RENO, Nevada - Snow that serves as the lifeblood of the nation's $12.2 billion winter sports industry is melting under the influence of a warming climate, and dramatic steps are needed to protect the industry and the jobs it provides, a new study prepared for conservation groups concludes.
Alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing -- even ice fishing -- could all be in trouble unless winter sports industry leaders take a leadership role in curbing emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, members of the National Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters insist.
Unless changes are made, winter temperatures could rise an additional 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century. Snow depths in the West could decline by 25 percent to 100 percent. In the Sierra, the snowpack could decrease between 40 percent and 70 percent by 2050.
"This industry, as a whole, needs to take its head out of the snow before it melts away," said Antonia Herzog, assistant director of the defense council's Climate and Clean Air Program.
"They need to start taking action," Herzog said, adding that the industry should play an active role in pushing for new regulations curbing emissions from existing power plants in particular.
Herzog and others discussed Thursday the results of an analysis conducted by researchers from University of New Hampshire into the impacts of climate change on the country's winter tourism economy, including in the Reno-Tahoe area. It is said to be the first such effort to quantify those impacts.
The impacts are already being felt and could become much more severe in the years and decades ahead, the report's authors found.
"Snow is currency," said Elizabeth Burakowski, the report's co-author. "If that currency is undermined by climate change, that industry is very much put at risk.
"The stakes here are enormous," Buraskowski said.
One only has to look to that dry and disappointing winter of 2011-2012 to gauge potential problems ahead. That winter, which produced less than half a normal snowpack in parts of the Sierra, had 50 percent of the nation's ski resorts open late and 48 percent close early, the report said.
The resulting economic impact hit not only those directly employed through winter recreation but spinoff jobs in lodging and dining, grocery stores, entertainment and gas stations, the report said.
Among key findings:
- Over the past decade, low snow years have resulted in lost revenue potential to the downhill ski industry of more than $1 billion.
- Low-snow years result in fewer skier visits and a drop in employment of between 6 and 13 percent, or 13,000 to 27,000 jobs.
- Low-snow years result in a 19 percent drop in skier visits in Nevada and 5 percent in the larger California market.
- Low-snow years have more resorts depending on snow-making to supplement natural snowfall, but higher nighttime temperatures could limit snow-making capabilities in the future.
"Last year, we clearly had a preview of what climate change will bring," said Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters. That dry winter followed a major year for Sierra snowfall in 2010-2011, with such swings in weather characteristic of what can be expected due to climate change, the report said.
"For those whose livelihood depends upon a predictable winter season, such unpredictability and lack of snow can translate into a precipitous fall in revenue, an early economic indicator of what climate change looks like," the report said.
"Climate change is a jobs killer," Steinkamp said.
In California and Nevada, ski resort operators have recognized the reality of climate change -- and its potential economic impacts on the industry -- for years, said Bob Roberts, president of the California Ski Industry Association.
The association actively advocates recycling, green energy and alternative transportation programs at its resorts, all designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Roberts said.
In 2002, the group supported legislation to reduce emissions by sports utility vehicles in California and, in 2006, was one of the early backers of the Climate Change Initiative, a sweeping law that made California the first state to require cuts in carbon emissions.
"We've been hammering this subject for quite some time," Roberts said. "We're absolutely committed to the fact climate change is happening."
The association is not alarmist. It doesn't think all mountain snow is going to disappear and skiing become an extinct activity, Roberts said. But one growing change with a clear connection to concerns over climate is an increasing reliance on summertime recreation -- ranging from mountain biking to zip lines -- taking place at many resorts, Roberts said.
The industry as a whole is not responding at the levels needed, Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Ski Co., said Thursday.
"The response has been defensive to a large part," Schendler said. "It's a puzzling response to a threat to the industry that is increasingly manifest."
By JEFF DELONG, Reno Gazette Journal
Gannett/Reno Gazette Journal