A week’s weather mirrors U.N. fears | VailDaily.com

A week’s weather mirrors U.N. fears

Reid Williams/Summit County Correspondent

According to a United Nations Environment Programme report, it’s something they should get used to.

Imagine winters between two and 10 degrees warmer.

Imagine ski seasons that last four months instead of eight.

Imagine ski areas below 7,000 feet going bankrupt for lack of snow and a shift in tourism to higher-altitude resorts adept at making snow.

Imagine skiing disappearing from whole continents like Australia, or areas where the sport hangs on the mantle of tradition, such as Germany and Italy.

“It’s something we’re all aware of, being in the outdoor industry,” Arapahoe Basin spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer said, responding to dire news from the U.N. scientific panel. “It’s not something we take lightly.”

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Scattered snow

A U.N. report released Tuesday at a conference in Turin, Italy, which will host the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, is entitled “Climate Change and Winter Sports: Environmental and Economical Threats.”

The report makes the aforementioned prognostications for ski areas in Europe, North America and Australia based on temperature projections made by the 2,000-member scientific Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The projections looked through the next century.

In addition to sounding the global warming alarm, experts behind the report warned that snowfall will become even more unpredictable and unreliable in coming decades.

“Climate change will have the effect of pushing more and more winter sports higher and higher up mountains, concentrating impacts in ever-decreasing, high-altitude areas,” said Rolf Burki, a lecturer at the University of Higher Education, St. Gallen, and the International School of Toursim Management in Zurich, Switzerland, in a press release. “As ski resorts in lower altitudes face bankruptcy, so the pressure in highly environmentally sensitive, upper-altitude areas rises along with the pressures to build new ski lifts and other infrastructure.”

The U.N. officials hope the report and other related programs will raise awareness about global warming, carbon dioxide and other manmade greenhouse gases that may contribute to climate change.

High counties cash in?

If the report’s forecasts prove true, it could mean high-altitude areas such as Summit County are either ahead of the curve or due for development pressure that would make the past decade’s growth look snail-slow. Hypothetically, one can imagine regulars at lower ski areas such as Winter Park or Eldora seeking higher ground when the snow runs thin.

Even though skier visits have been relatively flat industrywide, ski areas in Summit and Eagle counties have forged ahead with expansion projects. Bed bases in villages have doubled and tripled, as has ski terrain. Snowmaking increases have followed; or in the case of Arapahoe Basin, the ski area has installed it.

According to Keystone Resort spokesman Mike Lee, Rocky Mountain ski areas’ recent bouts with drought have kept ski areas focused on the here and now, instead of a global picture.

“We’ve never talked about global warming per se, but we are aware of weather and its unpredictability,” said Lee, whose resort has planned a $4.5 million upgrade to snowmaking this year. “We’ve always had a pretty strong reliance on snowmaking just because of our geographic location; storms seem to come east and dump on Beaver Creek, Vail and Copper, but pass over us heading to the Continental Divide.”

This year, Keystone opted out of the opening day race, as Lee said, to focus on a quality product versus an early one. In the future, ski areas might be opening later out of necessity.

The good news, Lee said, is that ski resorts are already operating on worst-case scenario planning – so good snowfall is a blessing – and that manmade snow melts at a higher temperature than natural snow.

Cooling trend

Ski areas also are helping to spread the word about global warming in other ways. The National Ski Areas Association instituted its “Keep Winter Cool” program last year, encouraging resort visitors to carpool and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable slopes practices also are celebrated annually, showcasing ski areas’ environmentally friendly operations: Vail Resorts, for example, purchases wind-source energy from Xcel to power lifts. Vail is also considering putting power-generating wind turbines on the mountain.

Last year, Breckenridge Ski Resort joined Techno Alpin, a snowmaking technology manufacturer, in a pilot program to test automated snowmaking equipment aimed at increasing the efficiency of operations and reducing their impact on the environment.

In addition, Arapahoe Basin introduced its “Climate Club” program this year. For $20, skiers get season-long discounts on lift tickets, rentals and other goods. The $20 membership fee goes into a fund used for purchasing emission-reduction credits, a brokered commodity that helps reduce the costs for alternative-source energy producers.

But ski areas can only have so much influence on the world’s green conscience, and reliance on snowmaking is likely to continue.

That’s a thought that troubles Rocky Smith.

Smith, a committee chairman for the environmental group, Colorado Wild, which has opposed ski area expansions, most recently fighting A-Basin’s snowmaking plans, said ski areas are straining the environment even without global warming.

“We have nothing against artificial snow,” Smith said. “And you have to recognize the great contribution the downhill ski industry makes to the economy of the state. But a lot of water in these streams is already overappropriated. You really have to question if this is sustainable.”