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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

With climate models predicting less snow, local ski areas look to adapt

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 26, 2021

Chimney Rock as seen in the North Idaho Selkirks in June.  (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)
Chimney Rock as seen in the North Idaho Selkirks in June. (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)

This winter is predicted to be a good one, with a 70 to 80% chance of a La Niña bringing buckets of snow.

If that happens, skiers and boarders will be happy, particularly after a lackluster winter last year. The millions of dollars local ski resorts have poured into improvements will start to pay off.

But climate modeling suggests that the region’s snowpack is only going to decline. According to research published this year by scientists from the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, the Cascade Mountains could be largely snow free by 2070.

“Climate change means more water when you don’t need it and less water when you do,” said Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, which has published similar research as the Berkley study.

Ski resort managers and owners are aware of this possibility and are doing what they can to proactively adapt. At 49 Degrees North, that has meant installing snowmaking machines, said Eric Bakken, the manager of the resort.

“It’s certainly better than doing nothing,” he said.

Those machines can lay down a solid base-layer of snow. During good snow years, they allow for earlier openings and can extend the season. During bad years, they may prove invaluable, said Rick Brown, the director of skier & rider services.

“We’re lucky that we haven’t needed this in the past,” he said of snowmaking machines. “But when you look across the continental U.S. … there are areas that wouldn’t be able to operate for years on end. For us, there are seasons here and there where it will make a massive difference.

We’ve seen the struggle in other areas and we don’t want to be put in that position.”

The ski industry at large is wrestling with that existential question. Most ski areas in the U.S. are projected to have a 50% shorter season by 2050, according to a 2017 study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and published in the Global Environmental Change journal. Meanwhile, the ski season in the western U.S. has already dropped by an average of 34 days.

Advances in snowmaking technology, particularly automation, have allowed ski areas like 49 Degrees North to make snow as soon as weather conditions allow and may help at least in the short term. The changing snow dynamic has also spurred resorts to diversify, offering mountain biking and other activities to offset shortened seasons.

“We’ve actually had snowmaking in place on our Midway and Musical Chairs runs since 2008 and that’s been an incredible tool in helping us get open when temps are good for making snow but we haven’t seen the natural snowfall we’d like,” Schweitzer spokeswoman Dig Chrismer said in an email. “The concerns about changes in the climate also helped guide us in deciding how the new lift configuration would go when we installed Cedar Park Express and the Colburn Triple. The old Snowghost chair had an on-load station that was lower than the new Colburn Triple station making it difficult to open the back bowl when snow was scarce at lower elevations. Last year, we were able to run Colburn Triple even though we were lacking in snowfall lower down.”

Lookout Pass, on the Idaho/Montana border, is in the snowbelt and gets more snow on average than other area resorts, spokesman Matt Sawyer said. He’s hopeful that continues to be the case.

“Snowmaking in some other sections of the country is a great insurance plan if it covers 50% of your terrain but most areas in the Pacific Northwest don’t have that coverage,” said Sawyer in an email.

The existential threat climate change poses to the snow sports industry has promoted changes in approach and messaging when it comes to environmental activism, according to a report published in September. A once decidedly apolitical industry has largely thrown its weight behind environmental advocacy. For example, this year North America’s four largest ski resorts – Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, POWDR and Boyne Resorts – agreed to coordinate their climate advocacy.

“We are weather-dependent business, so it’s important to do what we can to protect and save our winters so that we can continue to ski and snowboard for generations to come,” Chrismer said.

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