Help, the mountains are melting!

The case of the disappearing ski slopes
By NOAH SCHAFFER  |  November 7, 2012


Climate change may have been ignored during this fall's elections, but it's likely on the minds of many skiers — not to mention ski resorts eager to avoid a repeat of last year's warm winter, which saw many ski-related businesses either opening late or closing early.

And it's not just a threat of an occasional lackluster ski season. A recent report prepared by the office of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for the House Natural Resources Committee warns that unless carbon pollution is cut by 2100, "Maine will likely be the only state cold enough to sustain ski resorts, putting thousands out of work and losing billions of dollars for the New England economy."

Pamela Templer, a Boston University biologist affiliated with the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation in New Hampshire's White Mountains, recently spoke with me about why changing temperatures mean fewer days to ski.

How has the ski season changed? The data collected in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest shows that since 1955 there are about 20 fewer ski days per year. The snow pack has decreased by 10 inches. The air temperatures have increased by 2.5 degrees. There's been an increase in midwinter thawing. It used to be that you could reliably expect a continuous snowpack all winter, and you could go skiing anytime you wanted. That's changed, because now the snow isn't quite as predictable.

So now the ski season is both shorter and less consistently snowy? Exactly. This isn't continuous. It's not like each year, the ski season starts a day later. But the general trend over the last 50 years is that it is starting later and ending earlier and is interrupted by midwinter thaws.

What's causing the shortage of snow? It's safe to say it that it is driven by increases in air-temperature shifts, so there is less snow and more rain. That has been observed and is projected to increase. So that not only changes the form of precipitation, so even if you have snow on the ground, if the air temperature goes up, you get more melting. If you have snow on the ground and it rains, that will melt what is on the ground.

Is this happening in every ski region around the world? New Hampshire is similar to many other regions in northern latitudes where the spatial extent and the duration that snow is on the ground is likely to decrease in the future.

I know that you're a scientist and not an economist or a politician, but surely this is having an economic impact on the ski region. Yes, that's being experienced. Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, has studied this. One thing he's researched is how there is often more snow in New Hampshire than in Boston. He calls it the "urban effect." If we don't see snow in the ground in Boston, we don't think there's snow up north. That has an economic effect on the ski industry. People in Boston need to be educated to check the ski reports and not to just look at what is on the ground. He's also documented some of the costs associated with artificial snow. Right now, a lot of ski companies have been able to keep pace with the lack of natural snow. But the midwinter thaw makes the process more expensive.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Ed Markey, climate change, Ski,  More more >
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