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December 15th, 2008

Warming climate signals big changes for ski areas

Mark Williams and Brian Lazar (former INSTAAR student, now at Stratus Consulting) predict that climate change will lead to substantially shorter ski seasons and less snow on lower slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Their results are based on combining temperature and precipitation data for Aspen Mountain and Park City Mountain with general climate circulation models. Their study shows that temperature at both ski areas will rise nearly 4°F by 2030 if the future rate of CO2 increase is similar to the current rate ("business-as-usual" scenario). By 2100 temperature will rise by 8.6°F in Aspen and 10.4°F for Park City. Even if the world begins reducing CO2 emissions, temperatures will still rise and the ski season will shorten, with delayed snowpack in the fall and earlier melting in the spring. If CO2 emissions continue to rise, Park City will have no snowpack at its base by 2100 and winter precipitation there will come in the form of rain.

The key to the survival of ski areas in the Rockies is adaptation. Ski resorts must expand operations to higher elevations and more northerly parcels of land. They also must build gondola systems to shuttle skiers from base areas with scant snow to facilities located at higher elevations. More man-made snow will be needed but requires the diversion and storage of large amounts of water, a challenging and expensive proposition since water rights are already over-appropriated throughout much of the West.

The results for Aspen and Park City imply that lower-elevation ski areas in Rockies and elsewhere could be forced out of business in the coming decades as air temperatures continue to warm. Particularly affected might be ski areas in California's Sierra Nevada, the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and smaller ski areas in the mid-eastern portion of America like Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

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