Warming temps could benefit higher ski resorts | VailDaily.com

Warming temps could benefit higher ski resorts

Bob Berwyn
Vail CO, Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Global warming may not be all bad news for the Colorado ski industry, at least in the short term, according to a climate report presented as part of Colorado Ski Country USA’s (CSCUSA) annual meeting at Copper Mountain last week.

“I think if you plan carefully and market yourselves in a smart way you can position yourselves really well,” meteorologist Robert Henson said, while outlining data on how climbing global temperatures could play out across Colorado’s mountains.

Most of Henson’s information wasn’t new. Predictions of shorter seasons and more droughts have been circulating for years, and 2007 is on track to be the warmest year ever for the globe.

But putting the issue front and center at the ski association’s confab reflects the general increase in awareness about climate issues, according to Copper Mountain environmental manager Jen Schenk.

“You can’t pick up a magazine these days without seeing it on the cover,” Schenk said.

In the spirit of the global warming talk, the meeting was set up as a carbon-neutral event, Schenk said, explaining that the state’s ski industry trade association purchased renewable energy credits to offset everyone’s travel and lodging. The energy used at the conference facilities is already covered under the resort’s existing offset program, she added.

“The most important thing we can do as a company is save energy,” Schenk said. As part of her work at Copper, Schenk said this year’s environmental report will include a measurement of carbon dioxide emissions per guest. Determining that baseline number will help Copper determine if it is making progress in reducing that number in coming years.

Next year, Schenk will tackle energy use at The Edge, an employee housing facility at the resort.

“We use a significant amount of power in that building,” she said, characterizing the coming energy audit as a pilot project as Copper moves ahead with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Along with reducing energy use and emissions at Copper, Schenk serves on a statewide panel that is developing specific proposals for the next session of the Colorado Legislature aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“As a company, we’re concerned about it (global warming) from the standpoint of human beings living on this planet,” said Kelly Ladyga, spokesperson for Vail Resorts. “If Colorado is as hot as Texas in 50 years, the ski industry will be the least of our worries,” Ladyga said, echoing public comments made by Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.

Colorado’s ski industry could conceivably benefit from expected climate changes because its higher elevation resorts may be less susceptible to the worst effects of warming, Henson said, pointing out that the average snowpack in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest has already declined by 15 to 30 percent.

He suggested that Rocky Mountain ski areas could even start drawing more skiers and snowboarders from Europe, which experienced a bad early season drought this past winter, along with temperatures three to five degrees higher than average in January and February.

While there is still a small element of skepticism about the causes of the current global warming trend, Henson said the leading candidate is clearly carbon dioxide.

“It lasts a long time and mixes through the lower parts of the atmosphere, staying there for a century,” Henson said, showing a smooth-rising graph of Co2 levels.

“It’s pretty clear it’s due to what we’re putting in the air. Forty percent of it stays there,” Henson said. “The 2007 levels of Co2 far exceed anything we’ve seen in the natural range over the last 650,000 years,” he said.

It’s still difficult for climate researchers to pinpoint warming effects geographically, although each new generation of climate models does a better job.

“So what about Colorado?” Henson asked. “It’s a pretty safe bet that we’re going to warm up. And no matter how you slice it, drought is going to be a bigger and bigger problem,” he said. The snow line will climb about 300 feet in elevation for every one-degree rise in average temperatures, he explained.

Some projections suggest there could actually be more precipitation in northern Colorado, but less toward the southwest, where semi-permanent drought could soon be the norm by the 2030s.

Snow cover across the Rockies could decrease by 25 to 50 percent in a relatively short time, Henson said. At the same time, winter snows could increase in some areas, he added, acknowledging that there are still some mixed messages out there.

Seasons will be shorter in any case, and the ski industry does need to prepared for the risk of major sustained droughts, Henson said.

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