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  5. Ski season needs fresh snow. Resorts are struggling as the climate crisis forces them to rely on fake snow to make money.

Ski season needs fresh snow. Resorts are struggling as the climate crisis forces them to rely on fake snow to make money.

Catherine Boudreau   

Ski season needs fresh snow. Resorts are struggling as the climate crisis forces them to rely on fake snow to make money.
  • Snowpack is dropping across Northern areas that rely on it most for winter sports and water.
  • Winter sports drive an estimated $20 billion into the US economy and $30 billion into Europe's.

For Brendan Gibbons, snow rules the day. But about a decade ago, he let go of his annual ski season mantra.

"I used to say, 'We'll get our snow," Gibbons, director of snow services for Palisades Tahoe, told Business Insider.

He stopped saying that after the resort struggled to meet its average snowfall of 400 inches year after year. In the last decade, the sprawling ski area in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range has relied on more man-made snow to keep the resort open for the season, which typically spans from late November until May, Gibbons said.

His observations are part of a broader trend across the Northern Hemisphere. The climate crisis caused snowpack to drop in areas that depend on it most for winter tourism and spring water supplies, according to a study published this month in Nature. The Southwestern and Northeastern US, as well as parts of Europe, saw some of the sharpest declines between 1981 and 2020.

The findings indicate that the winter sports industry, which each year drives an estimated $20 billion into the US economy and $30 billion into Europe's, is at risk of steep financial losses as global temperatures warm. Ski resorts at lower elevations and latitudes are the most vulnerable, said Justin Mankin, associate professor of geography at Dartmouth College and senior author of the study.

This includes resorts in New Hampshire, where Mankin lives, along with other Northeastern states like Vermont and Massachusetts. Mankin is a skier and has seen the impact on local mountains like Dartmouth Skiway and Whaleback Mountain, which haven't had much snow in recent years. As a result, they've invested in more machine-made snow, but it's hard to make it last if temperatures don't stay below freezing.

"The entire business model and opportunities for profit are getting squeezed into a shorter season with lower quality snow," Mankin said.

He worries that little ski towns will suffer the most as the climate crisis worsens and potentially consolidate into larger conglomerates.

"Resorts at high elevations tend to be more exclusive and cater to a wealthier clientele," Mankin said. "They will fare better. I think that's emblematic of the embedded inequities in global warming. It always targets the most vulnerable among us."

Mankin said many highly populated, snow-dependent areas are already at the precipice of a "snow loss cliff," where a small increase in global warming will accelerate snowpack loss. Areas where average winter temperatures exceed -8 degrees Celcius, or 17 degrees Fahrenheit, will lose more and more snowpack with each degree of warming. The world has already warmed by an average of 1.1 degrees Celcius compared to preindustrial levels.

The arctic blast blanketing the US with snow this week might seem incongruent with Mankin's research. But he said intense winter storms are "perfectly consistent" with a warming world.

Cold Arctic air outbreaks occur regardless of warming, while warmer air holds more moisture. So if temperatures drop low enough for snow, an extreme snowstorm can form.

A massive winter storm in February 2023 gave Palisades Tahoe a big boost in the snowpack it needed to ride out an extra long season through July.

But those events are an anomaly, Gibbons said. To adapt, the resort has invested at least $6 million into its snowmaking operations and is working on ways to make snow higher temperatures. Making more snow requires more electricity and water. Years ago, 30 to 40 million gallons of water sufficed, Gibbons said. Now it's more like 60 million gallons.

Palisades Tahoe also invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in its Snowcat vehicles that groom trails. These vehicles are equipped with technology that detects snow depth so Gibbons' team can fix problem areas.

"Less snow doesn't mean less work," Gibbons said, noting that these operations drive up labor, diesel, and electric costs.

Even though Palisade Tahoe has to capital to adapt, manmade snow doesn't compare to the real deal, Gibbons said. Fresh powder drives ticket sales. That's when the resort meets or exceeds its annual budget.

"It feels like everything is bandaid," Gibbons said. "I do wonder if there's a career for my children in the ski industry, given the trend we're going toward."

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