Luke Thompson / Yakima Herald-Republic
Climate change shouldn’t be blamed for the late start to this winter’s ski and snowboarding season, which still hasn’t begun at most mountains in the region.
Washington Snow Survey Office water supply specialist Scott Pattee said an unusually warm atmospheric river that arrived in early December represented a significant anomaly, and in fact most areas in the Pacific Northwest have seen their 10-year snowfall average increase over the past decade. But long-term prospects with warming temperatures around the globe pose significant threats to an industry heavily reliant on cold and snow, compelling many ski and snowboard areas and winter sports enthusiasts to take action.
Former White Pass general manager Kevin McCarthy, who remains president of the board and part of general manager Rikki Cooper’s staff, said he worked heavily this past spring with the Citizens Climate Lobby, a group dedicated to bringing awareness to climate policy. McCarthy appreciates the CCL’s avoidance of politically charged terms such as “climate change” and “global warming” while promoting energy efficiency, sustainability and ways to reduce carbon emissions to create cleaner air and water.
Those priorities often drive decisions at White Pass, one of more than 200 ski areas nationwide to endorse the National Ski Areas Association’s Sustainable Slopes framework that lays out a commitment to a wide-ranging set of environmental values. Cooper, who took over the GM role last July, said White Pass’s most beneficial sustainability efforts come from technology upgrades.
“Improving our snowmaking equipment so that it can do more more quickly when we have the right temperatures is great,” Cooper said. “As we build and maintain our buildings, we obviously look towards those goals of having better energy efficiency in those buildings.”
Addressing the problem
The long-term future of skiing and snowboarding based on climate modeling looks grim, according to some recent reports.
A study from the University of British Columbia indicated the worst-case scenario climate models would bring ski seasons of less than 120 days for 90% of Western North America ski areas by 2085. Under the same high-emissions scenario, a Protect Our Winters report released in July 2017 projected around 70% of North American ski areas won’t be able to open before Christmas by 2050.
Pattee’s a little wary of those long-term projections, citing uncertain data, and he doesn’t expect big changes to snowpack in the next 30 years, although he acknowledged winters are already becoming a bit shorter. Snowmelt’s already happening a few days earlier, and overall the upper Yakima basin’s “new normal” for snowpack appears to be about 7% less than historical averages.
“For the foreseeable future, I don’t see that big of changes,” Pattee said. “We’re going to have anomalous years like we have this year, and it seems like we’re having them more often than we did a decade ago.”
Longtime Mt. Hood Meadows vice president of communications Dave Tragethon said annual surveys show more and more guests appreciate efforts to protect the environment and strive for more sustainability. Meadows has long prided itself on being at the forefront of the movement, thanks in large part to Heidi Logosz, the company’s sustainability manager for the past 15 years.
She emphasized the importance of creating a culture of sustainability throughout the organization and not just for those employees tasked with finding solutions. Making valuable changes can often be cheaper than people think, Logosz said, and some organizations offer grants to pay for up-front costs shown to have significant return on investment.
“There’s a lot of money hidden in plain sight if folks are looking for support,” Logosz said. “I think a lot of people are impressed, not only that the business is doing all that they can, and in some cases they expect more.”
Along with significant local efforts including encouraging responsible idling for vehicles, recycling whenever possible, transitioning to energy efficient lighting, and much more, Meadows also pushes for systemic change through advocacy. It’s why Logosz helped found the NSAA’s voluntary Climate Challenge program to help ski areas set goals and hold them accountable.
Although Meadows took this year off to reset its goals going forward, Timberline Lodge, Crystal Mountain and Summit at Snoqualmie are all participants, which also requires advocacy. The corporate owners of Crystal, Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass all put a major emphasis on sustainability and partnered last June to urge immediate political action to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate a shift to renewable energy through a Climate Collaborative Charter.
“Things that I would encourage our guests to do is to get involved politically,” Logosz said. “We don’t want to push our ideals in that area too hard on our guests, but if someone was asking, that’s what I would tell them.”
McCarthy said he generally supports the political advocacy of the NSAA but acknowledged he’s in the minority in the industry against Washington’s new carbon tax, since he believes it unfairly punishes outdoor users without good public transit alternatives. He’d prefer to see different approaches to enhancing societal sustainability, such as putting more pressure put on car companies to improve fuel efficiency.
Tools for survival
Bad snow years occurred long before sustainability became a major focus, as McCarthy can attest based on his first winter at White Pass in 1976-77.
Ski areas developed ways to cope, primarily through snowmaking, although some places like Meadows also put an emphasis on moving snow from parking lots or elsewhere to the slopes. Mission Ridge leads the way in snowmaking due to its limited snowfall on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, and marketing director Tony Hickok said the methods they’ve been perfecting since 1976 will allow them to be the only lift-serviced Washington ski area open this weekend.
“We manage our snow very carefully and thoughtfully,” Hickok said, noting they also benefit from their location. “We’re higher and drier and so we have more windows for snowmaking.”
Justin Tornow led a small snowmaking operation at White Pass for the first time in 1996, and it grew substantially following the low-snow winter of 2004-05, becoming more energy efficient as equipment improved. Most years Tornow said he only makes snow early to provide a head start, although in the winter of 2014-15 snowmakers created nearly all the snow from the base at 4,500 feet up to about 5,000.
Of course, temperature still matters, since Tornow can’t make snow above a wet bulb temperature of 28 degrees, which takes into account humidity and other factors. If Decembers like this one become more common due to consistently warmer weather, not even the best technology will be able to prevent shorter seasons for skiers and snowboarders.