Scientists, snow riders seek cultural shift on climate change

Executive director of Protect Our Winters stresses importance of current carbon-limit bill in Colorado legislature

David O. Williams
Special to the Daily
Mario Molina cruises through some powder in the Back Bowls of Vail. The executive director of Protect Our Winters says a cultural shift needs to happen on climate change, just like cigarettes going out of fashion.
David O. Williams photo

Mario Molina was born and raised in the mile-high mountain city of Antigua, Guatemala, but it was at much higher elevations in the Andes of Ecuador where climate change really hit home for him. That’s where he witnessed rapidly receding tropical glaciers over a five-year span in the 2000s.

On a foot-deep powder day in the Back Bowls of Vail last week, the executive director of Protect Our Winters explained on a wind-swept ride up Chair 5 that we already have the technology and financial tools to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. What we’re lacking, he says, is the political will and a cultural shift to combat the worst effects of climate change.

“The first thing is we needed the technical solutions that are both technology and finance,” Molina said. “The second thing is we need the political will, so we need to elect politicians and press politicians to move policies forward that will get us there. But then the third leg of the stool, without one of which the whole thing topples, is we need a cultural shift.”

Appetite for destruction

Molina, who holds a Masters in Geosystems Analysis from Appalachian State in North Carolina, compares climate change to drunk driving and tobacco consumption — self-destructive practices that decades ago were far more widespread and culturally acceptable in the United States.

“Those were legislative battles that were fought and won at the policy level, but they’ve endured because they also accomplished a cultural shift,” Molina said. “Where Protect Our Winters comes in, and conferences like The CampSight come in, is mobilizing that cultural shift to a broader community.”

Support Local Journalism

Dubbed “an innovation and marketing unconference for outdoor industry brands, adventurous visionaries and bold storytellers,” The CampSight just wrapped up three days in Vail last week.

Former Protect Our Winters board member Penn Newhard, of Carbondale’s Backbone Media, echoed Molina’s take on climate change and the need to quickly make that cultural shift during a CampSight coffee breakout at Yeti’s Grind in Vail.

“Now it’s actually in the space where people take this kind of cavalier attitude like smokers used to take, like, ‘Oh yeah, I know it’s really bad for me, but it’s probably not going to immediately kill me,” said Newhard, who founded Backbone as a PR, marketing, social media and content firm for the outdoor industry. “Climate change is a PR issue, and it’s the most dominant issue.”

‘War on Powder’

But it’s also a policy issue, and Molina underscores the importance of the current Colorado legislative push to mitigate against and hopefully reverse climate change impacts — the so-called Ski Town Caucus fight in the “War on Powder.”

“It’s great to see in Colorado a lot of leadership from the House with the passing of the carbon limit bill that’s now going to the Senate,” Molina said. “As residents of Colorado, those are the kinds of initiatives that we need to get behind. … That’s where we need people to show up, understand what this bill is trying to accomplish, that it doesn’t come at huge cost to consumers.”

The cultural shift with climate change will come more quickly, Molina said, when it’s equated with the loss of public lands for fossil fuel extraction and the shrinking of ski seasons, river flows and recreational opportunities. That’s why Protect Our WintersPOW enlists adventure sports athletes as advocates.

Backbone’s Newhard helped professional big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones found Protect Our Winters in 2007, and ski racers like Olympic gold medalist and Shred gear company founder Ted Ligety support its efforts. Other alpine greats such as six-time Olympic medalist and Bomber Ski founder Bode Miller have been equally out front on climate change.

Witnesses to waning winters

But it’s pioneering big-mountain riders like Jones, Cody Townsend and the legendary Kristen Ulmer — firsthand witnesses to the dramatic impact of climate change on first and soon-to-be last descents in Alaska’s Chugach Range and other ski-film locations — that are the most passionate.

During her recent induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, Ulmer told a conference room full of ski executives and snow riders in Salt Lake City she only expects the industry to last another 100 years at the current rate of warming.

Scientists agree that our snowpack is changing, endangering the Colorado River and impacting the state’s ski and outdoor recreation industry. And, even during an above-average season for snowfall in Colorado this winter, the trend of warmer, wetter storms is continuing.

Jeffrey Deems, a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a phone interview last month that the instrument record shows increased rain fraction in the snowpack, shorter snow seasons and higher snow lines during certain storms.

“When we think about the impact of climate change, it isn’t just, OK, well what does our snowpack look like in 2050, but are we now a maritime or inter-mountain climate?” Deems said. “What does that transition look like? Do we get an increased frequency of maritime-like events like this recent atmospheric river event that lands on top of a cold continental Colorado snowpack?”

Colorado experienced historic avalanches in early March after a consistent snowpack was hammered by a heavy, wet southwestern flow of moisture, but Deems says it’s “dodgy” to connect one avalanche cycle to the overall and ongoing trend of climate change.

Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, agrees.

“Those kinds of storms are not really odd events; maybe the number of them this year and just how wet and kind of juicy they’ve been is a little bit out of the normal, for sure,” Lazar said in a March phone interview. “That’s not inconsistent with predictions of a warmer climate. That warm air can kind of just hold more moisture. Colorado is typically colder and drier.”

Brian Lazar of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center says the heavy, wet March storms that created a historic avalanche season in Colorado are ‘not really odd events,’ given the new normal of global climate change.
Special to the Daily

Protect Our Winters athletes, for the most part, are operating on anecdotal evidence, like Ligety pointing out the rapid deterioration of the Rettenbach Glacier at the annual World Cup stop in Soelden, Austria. But Lazar, who earned a master’s in engineering studying snow and ice mechanics in Alaska’s Chugach Range, says Colorado snowpack is definitely being impacted by climate change.

“We’re certainly observing rain creeping earlier into the season … warmer temperatures, and that stuff is observation, so it’s a little bit more than anecdotal,” Lazar said. “We know things are getting warmer for sure, and we know kind of the frequency of rain on snow events in Colorado is going up from near zero in mid-winter to now where it’s not unheard of anymore.”

Support Local Journalism