hansman © 2021, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

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