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Warming trends: Climate change to shorten Mt. Spokane’s season

UPDATED: Sun., March 4, 2018, 1:09 p.m.

Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park’s parking lot was packed with cars on a recent weekday morning.

Skiers strapped on boots amid a light snowfall, anticipating a powder day on the slopes. At the top of the chairlifts, the snowpack was about 8 feet deep – close to the seasonal average for the nonprofit ski hill in Spokane’s backyard.

Future decades won’t be so kind to the resort on Mount Spokane.

New research from Oregon State University indicates that today’s young skiers could see significant changes in snowpack by the time they reach middle age. By the end of the 21st century – when their grandkids or great-grandkids are skiing – temperatures above freezing could cost the ski hill an entire month of snow.

For skiers, that would mean bare slopes and rain at Mount Spokane during one of the core winter months of December, January or February. For the Inland Northwest, it would be a tremendous hit for winter recreation.

Mt. Spokane attracts about 100,000 skier visits each year, pumping nearly $5 million into the local economy. The resort promotes affordable, family skiing with a focus on low-cost lift tickets. It’s also an important teaching ski hill for the region.

About 5,000 people – both kids and adults – learn how to ski or snowboard at Mt. Spokane each year, said Brad McQuarrie, the general manager. The end goal is to nurture a lifelong love of the sport, whether they continue to patronize Mt. Spokane or move on to ski other Inland Northwest resorts, he said.

Since the mid-1990s, scientists have included losses in winter recreation among the effects of a warming climate, along with more severe wildfire seasons and hotter river temperatures for migrating salmon.

Shorter ski seasons are “one of the obvious impacts of climate change in the Northwest,” said Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. And, “it’s one people really care about.”

For many Northwesterners, a bluebird day on a ski slope is the antidote to the region’s long, gray winters, she said.

Locally, skiing at Mount Spokane has been a cherished part of Inland Northwest’s culture since the 1930s, when the Spokane Ski Club developed organized skiing on the mountain. Besides keeping people physically active during the winter, skiing is a social connection.

Much of the research on climate change and winter recreation talks broadly about rising snow lines, increases in rainy days and shorter ski seasons.

New research coming out of OSU, however, will provide a more detailed look at climate change’s effect on the nation’s ski resorts.

The research is being done by Anne Nolin – a hydro-climatologist, avid skier and professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

Nolin looked at future temperature increases under moderate and aggressive climate change scenarios. She and her graduate students developed models that can be used to calculate the increase in “warm winters” at U.S. ski resorts – defined as a winter where average temperatures are at or above 32 degrees for December, January or February.

The research hasn’t been published yet, but Nolin agreed to share results for Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park in advance of the official release.

The modeling looks at Mount Spokane during three time periods: historic conditions between 1970 and 1999; midcentury conditions from 2040 to 2069; and late century conditions from 2070 to 2099.

While relatively few winters between 1970 and 1999 at Mount Spokane fit the definition of a warm winter, the research shows a marked increase in future decades. The changes will occur within the lifetimes of kids learning how to ski today.

Even under moderate climate change scenarios, the percentage of warm winters shoots up by the middle to end of the 21st century.

Under an aggressive climate change scenario – “which sadly is what we’re on track for right now in the U.S.” – the effect is severe, Nolin said.

Ninety-seven percent of winters at Mount Spokane during 2070 to 2099 would have at least one month at or above 32 degrees at both the base and the top of the mountain during December, January and February, the modeling indicates. Precipitation would fall as rain instead of snow.

“That wouldn’t work very well for a ski area,” Nolin said. “I think they’d be out of business.”

For people in the ski industry, “climate change isn’t new news,” said McQuarrie, Mt. Spokane’s general manager. The winter sports industry has worked to adapt to climate change, with some resorts buying snow-making equipment or expanding runs to higher elevations. In addition, some ski areas have become advocates for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Companies representing large U.S. ski resorts criticized President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

The National Association of Ski Areas encourages individual resorts to inventory their greenhouse gas emissions and find ways to lower them. Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit based in California, encourages people in the winter sports industry to work for policy solutions to climate change.

As a small resort, Mt. Spokane isn’t involved in that kind of broader advocacy work, McQuarrie said. But like other ski areas, the resort’s leadership has pondered how the resort can adapt to a changing climate, he said.

Mt. Spokane’s runs were built on the mountain’s south-facing slopes, which get more sunlight than the north-facing slopes. “You probably wouldn’t design a ski area on the south side like that today,” McQuarrie said.

A major expansion underway at the resort will create 80 acres of groomed trails and seven new runs on the mountain’s northwest face, which is expected to retain higher quality snow into the future, he said.

Mt. Spokane also is working to expand its revenue from summer offerings, such as wedding venue rentals and possible concerts in the future.

And like other ski resorts, Mt. Spokane has become more creative about making the best use of the snow it does get, with careful grooming and run maintenance, McQuarrie said.

Since ski resorts are always at the mercy of the weather, McQuarrie said they have a leg-up on adaption to climate change.

Even during the warm, rainy 2014-15 winter, Mt. Spokane managed to cover its operating expenses. The resort was forced to close in February, but still had a decent ski season for the conditions, he said.

Overall, “we’ve been fortunate with good snow years,” he said.

Scientists often refer to the winter of 2014-15 as a glimpse into the Northwest’s future climate conditions. Despite near normal precipitation, temperatures that were 4.2 degrees warmer than the 1981 to 2010 average kept snow from piling up in the mountains.

By the 2050s, scientists expect those temperatures to become typical for the Northwest, creating conditions for the “snow drought” that caused hardships for many Northwest ski resorts that year.

“Even Mount Baker, which is normally really snowy, had to close,” said Nolin, the OSU professor.

In the Oregon Cascades, where Nolin lives, resorts in the 4,000 to 6,000 elevation range struggled. But high elevation resorts, such as Mount Bachelor, had a blockbuster year.

“They did quite well, because they were getting skiers who usually went to other areas,” Nolin said.

Some Inland Northwest resorts also drew in skiers from other areas. Schweitzer Mountain Resort, for instance, hosted ski team competitions whose California venues were closed for lack of snow. Schweitzer’s snow-making ability allowed the Sandpoint resort to stay open into March, finishing with a 120-day season.

Smaller resorts, particularly those that can’t move their runs to higher elevations, will have more challenges adapting to climate change.

“Those mom and pop areas, they’re nearby, relatively inexpensive and they’re family friendly,” Nolin said. “Sadly, they are the ones that are being affected.”

Even as the climate warms, variations in weather will continue to deliver good snowpacks during some years, said Snover, of the UW Climate Impacts Group.

“You’ll still have some good skiing years – years that are better than average now. You’ll also see some really atrocious years,” she said.

But the areas that have dependable snow will change, Snover said. “The places at the fringe will get even worse.”

At Mt. Spokane, McQuarrie is hopeful the pace of global climate change can be slowed, allowing future generations to enjoy high quality skiing.

Last year, Colorado scientists ran a case study on the future of the U.S. ski industry, using different climate scenarios. They looked at scenarios where greenhouse gas emissions peaked in the 2040s, and rates where emissions continued to grow through the end of the 21st century. For the ski industry, there was a projected $2 billion revenue difference in lift ticket sales, based on the different climate outcomes.

“Hopefully in the next 100 years, this can get a lot better,” McQuarrie said of the anticipated temperature increases.

Editor’s note: This story was altered Sunday, March 4 to correct information about an expansion planned for Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. The original story incorrectly stated that seven new chairlifts are planned; in fact, seven new runs, not chairlifts, are planned as part of the expansion.