The ski slopes of the Rocky Mountain West are facing new challenges as a shifting climate brings shorter winters and more severe droughts.
Few people, of course, are more aware of this than those in charge of running these ski resorts. But new research by the Colorado State University-based Colorado Climate Center found that these same ski managers often lack the tools and information to integrate the latest and most local climate data into operations and in planning for a successful future.
The interdisciplinary center, which is housed in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, recently conducted in-depth interviews with 21 ski area managers and critical staff members from 11 Rocky Mountain ski resorts, including seven in Colorado, about their use of climate data.
“Many ski areas we talked to recognized that they were doing the bare minimum and there was so much more to be learned,” said Natalie Ooi, an assistant professor in Warner College of Natural Resources’ Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources. “They are hungry for this information to best position their business, and their communities, to address climate change for the sustainability of the destination.”
Properly informed planning can help ensure the survival of this critical regional industry, which provides not only a popular pastime but also generates $4.8 billion and creates 46,000 jobs annually in Colorado alone.
How resorts are planning for climate change
Snow depth, lift operations, avalanche mitigation, overnight temperature. Ski area managers have a lot of moving pieces to worry about to keep their resorts running smoothly and safely each day. So it’s no surprise that most managers have little bandwidth to integrate complex climate modeling and projections in their already hectic jobs.
In their research with ski area operators, the Climate Center team, which is also supported by the Colorado State Agricultural Experiment Station, found that “climate data, whether historical climate averages or future climate model projections, were generally beyond the planning ranges of most decision makers,” said Trevor Even, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology and Geography in the College of Liberal Arts.
That doesn’t mean the mountain resorts aren’t taking general climate-preparedness steps. Aware that winter temperatures are steadily rising and precipitation patterns are changing, essentially every ski resort in the United States now incorporates some sort of artificial snow-making to help ensure enough of the powdery stuff for visitors. Many are shoring up these efforts by buying additional water rights and creating water storage facilities. They are also buffering against fluctuating oil prices for this energy-intensive work by shifting to renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, and hydroelectricity.
Additionally, some resorts are working to mitigate risk from wildfires and changes in forest health. They are also investing heavily in fall and summer attractions to diversify revenue streams.
And they are learning about weather and climate as they go. “They have become – often self-taught – weather experts in their local mountain environment,” said Ooi, who is also the program coordinator of the Ski Area Management program. “However, many are unaware, beyond general climate change studies and data, of the kinds of changes they can expect to see – and therefore plan for – at the local level.”
Even agreed, adding that, “even for those few resorts and companies that were looking out to the long-term horizon, climate change was treated more as a generalized issue, without much time being put into understanding the local-scale implications.”
How the Colorado Climate Center can help
The Colorado Climate Center is tasked with providing climate services and support to the state.
“We already have long-standing relationships with the agricultural and municipal water sectors, but we have had more limited relationships with recreation,” like the ski industry, said Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist for Colorado. “We have a wealth of climate information to share, and the ski industry is particularly sensitive to climate variability.”
So they saw an opportunity to help.
Newly informed by their conversations with the ski industry managers, the Climate Center team is now working to create a dashboard to bring together key weather and climate forecasting – tailored specifically for winter mountain recreation businesses. Bolinger noted that her group is also on hand to help ski areas make sense of climate data.
These conversations also help Bolinger and her colleagues find out what more they can do. “Sometimes it helps us identify gaps between what the ski area managers want and what is currently available.”
The sharing goes both ways. Ski resorts have been collecting extremely detailed slope-side weather information for decades. This sort of granular data could go a long way in making weather forecasting and climate modeling more accurate for these niche locations. This will help scientists “understand how high elevation, topographically complex areas fit into the overall weather and climate data picture – because these areas have been notoriously difficult to provide accurate predictions and modeling outputs for,” Even said.
Filling in these gaps in forecasting will be a big help, Ooi added, because “many ski areas acknowledged a difference between what they see out their window on the mountain versus what the weather forecasts say for their region or nearby town.”
Deepening these lines of communication can also help “develop a foundation of trust between those generating information and those receiving it,” Even said.
It will also help resort managers make a case to their directors or shareholders for the smartest preparations to weather the near- and long-term changes, “such as bigger investments in forest management and wildfire mitigation,” Even noted. “More importantly, ski areas can play a huge role in helping the broader population understand changes that are already occurring locally – and what sort of cherished experiences and places are at stake when we’re thinking about the real impacts of climate change,” he said.
This partnership work can also reassure people that Rocky Mountain skiing has a future.
“The surprise is that many ski areas are more vulnerable to the public perception of drought and climate change impacts” than the changes themselves, Bolinger said. “This is an opportunity to share with people what the ski industry is doing to tackle these issues – and also to communicate that this industry is resilient and, with proper planning, can continue to be successful in the midst of a changing climate.”