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Winter isn’t coming: How ski resorts are responding to climate change

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The impact of climate change is well-documented: temperatures are rising, droughts are becoming longer, and winter is getting shorter and shorter. For snow-sport enthusiasts, this begets the inevitable question: Is skiing a dying sport? Can Ski Mountains survive shorter winters? Vail Resorts is betting they can.

The threat posed by global warming on the ski industry can already be seen across North America, and continues to get worse. Winters are getting shorter, and the snow pack is getting thinner and thinner. As temperatures rise, Ski Mountains at lower elevations are seeing rain on more days when in the past they saw snow. Resorts have historically manufactured snow during bad winters, but can’t make the snow they need if temperatures are too high. And, to make conditions even worse, global warming has intensified droughts, making less water available for the creation of artificial snow. A climatologist recently predicted that by 2039, 50% of the ski resorts in New England would have to shut down. Should global warming continue at its current pace, only mountains reaching the highest elevations, such as those in the Rocky Mountains or the European Alps, will have access to viable skiing. [9]

Skiers, snowboarders, and resort owners aren’t the only ones that suffer in bad winters. A recent study argues that the snow-sports industry more broadly adds $12.2B to the U.S. economy every year. [3] Small mountain towns depend on winter tourism to keep locals employed and to contribute to their tax base. In California, the small town of Mammoth Lakes suffered such a downturn during successive droughts that it was forced to declare bankruptcy. [8]

While the planet has yet to turn things around, business leaders in the ski industry refuse to let shorter winters hurt their bottom line. The CEO of Vail Resorts, Robert A. Katz, has a simple strategy when it comes to threat of climate change: Make your business about much more than snowfall. [12]

Vail Resorts has invested aggressively in “weather proofing” to ensure they can attract visitors no matter the weather. Vail, and the 14 resorts it owns around the world, have built more golf courses, mountain bike trails, water slides and other warm weather activities to attract outdoor enthusiasts all year round. Some mountains have gone even further – developing approaches to skiing that don’t need any snow at all. The Midlothian Snowsports Center outside of Edinburgh, Scotland offers “dry skiing,” which uses carpet like surfaces to mimic the experience of skiing year round. [6]

Katz also cites a specific strategy to “own more of the mountain” [12]. Lift passes make up about half of a mountain’s revenue, but by owning more hotels, restaurants, and other attractions, a ski resorts can capture a larger share of wallet from each visitor. [12]

Vail has deployed other tactics to secure its financial position. Vail, and other mountains, have aggressively expanded their sale of season passes before the season starts. Although revenue per skier might be lower through season passes, it acts as a hedge against a bad season. Even if they experience a year of bad snowfall, season pass revenue, which is collected before the winter begins, can cover a lot of fixed expenses. Vail has also expanded aggressively to increase market share and diversify its risk: a good year in Canada may make up for a bad year in Utah. [10]

The Ski Industry has recognized its own contributions to climate change. Ski resorts across North America have taken proactive steps to lower their carbon footprint. Many mountains have created management positions to focus on sustainability, and resorts like Vail have curbed their energy use, installed solar panels and increased their recycling programs. Resorts are also working to raise awareness about climate change and to lobby for more environmental protection. Organizations like Protect Our Winters, The Mountain Pact and The National Resource Defense Council are all examples of organizations that have formed to create coalitions of mountain towns, resorts, winter athletes and climate scientists. [7]

If efforts to fight the effects of global warming don’t succeed, winter sports may become a thing of the past. Pessimists predict that skiing in the future will be limited to places like the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, which boasts a 400 meter indoor ski slope in the middle of the desert, filled with artificial snow. The efforts of Vail resorts and Robert Katz may help mountains stay open in the short term, but, in the longer term, we must find ways to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions so that winter doesn’t become a season of the past. [1]

Word count: 765

Sources:

  1. “Dubai to Build World’s Largest Indoor Ski Slope (again).” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 04 Aug. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/leisure/11783082/Dubai-to-build-worlds-largest-indoor-ski-slope-again.html>.
  2. Bagley, Katherine. “As Climate Change Imperils Winter, the Ski Industry Frets.” Inside Climate News. N.p., 24 Dec. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <https://insideclimatenews.org/news/23122015/climate-change-global-warming-imperils-winter-ski-industry-frets-el-nino>.
  3. Burakowski, Elizabeth, and Matthew Magnusson. “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.” (2015): n. pag. Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/climate-impacts-winter-tourism-report.pdf>.
  4. Coffey, Helen. “Will Global Warming Kill off Skiing in North America?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 15 May 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/ski/news/Will-global-warming-kill-off-skiing-in-North-America/>.
  5. Hansman, Heather. “How Ski Resorts Are Fighting Climate Change.” Outside Online. Outside Magazine, 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <https://www.outsideonline.com/1930841/how-ski-resorts-are-fighting-climate-change>.
  6. Ireland, Nicole. “Hitting the Plastic Slopes: Climate Change Pushes Ski Resorts to ‘weatherproof'” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 13 Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/ski-resorts-weather-proofing-climate-change-1.3715284>.
  7. Jarvis, Brooke. “‘Winter Is in Trouble’: Snow Athletes Fight for Climate Action.” Rolling Stone, 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/winter-is-in-trouble-snow-athletes-fight-for-climate-action-20130411>.
  8. Sahagun, Louis. “Mammoth Lakes Files for Bankruptcy over $43-million Judgment.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 02 July 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/02/local/la-me-mammoth-lakes-20120703>.
  9. Seelye, Katharine Q. “Rising Temperatures Threaten Fundamental Change for Ski Slopes.” The New York Times, 12 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/us/climate-change-threatens-ski-industrys-livelihood.html>.
  10. Siegler, Kirk. “Vail Resorts To Buy Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb For $1.06 Billion.” National Public Radio, 08 Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/08/489244335/vail-resorts-to-buy-canadas-whistler-blackcomb-for-1-06-billion>.
  11. “Sustainability.” Vail Mountain Resort. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.vail.com/mountain/environment.aspx#/EnergySavingsTab>.
  12. Thompson, Derek. “No Business Like Snow Business: The Economics of Big Ski Resorts.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 07 Feb. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/02/no-business-like-snow-business-the-economics-of-big-ski-resorts/252180/>

6 thoughts on “Winter isn’t coming: How ski resorts are responding to climate change

  1. Hi Noah, great post. I had no idea the ski resort industry was strategically shifting from snow activities to different attractions.
    How do you see Vail’s tactic to aggressively expanded their sales of “season passes before the season starts” in the long term? will it continue to be effective once the site has lost its snow?

  2. Great piece Noah. I think it would be interesting to explore further the emissions that ski slopes such as Dubai are emitting. Are these artificial ski slopes contributing to climate change? Could the indoor ski slopes of the future be carbon neutral?

  3. Noah – very interesting post! This is such a relevant topic for so many people from both a business and personal perspective. I had never really thought about how regional drought conditions are compounding this issue due to a short supply of water to make “artificial” snow during a poor season. We have seen the devastating implications of remarkably dry seasons in many of the western states already. When such conditions make water resource so important it is hard to justify trading precious water supply that could be reserved for crops & drinking water for human consumption, or preserving the equilibrium of a fragile ecosystem for the discretionary gratifications of ski enthusiasts. This also puts a company like Vail Resorts in an interesting position. As such a well-known brand in the ski resort space, how do they continue to ensure that they do their fair part in operating their resorts sustainability and preserve their brand perception? I think that we will continue to see more leadership from their end in taking a stance on the issues and doing their part to capitalize on opportunities that are not only beneficial to the environment and local communities, but also beneficial to their bottom line. I am hopeful that we will see similar strides among the resort owners in the North East where the smaller “hills” are perhaps even more sensitive to the ongoing effects of climate change.

  4. Interesting choice, Noah. I would have though liked some perspective from the end consumers as well. Am assuming that skiing enthusiasts aren’t happy about this change much – with reducing options and consequently higher charges.

  5. This makes me so sad -“by 2039, 50% of the ski resorts in New England would have to shut down.” So my grandchildren might never get to ski in New England? 🙁

    It seems like most of their efforts are pretty accepting of the fact that their industry might be changed forever. I’m surprised to see that most of their reactions are around how to work around these changes, instead of trying to create a change to stop climate change. I wonder if that speaks to their political powerlessness, or just low efficacy.

    I also wonder if there is any coalition of skiiers or ski resorts to fight the effects of climate change. I see skiing as a pretty luxurious sport, so I’m surprised to find that not much is done about it.

  6. Noah,

    Great post, thanks for bringing attention to this issue. As an avid but mediocre skier, this post hits close to him.

    One question that this article left me wondering is whether you think Vail’s strategy is a sustainable for maintaining their current base of earnings, or if you think it’s a short-term strategy to get as much of the economics of the resort as possible? A lot of the initiatives you mention seem like they may not work in the long run.

    A second question is whether you think Vail is well-positioned to gain market share if other resorts are forced out of business… is it possible that large resorts like Vail might actually see a benefit to their business if industry capacity is reduced? How do you think this might impact their incentives to fight climate change?

    Overall, nice post and great work!

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