The 2015 world ski championships concluded Sunday in Vail, Colorado, but climate change could put future championships in peril. Many athletes and resort owners fear what a warmer future holds for an industry that relies on consistent snow to attract winter sporting enthusiasts. And they're starting to call for political action.
Skiers in the Pacific Northwest are already feeling the heat. The Summit at Snoqualmie, near Seattle, closed its highest and last remaining open slope last week because of poor conditions. The situation there hues closely to what's happening all across the West.
"Based on a 60-year record, the total amount of snow that we've lost in the West varies anywhere from 15 to 60 percent," Noah Molotch, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, told VICE News.
Focusing on the skiing industry may seem quaint, or even elitist, compared with the need of protecting coastal cities from sea-level rise or the agricultural sector from drought. But winter sports recreation generates $67 billion annually for the US economy, propping up 900,000 jobs. Its collapse could kill entire local and regional economies across the West or in New England.
For the time being, resorts are ramping up methods for keeping their slopes white. Snowmaking has become nearly universal in America, with 88 percent of ski resorts relying on the technology. But artificial snow is no guarantee. If temperatures are too high, the machines can't be switched on to make powder. Two major Colorado resorts delayed their opening last November because of warm temperatures.
Other resorts have turned to cloud seeding. Vail began using the technology in 1972, and it's one of nine in Colorado that actively seeds clouds. In 2009, Winter Park Resort in Colorado installed two cloud seeding generators along 9,500-foot and 8,900-foot ridges. The high altitude at which they're placed is ideal, as it's far above cold air that sweeps into the valley and prevents particles from rising high into the sky. The generators pump silver iodide into ripe clouds when the wind conditions are right in order to wring out additional snow. Seeded clouds can yield a 5-15 percent increase in precipitation.
"How climate change is going to play out is highly local," said Frank McDonough, an assistant research atmospheric scientist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI). DRI teamed up with the state officials and Winter Park to bring in the seeding generators. McDonough explained that higher temperatures in the Rocky Mountains could produce more storms and clouds that meet seeding criteria. A warmer future is a future filled with more seeded storms.
The cloud seeding network set up around Winter Park also serves as an observational network.
'In order to make headway on this whole issue, we've got to make headway on legislation.'
"We have a lot of forecasting tools, and that data can be brought back to give a higher resolution analysis of how climate is changing," McDonough said.
Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company said that historically, individual resorts have been primarily concerned about reducing their contributions to climate change, rather than the impacts of a warmer world on their industry as a whole. But he believes that thinking is faulty. He wants to use the industry as a policy lever to drive change, an approach that has picked up momentum.
"If you cut the ski industry's carbon footprint to zero, you still suffer from climate change," Schendler said. "It's really difficult for the industry to step out of their business box and start becoming activists."
In 2013, 108 ski resorts signed a declaration that called for reduced energy consumption and deployment of clean energy technologies.
"In order to make headway on this whole issue, we've got to make headway on legislation," Chris Steinkamp, Executive Director at Protect our Winters (POW) told VICE News. "When we talk to people on Capitol Hill, we try to depoliticize the whole thing. The leaders in our industry have the power to turn heads in Congress."
Olympic medalist Gretchen Bleiler, who works closely with POW,co-wrote an opinion piece with US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy after showing her around the X-Games in Aspen, Colorado last month. The pair highlighted the ways climate change threatens the winter sports industry and the central role the EPA might play in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Steven Nyman is another highly visible athlete who works with POW and has seen the transformations brought about by climate change.
"Growing up in a place like Sundance, Utah, I was always in nature," Nyman said. "It taught me so much. It raised me. I was in the mountains, and I've seen the change. I saw what massive weather changes could do. I saw tons of snow, I saw avalanches, I saw little snow, I saw massive fires that almost burned our house down."
"I can't predict the future," he said, "but it's scary."
Follow Shelby Kinney-Lang on Twitter: @ShelbKL