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Another ski town worried about warming

Allen Best
Vail, CO Colorado
AP PhotoGeneral view of the Hahnenkamm racing course, site of the upcoming men's skiing World Cup races in Kitzbuehel, Austria, on Monday, Jan. 15, 2007. 50 truckloads of snow will be brought from Austria's highest mountain Grossglockner to Kitzbuehel to prepare the slope for the races.
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PARK CITY, Utah ” Even when Park City was planning to host the Olympics, the town never had 1,200 people show up for a community meeting. But that’s how many turned out last week to hear scientific projections about how rising temperatures may affect Park City during the 21st century.

Global warming, said the scientists, will change Park City plenty. Easier to predict are temperatures. They will rise, of course, and rising temperatures will likely mean less snow.

The base areas are at about 6,900 feet above sea level. Given the maximum continued emissions now projected, the snowline of the ski mountains could move up to 9,500 feet. Park City Mountain Resort’s top elevation is 10,400 feet.

In addition, warmer temperatures could delay snow accumulations by at least four weeks. Computer models developed so far are uncertain about how global warming will change precipitation patterns.

“We can’t say with any high degree of certainty what precipitation will do in the future,” says Brian Lazar, a hydrologist with Stratus Consulting, the Boulder firm that conducted the research. “That’s particularly true in mountainous regions, because of the interactions of the climate and the topography.

“Temperatures we can predict with much more confidence,” he added.

Mid-range projections see temperatures in Park City rising 10 degrees, or about the same temperature as Salt Lake City is now. These warmer temperature could shrink the snow depths by 15 to 65 percent compared to historical averages.

Models also see warmer nighttime temperatures, both winter and summer, as well as warmer summer days.

Just how much heating occurs depends at least partly on how much greenhouse gases continue to accumulate. Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, were at 280 parts per million in the atmosphere at the start of the 20th century. They now stand at 382 parts per million.

Some scientists think the Earth can stand only 450 to 550 parts per million before substantial changes occur, which could happen by mid-century.

The problem, say scientists, is that once in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases take many years to dissipate. Some projections see carbon dioxide levels to 950 parts per million by the century’s end.

While climates are constantly changing, most scientists now say that man-caused greenhouse gases are the major cause of changes seen in recent decades.

One of the nation’s most prominent climate-change scientists, James Hansen, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, warns that substantial changes are needed in the next 5 to 10 years.

“I think there is still time to deal with global warming, but we need to act soon,” Hansen told scientists and meteorologists gathered in early January at a conference in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Hansen said that improved energy efficiency in both buildings and vehicles is critical to slowing the increase in greenhouse gases. Ultimately, creation of power plants and automobiles that emit zero carbon should be a major component, he said.

Park City’s study was inspired by Aspen, where the city government two years ago launched a program called the Canary Initiative. The idea is that mountains, like the polar regions, are likely to most dramatically feel the effects of global warming, similar to sensitive canaries taken into coal mines to warn miners of bad gas.

But as much as the science, which parallels other reports, the story at Park City is the voluminous public response.

“If I were giving out steak dinners, I wouldn’t have gotten 100 people there,” says Myles Rademan, the public affairs director for Park city’s municipal government.

Blair Fuelner, general manager of a radio station, KPCW, took the idea of a study to Park City Mountain Resort, which agreed to pay most of the $60,000 cost. Other ski areas ” Deer Valley and The Canyons ” also helped pay the cost.

The radio station then bombarded listeners with invitations to the meeting. It was held, said Rademan, in the biggest auditorium in Park City.

Park City had already been doing many things in response to concerns about global warming. Two years ago it began buying wind-generated electricity for municipal buildings, encouraging community members to do likewise, and staging a competition with another Utah town, Moab.

Last year, it began adding a biodiesel component to its municipal vehicles. It has adopted some energy efficiency requirements.

But the massive turnout at the meeting proves there will be support for additional changes. “Semi-draconian measures will get a better hearing now then they would have a few years ago,” says Rademan.

Just what those changes will be, however, is unclear. “Now comes the hard part ” and that’s what are you going to do about it,” he says.

A sustainability team formed by Park City’s government two years has been studying changes around the county. Rademan, a member of that team, acknowledges a good many ideas are likely to be discussed: reducing lot sizes in order to reduce sprawl, and also reducing house sizes.

Park City will probably study a program that began in Aspen in 2000, in which owners of large, energy-using homes must pay into a public fund if their homes exceed a specified energy budget through use of such things as heated driveways and outdoor swimming pools.

That program is generating $800,000 to $1 million annually now for use in such things as energy retrofits of Aspen’s recreational center.

But in his report to the Park City Council, Rademan intends to urge balance. Park city will remain a resort catering to wealthy people.

“We are not trying to turn this into a theology, and when you go into those meetings, they often turn into revival meetings,” he said. “You have to be careful about that.”


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