The breathtaking beauty of the snow-covered Maroon Bells, visible from the top of the Aspen Highlands ski area, is at risk of diminishing in the face of strong warming trends forecast by various global climate experts.

Photo by Brian Ray

The breathtaking beauty of the snow-covered Maroon Bells, visible from the top of the Aspen Highlands ski area, is at risk of diminishing in the face of strong warming trends forecast by various global climate experts.

Ski areas face warm wind of change

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Sustainability at ski areas

Chris Diamond and other resort executives discuss sustainability practices at ski areas.

Chris Diamond and other resort executives discuss sustainability practices at ski areas.

'No downside'

Chris Diamond, president of Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., acknowledges the renewable energy credits used at Steamboat Ski Area have uncertain impacts.

"It looked a little bogus to me," Diamond said of deals struck to purchase credits, or carbon offsets, for the Burgess Creek and Sunshine Express lifts. "The measuring protocol wasn't in place. I'd like to be able to do all the mountain lift operations with renewables, but until we have a better understanding : we're hesitant."

But the credits are just a part of widespread environmental conservation efforts made by Ski Corp., Diamond said. In addition to long-held recycling efforts across the ski area - which has recycled more than 145 tons of materials in the past year - Ski Corp. employees have donated nearly $140,000 in four years to a voluntary environmental fund. The fund has contributed to local groups and initiatives such as Yampatika, the Yampa Valley Land Trust, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the Community Agriculture Alliance.

And since 1985, Ski Corp. has given a total of more than $1.6 million in annual contributions to community programs administered by the city of Steamboat Springs.

Diamond said demographic surveys have consistently shown Steamboat Ski Area guests are concerned with sustainability efforts.

"We have a very environmentally conscious and savvy audience," Diamond said. "It's an important message that our guests want to hear. But it's not just self-serving."

Renewable credits will also be used to power the ski area's new Christie Peak Express lift, which is scheduled for installation by the upcoming winter season.

"The most important thing is you're increasing demand for renewable energy," Diamond said of credit purchases. "There's no downside to that."

For more

Read the latest climate forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Learn about the Desert Research Institute's Storm Peak Laboratory atop Mount Werner and check local weather or view a Web cam from the site.

Learn more about the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Find a wide variety of climate-related information and discussions.

This winter, hook up for carpools to Colorado ski resorts.

Read the latest news from the U.S. House of Representative's Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Power Play

Read all of the stories published in the Steamboat Pilot & Today's Power Play series at steamboatpilot.com/powerplay

— Speaking to a roomful of ski industry executives, meteorologist Robert Henson chose his opening words carefully.

"Don't shoot the messenger," he said.

The remark drew laughter from the crowd gathered at Copper Mountain on June 14 for Colorado Ski Country USA's annual meeting. But it was nervous laughter - the kind that might come from a bull-rider in the chutes who knows he's about to get thrown. Painfully.

Because for those passionate about the ski industry, few things are as painful these days as long-term climate forecasts dominated by increasing global warming.

"No matter how you slice it, drought is going to be a bigger and bigger problem in Colorado," said Henson, a seasoned meteorologist and writer at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. "A general decrease in snow depth is projected for North America."

Good news, bad news

Henson is the author of "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" and a contributing editor for Weatherwise, a leading U.S. trade magazine for weather coverage.

Despite the expertise - or perhaps because of it - he had a tough audience at Copper.

Moments before Henson stepped to the microphone, representatives of Colorado Ski Country's 26 resorts learned of a second consecutive record-setting year for the ski industry statewide. Colorado drew more than 12.5 million skier visits and accounted for nearly 23 percent of the national market in the winter of 2006-07.

"We are extremely pleased with our results this year," crowed Colorado Ski Country President and Chief Executive Officer Rob Perlman, as applause filled the room.

But the applause died down when Henson began to talk about January 2005, which began the worst year on record for skiing in the Pacific Northwest. Several ski resorts in the region temporarily shut down because of a lack of snow.

Snowpack in the Cascades through Oregon, Washington and British Columbia has decreased as much as 15 percent since 1950, Henson said.

Last winter, ski resorts across New England suffered similar challenges, opening only a small fraction of ski runs and chairlifts as rain fell in December. News reports in the area showed Christmas vacationers skiing and snowboarding through puddles in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Industrialization and human-produced pollutants are largely to blame for the warming trend, Henson said, citing skyrocketing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, spurred by rampant development and population growth across the planet.

"Over the past 6,000 years, carbon dioxide has never been as prevalent as it is now," he said.

His entire presentation centered on five words that are driving vastly improved environmental stewardship, energy efficiency and resource conservation efforts at ski resorts across Colorado, where many industry executives are making efforts to reduce climate change globally by taking significant action locally.

Because the five words are hard to ignore.

"The ski season will shorten," Henson said.

In the clouds

A 10-year study completed high above Steamboat Springs showed a direct link between polluted air and reduced precipitation.

In July 2004, meteorologists Randy Borys and Doug Lowenthal announced findings from the study conducted at Storm Peak Laboratory, 10,525 feet above sea level atop Mount Werner. The study found that tiny particles in polluted air, such as sulfate and nitrate - byproducts of combustion processes such as coal-burning and natural fires - attract and retain moisture in clouds.

"This action prevents the water from gathering into droplets large enough to be removed from the sky by falling rain or snow. Instead, they just disperse and evaporate," said Borys, who with Lowenthal worked for years at Storm Peak Lab, a facility funded by Nevada's Desert Research Institute.

The study showed polluted clouds yield at least 15 percent less snowfall than clouds formed in clean air.

In August 2006, meteorological engineers Gannet Hallar and Ian McCubbin took over at Storm Peak Lab. The pair conducts in-depth cloud analysis from their perch next to the Morningside ski lift at Steamboat Ski Area.

"As we put more pollution into the atmosphere, what's that going to do to clouds?" McCubbin said on a sunny day in March, as skiers and snowboarders sped past the laboratory. "That's a big question right now."

The answer, McCubbin reiterated, is less precipitation.

"You reduce what comes out of the cloud," McCubbin said of increased pollutants. "Less snow forms, less water comes out - you get drier snow from a polluted air mass, but less of it."

Drier snow? Lighter snow? Like :

"No, you don't get champagne powder from polluted clouds," McCubbin said with a laugh, refuting the notion that Steamboat's trademarked champagne powder snow could increase with dirty air. "The atmosphere is the atmosphere, and it's all going around, and we're putting more stuff into it. There's just no doubt about that."

Last to melt?

An unexpected positive message came out of Henson's presentation about environmental threats to the ski industry: in the short term, global warming could actually be a boon for Colorado resorts.

"It's not all bleak, especially for Colorado," Henson said. "Poles are warming faster than lower latitudes."

Noting that recent months have seen "an amazingly warm autumn for Antarctica," and citing projections that Arctic summer ice could be gone by 2040, Henson said global warming could have a greater impact on ski resorts at more northern latitudes than Colorado, such as Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia and resorts throughout the European Alps.

Colorado is "right on the border of the semi-permanent drought" forecast for the southwestern U.S., Henson said.

While he even went so far as to suggest northern Colorado resorts - such as Steamboat - could see slower impacts than those in southern Colorado, Henson declined to set such predictions in stone.

"It's hard to get really specific about particular mountain ranges," he said. "You have to focus on the big picture : and there are serious risks. This is pretty ominous stuff."

But Luke Cartin, environmental manager at Vail Ski Resort, interpreted such predictions glibly.

"Colorado is sitting pretty, because everyone else will shut down before we do," he said.

Mixed signals

Henson acknowledged recent reports from sources including the International Panel on Climate Change can give seemingly contradictory messages, such as higher elevations will likely see shorter ski seasons marked with deeper snow depths - in other words, increasingly unreliable weather may be the only surety in future climate analysis.

"If it feels like you're getting mixed signals, you are," Henson said. "There is some confusion here."

But the warming trend is undeniable, he said.

"So far, 2007 through April is the warmest year on record," Henson said. "So the trend continues."

By 2080, he said, global temperatures could be an average of 7 degrees warmer, and by 2020, snowlines could be 300 feet higher.

Henson cited global impacts such as China's booming power plant production to feed a population of 1.3 billion.

"If you're adding people at that pace, it won't matter how many light bulbs you screw in here," Henson said. "It's going to take some creative diplomacy to figure that out."

How long?

Steve Heising has served on the Ski Patrol at the Hesperus Ski Resort in Durango for 30 years.

At the renewable energy conference in Steamboat, wearing a faded "Franconia Notch" hat from a ski trip to New Hampshire, Heising remembered a time when Colorado was colder.

"I've seen the snowfall drop off dramatically in the past 10 years," Heising said. "We used to have a week of minus-20 (temperatures) every winter - now we don't anymore."

Hesperus has no snowmaking machines and operates solely on natural snowfall, Heising said. Asked about what global warming could do to small resorts like his, the burly man shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

"We'll stay open as long as it snows," he said.

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