Leaders at two up north ski resorts recently called for faster climate action – even federal carbon taxes – to stave off the effects of the escalating climate crisis on Michigan’s signature four seasons.
Chief executives at both Crystal Mountain and Boyne Mountain resorts in northern Lower Michigan said sustainability efforts at the all-seasons resorts may help offset their operational carbon footprints, but argued bigger, systems-wide actions are needed to prevent an irreparable intensification of the effects of climate change – effects that will impact not just resort operations, but everyone on the planet.
Experts say their concerns about changes to weather patterns having impacts on both winter sports and all of humanity are spot on, and the current Winter Olympics provides a prime example with its use of only man-made snow because of climate change.
Jim MacInnes, chief executive officer of Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, said the biggest climate changes in recent years for ski and golf resort near Traverse City involve greater variability in weather during both summer and winter.
“We get these big rains in the summer, and we can have low snow or large snow events in the winter. It depends. I would say, generally speaking, the winters are getting shorter. And we’re having more, you know, higher average temperatures throughout the winter. And so, we’re relying more and more on snowmaking,” he said.
“It’s more expensive. You have to make more snow and make it faster because the windows of cold are short.”
MacInnes and Stephen Kircher, CEO at Boyne Mountain, recently co-authored an opinion column in the Traverse City Record-Eagle in which they called for a faster switch to renewable energy and a carbon tax for polluters with federal legislation.
“American citizens and businesses should want the U.S. to become a leader in the emerging clean energy economy. Addressing climate change is urgent,” they wrote.
The resort leaders said they’ve begun the work to offset the carbon footprints of their companies by finding ways to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.
Officials at the resort in Boyne Falls last year installed a 1.7-megawatt solar array in a partnership with the company’s energy supplier to grow its use of renewable energy, all part of a bigger goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. There also are energy-efficient snow guns, electric golf carts, recycling, and LED-lighting in all buildings, among other resiliency efforts.
The solar array will provide a significant portion – between 15 and 17 percent – of the resort’s year-round electricity needs, said Boyne Mountain Resort President Ed Grice, even if the installation is most productive during Michigan’s sunnier, summer months.
At Crystal Mountain Resort, officials opted for different carbon reduction methods through the years.
It was the first resort in the Midwest to build a LEED-certified “green” spa in 2009 and was the first resort in Michigan to invest in wind energy credits. More recently, the resort installed free charging stations for electric vehicles, built a renewable geothermal heating and cooling system for its conference facility, and contracted with its local power cooperative to buy 62 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
But for MacInnis, these carbon offsets aren’t the most important things to fight the climate crisis. He argues the more important element is to advocate to end the burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation, and more rapidly develop renewable energy generation and transmission infrastructure.
“We need to get off of fossil-fuel driven cars and get onto electric vehicles. And we need to power them with renewable energy by getting the utilities and grid operators, everybody working together to try to get all this clean energy around the country,” MacInnis said.
“We have a large-scale systems problem.”
Experts say these concerns are valid, given the escalating climate crisis worldwide. Michigan won’t escape all harmful effects.
Western Michigan University Professor Lisa DeChano-Cook, climate change and sports geography expert, said science and history shows ski resorts here and elsewhere can expect to be hit hard by shifts in temperatures and precipitation.
“We know that this year’s Winter Olympics are using artificial snow for just about everything and that’s an impact of climate change,” she said.
“And anytime ski resorts have to make snow they have to pay out to do that. So, it is going to get more costly for the ski resorts if they have to keep making artificial snow.”
It’s been an industry-wide issue for about a decade.
The National Ski Areas Association’s “Climate Challenge” program encourages resorts to inventory and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as advocate for legislation to combat climate change.
Since its inception, the group says the voluntary program cut emissions by about 129,300 tons. Participating resorts also purchased renewable energy that accounts for an additional reduction of about 242,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
However, those reductions amount to a fraction of the estimated 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the United States in 2021 – a total of about 32 minutes worth of the country’s carbon emissions – according to the independent Rhodium Group.
Advocates say it’s a start.
“We can do what we can in our own operations, but if there’s going to be a future in outdoor recreation and a future for humanity just in general, we’re going to need every kind of solution we can find,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, an NSAA spokesperson. “We’ve got to effect change now.”
But even with high-tech snowmaking and other efficiency measures, the nation’s ski industry is not on track to be viable beyond 2050, said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado.
“The industry has historically responded to climate change by saying, ‘We’re going to clean our operations, we’re going to do good snowmaking, and we’re going to cut our carbon footprint,’” he said. “That’s awesome and noble and moral and good business, but it is not a solution to a global problem.”
Back in Michigan, the state’s U.S. senators noticed the ski resort leaders’ call for climate action; it was specifically directed at them, after all.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said he’s committed to combatting the climate crisis and working to bring funding to Michigan to build resilient infrastructure, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she agrees about a carbon tax for polluters and more.
“I strongly support a broad range of policies to address this crisis, including a price on carbon pollution. I’m leading efforts to transition our transportation sector away from fossil fuels and give farmers and foresters the tools they need to respond to this serious issue,” Stabenow said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.