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Utah Business

Save Our Winters

“Last year was the first time in the history of Snowbird that we opened the resort for the season, then had to close again due to lack of snow,” says Hilary Arens, director of sustainability at Snowbird Resort. “We’re seeing the impact of climate change here on the ground already. Not just in the amount of snow we’re getting, but in the number of rain-on-snow weather events we’re seeing. Historically, that happened once or twice per winter. Last year, it happened nine times.”

Ms. Arens’ role at Snowbird is a new one. In a push for preservation, resorts around Utah have added a “director of sustainability” to the roster of longtime roles found in resort work. Apart from lifties, patrollers, instructors, shop attendants, and waiters, they also need someone to stand up for the future of the industry. “We still have the greatest snow on Earth … but if we don’t turn things around right away, our best product isn’t going to exist,” Ms. Arens says.  

The Economic Impact Of An Inch Of Snow

The promise of fresh snow serves as more than a pre-dawn clarion call to Utah’s ski bums and powder hounds. Our state’s famed snow takes center stage in Utah’s $1.4 billion snowsports industry. Promising seasonal averages of 500 inches of feather-light powder, Utah’s resorts draw 4.15 million visitors annually. That means a single inch of snowfall is worth $2,800,000.

And that’s just the direct economic impact. Not only does Utah’s snowsports economy create 20,000 jobs for the state, but visitors spend an average of $337 per person per day on lodging, food, gas, shopping, and other tourist activities. According to the Utah Office of Tourism, tourism-related money is a boon to every Utahn, raising enough tax revenue to lower each Utah household’s tax burden by $1,375 each year.

Our snow also brought the biggest event we’ve ever hosted: the 2002 Olympics, which came with a $6 billion economic boost for the state. We’re even bidding to host again, which could bring another round of economic boosts—to say nothing of our usual list of races, competitions, acclaimed snowsports schools, and training facilities.

A single inch of snowfall is worth $2,800,000 to the state of Utah.

Utah’s snow not only draws athletes and recreational visitors, but it’s also a major recruiting tool for businesses throughout the state. Look no further than the 6,000 booming startups and tech companies allying themselves under Silicon Slopes’ mountainous logo.

Outdoor industry businesses, too, have set up shop here to lure quality employees with a healthy balance between hours on the job and hours spent on the slopes and trails—including a long list of companies like, Skullcandy, Rossignol, Salomon, Jaybird, Specialized, Black Diamond, Liberty Mountain, Discrete, Petzl, Goal Zero, Altra, DPS Skis, Gregory, Voile, Niche Snowboards, Cotopaxi, and Scott.

In short, there’s more at stake with every inch of snowfall than just helping ski bums get their powder kick. The snowsports industry is an economic powerhouse fueling more than ski turns—it fuels our state’s economy and financially impacts every resident and business.

Climate Change Puts Those Inches At Risk

When talking about climate change, I start with what we do know,” says Dr. Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and author of the book Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth. “What we know is that the planet is warming, and it’s warming primarily due to greenhouse gasses, and that’s thanks to humans’ fossil fuel combustion.”

Utah has already seen warming of two degrees Fahrenheit since a century ago, and if we don’t drastically cut emissions, the Salt Lake valley is expected to warm by four degrees before 2050 and ten degrees by 2100. How will that affect Utah’s snow specifically? While scientists’ computer models vary in their exact predictions of how many inches of snow to expect in the post-climate-change world, Dr. Steenburgh says we are certain that temperatures will be warmer, which means that many storms will dump rain rather than snow, the ski season will definitely shorten, and the snow will be wetter.

“Global warming won’t be an equal-opportunity offender. It will take a bit longer to impact the highest elevations—but our lower-elevation resorts will be hit hard,” explains Dr. Steenburgh. That means that high-elevation areas like Alta and Brighton will hold out for longer, but lower-lying resorts like Deer Valley, Park City, Sundance, and Snowbasin will feel a sharper drop-off in season length and snow accumulation. Adding insult to injury, snowmaking equipment doesn’t work when it’s above freezing, so options for a plan B are limited.

“Over the last 50 years, winter precipitation falling as snow has decreased by nine percent in Utah. The reductions are greater below 6,500 feet, but they’re present in the higher Wasatch too,” says Seth Arens, Utah research integration specialist at the Western Water Assessment. With more precipitation falling as rain in lower areas, but also in higher elevations too—the snowpack gets saturated and makes for truly unpleasant skiing. It gets heavy and, upon nightfall, crusty. It’s a bane to inbounds skiers and throws a wrench in the backcountry skiing avalanche hazard.

Historically, there’s been much fanfare over Utah’s exceptionally fluffy snow, with many a tourism campaign dedicated to its appeal. Cold snow storms generally produce lighter, drier, airier snow, while warmer storms produce heavier, saturated “Sierra cement” snow. In past generations, the average water content of snow in the upper Cottonwood Canyons hovered around 8.4 percent. But, once climate change raises our temperatures another seven degrees Fahrenheit, we can expect the average water content to rise to about 10 percent. Not only is wetter snow less skiable, but extra rainfall falling on it will melt it out faster and throw off the natural rate of spring runoff.

“The rate of snowmelt is actually critically important—not just for skiers, but for all of our state’s residents,” explains Dr. McKenzie Skiles, assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah. “The snowpack serves as mother nature’s reservoir, dispensing the water in a steady stream throughout the spring and summer, feeding us a water supply as it’s needed.”

Dr. Skiles is studying another way in which climate change is affecting Utah’s snow: thanks to warming temperatures and heavy water usage, the Great Salt Lake is shrinking rapidly. This is exposing a large, dusty lakebed that was once covered by water but now kicks up dust into the atmosphere when the wind blows.

“Dust settles on the snow surface here in the Wasatch, and it absorbs more light and heat, much like the way putting on a dark shirt warms you up,” says Dr. Skiles. “It accelerates the snowmelt, shrinking our snowpack further. It’s one big feedback loop. With more rain and less snow, our lake size will continue to diminish, and that will expose more and more dust to blow into the snow and melt it even more.”

Not only is the shrinking Great Salt Lake “a ticking time bomb as an environmental problem,” adds Mr. Arens, but as the lake’s water diminishes, it will inevitably impact the famous “lake effect” snowstorms―where a cold air mass moves over the Great Salt Lake’s warmer water, picking up moisture and then dumping the snow downwind. Skiers delight in the resulting snowfall boost, but the effect might not last a whole lot longer.

How To Save Our Winters

With more rain, wetter snow, and a shorter ski season, what’s a snowsports economy to do? The answer: enact revolutionary change, starting right now.

“The really dangerous problem with climate change is that it can turn into a runaway train. If we don’t take drastic action to reduce our emissions and the concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, then we’ve already chosen our path. And, unfortunately, there’s a delayed effect of what we’re emitting today; even if we stopped all emissions right now, the earth would continue to warm for another decade or two. So, the time to act is absolutely now,” explains Mr. Arens.

“Unchecked warming would pose a threat beyond the ability of the winter snowsports industry to adapt,” says the nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW) in a report released last year. Hearing the alarms loud and clear, Utah resorts and snowsports companies are rallying in response. It may be too late to avert climate change altogether, but it isn’t too late to save as much of our snow as we can.

“Utah resorts are well aware of the effect climate change will have on our industry, and we’re doing everything we can to mitigate those impacts,” says Caitlin Furin, director of communications at Ski Utah. “We’re fortunate that, in Utah, even when we have a low snow year, it’s still more snow than many other places. However, it’s no secret that last season was a very low snow year—here in Utah and around the country.”

People skied less as a result. Last season’s 2017-2018 skier visits in Utah were down 9.5 percent from the season before. To make matters worse, a 2018 economic report released by Protect Our Winters concluded that low snow years have a larger negative impact on the economy than the positive increases experienced in high snow years. “In short, snow is directly tied to jobs and money,” the report states. During a high snow year, resorts can reach capacity and may not be able to accommodate more skier visits. In a low snow year, however, “the bottom can drop out substantially.”

Be a superhero for our snow. It needs you now more than ever.

Thus far, the 2018-2019 season is better than the last, but the snowsports industry is watching the long-range trends carefully and jumping into action. Ski Utah has thrown its support behind Protect Our Winters, with a number of our state’s resorts following suit. The nonprofit galvanizes and mobilizes the outdoor sports community to fight climate change through education, activism, a CEO alliance, and a push for climate-saving legislation.

In addition to nonprofit support, our area’s resorts are looking inward at their own operations and  emissions. “We call it ‘using our biggest lever.’ It means we should all identify where we as individuals or as companies can exert the most influence,” explains Ms. Arens. “As a resort, we need to do everything we can, and we also need to give other people the tools to enact change and influence even more people.”

It’s a step-by-step approach, Ms. Arens says, with resorts like Snowbird doing everything in their control, whether that’s adding glass recycling, ditching plastic drink stirrers, phasing out single-use plastic bottles, or investigating biodiesel fuel for on-mountain machinery.

“One of the best ways—or ‘levers’—we have to reduce our carbon footprint is to help reduce traffic congestion,” says Ms. Arens. “Our biggest problem, is one of our biggest opportunities to make a difference. So, we’ve created an app [called R.I.D.E.] that makes it extremely easy for guests and employees to carpool. Not only is it simple to post to your friends when you’ll be heading up, but you can get linked up with other people to ride-share too if you like, and it’s easy to find a bus heading up too. And every time you do, you win points that go toward some highly motivating prizes and drawings, like nights at the Cliff Lodge and half-priced lift tickets.”

Snowbird is even making the ride-sharing app available for any other resort that wants to use it, vastly expanding its potential impact. The resort makes a point of regularly writing to senators and legislators and hosting educational events on issues affecting the environment.

Snowbird, along with Alta, Deer Valley, Solitude, and Gorgoza Park, has joined the National Ski Areas Association Climate Challenge—a major commitment requiring resorts to transparently report their carbon footprints and publicly commit to strategic reduction steps each year. Vail Resorts, which owns Park City Mountain Resort, has gone so far as to announce Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint, a pledge to reach a net zero operating footprint by 2030. The steps required include a significant wind power purchase as well as avoiding all landfill waste—reducing the waste created, then finding ways to either reuse, compost, or recycle it.

Julian Carr, a pro skier and the founder of the outdoor company, Discrete, has a double stake in climate change’s impact on the snowsports industry. He says that not only is it in outdoor companies’ direct interest to do everything they can to minimize climate change, but it’s also something consumers are increasingly demanding. “We outdoor companies are so consumer-driven, and focus groups are showing a very clear demand for businesses to show stewardship and leadership on this issue,” he says.

Seeing Protect Our Winters as an opportunity to become more engaged, active, and informed, Mr. Carr became a POW Alliance athlete, joining the ranks of athletes and business leaders using their own platforms as a megaphone for the climate cause. Of course, those who make their living in the snowsports industry have urgent motivation to make internal changes and engage in external activism. But they can’t go at it alone, especially as they’re actually responsible for a smaller percentage of Utah’s emissions.

“Here in Utah, the electricity sector is the largest source of carbon emissions—in fact, 98 percent of electricity production in Utah currently comes from fossil fuel power plants. However, the good news is that renewable energy is no longer fringe or hippie. In fact, they’ve just rounded a corner and become the cheapest form of energy available,” says Michael Shea, senior policy associate at HEAL Utah. “Rocky Mountain Power is now phasing out some of its coal energy plants and investing more in renewables.”

Transportation, he says, is also an extremely heavy source of emissions here—and it’s something the average citizen can directly do something about. “Not only does the snowsports industry need to laser-focus hard on effective activism and legislation at the national and state level, but all Utah businesses also have a stake in the outcome,” says Mr. Shea. “Groups like the Utah Climate Action Network are a great place to start. And, individuals need to find their own ways to make the biggest difference possible—getting more politically involved and finding the most high-impact actions they can personally take, then magnify that impact by expanding it to their workplaces and schools.”

“Our legislators won’t care until citizens show they’re willing to make a change,” adds Ms. Arens.  “We can choose to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.”

Whether you’re a skier, snowboarder, cross-country skier, snowshoer, snowmobiler, or just a citizen of a state that gains so much from these sports, consider it your duty and an opportunity to be a superhero for our snow. It needs you now more than ever.