Californian ski resorts face a brown future

At ski areas up and down the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada, where California’s drought has hit historic proportions and the broader threat of climate change hangs heavy over an industry built on optimism, the man-made snow is flying.

A couple of resorts have managed to open a few runs. But beyond the occasional strip of white, the mountains remain mostly bare.

“From a business perspective, I’m a farmer,” said John Rice, general manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe, a ski area south of Lake Tahoe. Last week, he had a small pile of man-made snow, a mountain of naked runs and a hope to open in early December. “I’m not in the ski business,” Rice said. “I farm snow.”
A good day on Mammoth Mountain.

Californian ski fields face a shrinking future

The season is just starting, and snow may yet pile high, but the harvest in California the last three years was bleak, and the globe’s long-range forecast is grim. Fortunes are as unpredictable as ever, with bigger swings of weather variability. While snow levels have decreased drastically in the West and are generally on decline elsewhere in the United States, the drop is hardly uniform. Last week, for example, the Buffalo area in New York set records with an early snowstorm.

The ski industry, which expects higher temperatures, less snow and shorter seasons in the coming decades, is seen a bit like the canary in the coal mine of climatology.

“This is a very serious and as strategically significant a topic as you can get,” said Andy Wirth, president and chief executive of Squaw Valley, a major resort near Lake Tahoe.

No front line of skiing is fighting with the immediacy of resorts in California. Resorts, big and small, are combating the trends with bigger investments in snow making ($US8 million worth at Squaw Valley and neighboring Alpine Meadows in the last three years) and more activities less reliant on snow, whether indoors in the winter or outdoors in the summer.

They are moves to attract more customers in the short run, but also hedges in a high-stakes gamble with the future of snow.

Last year’s snowpack at the University of California, Berkeley, Central Sierra Snow Lab, in the heart of California ski country near Lake Tahoe, topped out at a depth of about 52 inches (1.3 metres), the second-lowest of the last 90 years. With most of the snow arriving late in the season, skier and snowboarder visits in this area were down 25 per cent from the season before, according to the National Ski Area Association.

A good day on Mammoth Mountain.

Similarly meager snow packs in 2012 and 2013 have exacerbated the statewide drought, with ramifications far beyond the ski industry. A fourth lackluster season would be unprecedented, according to snow records kept since 1879.

Some dismiss the snow drought as an anomaly, pointing to near-record snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada as recently as 2011. When viewed on graphs, the data is spikier than ever, but the trend lines point down.

“It might well be that there will be more snow again on the mountains of California in the next few years,” Christoph Marty, a researcher for Switzerland’s Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, wrote in an email. “However, this does not change the fact that there will be less snow in the long run.”

Troubling for ski areas now is the rising per centage of precipitation that falls as liquid, not solid, even in winter, said Randall Osterhuber, a researcher at the snow lab. In the late 1970s, about 82 per cent of the annual precipitation at the lab, with a relatively high elevation of 6,900 feet, fell as snow. These days, it is about 67 per cent.

If the debate about global warming still echoes around the world of politics, it has long since faded at ski areas.

“I don’t know of anybody in the industry who is saying that climate change is not an issue for us,” said Bob Roberts, president and chief executive of the California Ski Industry Association. “If you’re below 6,000 feet, it’s a real challenge.”

The industry was among the first to push for awareness of the threat of global warming, long before the turn of the century, led by resorts like Aspen, in Colorado. The National Ski Area Association adopted a climate-change policy in 2000. In 2007, snowboarder Jeremy Jones founded Protect Our Winters to further rally the winter-sports community.

Squaw Valley’s “Formal Sustainability Initiative,” a report on the ways it intends to reduce its own carbon footprint and promote advocacy among its customers – “Our intention is to lead the fight against climate change,” the report says – acknowledges that the company expects changing conditions.

“Ski seasons are projected to be 3-6 weeks shorter by the 2050s” in the Sierra Nevada, the report reads.

“Will ski areas be around in 30 to 40 years? The answer is yes,” Wirth said. “Will we look different than we do today? Yes. But we look dramatically different now than we did 40 or 50 years ago, too.”

They may look more like Big Bear Mountain Resorts in Southern California. About a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles, Big Bear can open – and sometimes has opened – 100 per cent of its 420-acre terrain at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit with nothing but man-made snow. It has built a vast snow-making operation since the 1960s, a strategy that has propped up ski areas on the East Coast for decades.

“We’re certainly better positioned than most areas for this possibility, the warmer temperatures and less snowfall,” Chris Riddle, Big Bear’s vice president of marketing, said. “We’ve lived that our entire existence.”

But making snow requires two things in short supply in California – temperatures below freezing, generally, and ample water. And, despite advances in efficiency in recent years, snow making contributes to global warming, representing 15 to 20 per cent of Squaw Valley’s carbon footprint, for example, according to Squaw Valley officials.

Temperatures at Big Bear two weekends ago allowed the resort to run its snow-making equipment for 30 hours, Riddle said.

At full capacity, it pulls between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons of water per minute from nearby Big Bear Lake, at a cost of about $3,000 an hour, Riddle said, to the municipal water district – about $90,000 for last weekend’s snow-making spurt. During dry seasons, the resort can spend millions on water – a cost reduced greatly by unpredictable bursts of natural snow.

Days before Mammoth Mountain opened this month, on the strength of man-made snow, crews were drilling wells for water. The resort Heavenly says it has the West’s largest snow-making operation, its huge mountain dotted with enough hydrants to get about three-quarters of its terrain open with man-made snow.

But ski areas played down the effects of heavy water use during a drought. They consider their system relatively closed, with minimal consumptive use. The water is used to make snow, then mostly melts back into the ground or runs off into reservoirs to be used again.

Boreal Mountain Resort, a small ski area along Interstate 80 near Lake Tahoe, has many enviable qualities – a relatively high altitude and north-facing slopes. But it has invested heavily in snow-making equipment since 2007 and competes annually to be the first California area to open. It won the race this year, on Nov. 7, operating one lift and one run. It closed again for a few days, waiting for colder conditions to make more snow, and reopened last week.

Two years ago, Boreal opened Woodward Tahoe, a 32,000-square-foot indoor action-sports gym, with year-round use for everyone from Olympic athletes to cheerleading squads. Ski areas everywhere are adding non-snow activities, like mountain-bike parks and zip-line courses, especially since 2011, when federal legislation allowed expanded uses for ski areas on government land.

“We have to get our heads out of the snow,” Boreal’s general manager, Amy Ohran, said. “A lot of discussions are about seasonal diversity, and expanding revenues in areas that are not dependent on snow. Our hearts are in skiing and snowboarding, and we want to see that succeed. But we have to cast a bigger net.”

Still, snow is the thing. Sierra-at-Tahoe relies mostly on snow from the sky. And when it falls, the resort has a plan to make the most of it.

“Every flake counts,” Rice, the general manager, said.

It will plow the parking lot into stripes, use snowblowers to load the snow onto trucks, and carry it onto the mountain. It will erect fences on its slopes, even park trucks in strategic places, to capture the blowing snow in piles to be redistributed. The trails, for now, look like steep golf fairways, groomed of the clutter of rocks and logs, the grass cut short by mowers.

When Sierra-at-Tahoe built a sprawling stone deck off its base lodge last year, it considered heating it, to avoid the hassle of snow removal. Instead, the deck is a 30,000-square-foot capturing device for snow to be used on the slopes.

Last year, employees formed a bucket brigade to move snow from the protected shade of the forest onto the slopes for skiers.

“It’s not like it matters if I have 6 feet,” Rice said. “That would be nice. But it’s what the top 6 inches is like. If it’s soft and white, that’s what people want.”

New York Times