Space & Innovation

Facing Climate Change, Ski Resorts Deploy New Tech

Warming winters are having a serious impact on the North American skiing industry and resorts are increasingly turning to new technology to adapt.

The good news for US skiers and snowboarders is that nearly all of the nation's ski resorts are open for the upcoming Christmas holiday week. That's a big improvement over last season's warm spell that brought near-disaster to the Northeast, and a tough 2014-2015 winter that left the Pacific Northwest, California and Rocky Mountain resorts reeling.

The bad news is that in the coming decades climate change will make winter in North America increasingly shorter and warmer, scientists say.

"We can also expect to see more winter precipitation falling as rain instead of snow," said Elizabeth Burakowski, assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire's Earth Systems Research Center who studies how changing snow cover is affecting North America's winter resorts.

"The places that are the most vulnerable are the resorts at lower latitudes," she said. "Snow lines will be moving up the mountain. The higher elevation resorts will be more resilient."

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Burakowski co-authored a 2012 study of climate change effects on winter resorts as well as a November 2016 paper describing the lengthening "mud season" between winter's end and the beginning of the spring growing period.

Some ski resorts have already gone bankrupt in recent years as the result of tough winters, but those with financial resources are adapting by investing in new technology that takes the guesswork out of snowmaking. They hope that they can keep lifts running in the coming years by being very precise at when and where to make snow, which works best with a combination of low temperatures and low humidity.

New snowguns "are much more efficient, they use far less energy, they can make more snow at higher temperatures," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group. "They have their own sensing system. It manages to the microclimate of the resort. If you have a colder section of the mountain, the system can sense it, just where its cold enough to make snow."

While snowmaking has been standard at Eastern resorts for more than 20 years, it's now come to western destinations as well. Heavenly Valley, Calif., for example, has 200 snow guns that can cover 73 percent of the mountain, while Oregon and Washington resorts are adding new efficient snowguns and even "harvesting" snow from resort parking lots to make it through warm winters.

In addition, Heavenly, along with Diamond Peak, Nev., Timberline, Ore., and Jiminy Peak, Mass., are installing a new software system to make snowmaking a high-precision operation. Called Snowsat, the program combines digital mapping, satellite-based GPS navigation and wireless connections to a main station to tell snowcat drivers how much snow is under their treads, blades and rollers. It uses aerial imagery captured during the summer to estimate winter snow depth to within two inches.

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Ski resorts are big energy hogs, sucking up tons of water, electricity and diesel-powered engines to make snow and run lifts. Given the visible effects of climate change, many say they are trying to reduce their carbon footprint with renewable energy. More than 30 resorts have joined an industry initiative to document their greenhouse gas emissions reductions with cleaner-burning snowguns, LED lighting and even carpools for guests and employees.

Killington's K-1 Gondola is powered by electricity derived from methane from Vermont cows, for example, while Maine's Mt. Abrams Resort spent nearly $1 million on a new solar array that accounts for nearly three-quarters of the resort's electricity needs.

Successful ski resorts will figure out how to survive winters that are increasingly erratic and unpredictable, according to Matthias Ruth, director of the school of public policy at Northeastern University who has studied the economics of climate change.

"The (resorts) already operating at the margin will disappear," Ruth said. "The big ones can weather some of the marginal conditions, and they can amass resources to pay for the power to do the artificial snow."

As less profitable, smaller resorts face a tougher road ahead, it's possible that some skiers and snowboarders eventually will be priced out of the sport, Ruth added.

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In the meantime, some environmental groups are pushing leaders of the resort industry and big winter clothing brands speak up about climate policy in Washington. While the incoming administration of president-elect Donald Trump maintains a skeptical view of climate science and the need to regulate or reduce energy, green groups hope they will be more successful by lobbying state and local leaders.

"We still have to keep the pressure on," said Chris Steinkamp, director of Protect Our Winters, a Boulder, Colo.-based advocacy group founded by a former professional snowboarder. "Renewable energy and carbon reduction made sense before Nov. 8 and it makes sense today."

Image: Snow guns produce "fake snow" to cover the slopes of Sunday River Ski Resort in Maine (Getty Images)

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