It’s the reason some call it white gold: Our early season snowfall has meant a flurry of business for the state’s skiing and snowboarding industry.
As skiers hit the slopes, though, emerging research on global warming, along with our recent mild winters, make it easier than ever to imagine how climate change could affect the sport.
“It’s a hot topic,” said Doug Cleary, director of MnSNO, the state’s ski and snowboard industry association.
While some ski area operators are working to reduce their own greenhouse emissions and raise public awareness, others are responding to global warming by purchasing bigger and better snow machines that kick out more white stuff at warmer temperatures.
Predicting how global warming will affect certain parts of the planet is still a rough science. A report this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes the most detailed data to date. Winters in central North America, an area from about Winnipeg to New Orleans and Bismark to Detroit, are projected to be slightly wetter but much warmer.
The impact on skiing and snowboarding will depend on how much temperatures climb, according to a 2006 University of Waterloo, Ontario, study that examines how global warming could affect winter sports in Canada. The report, by climate-change researcher Daniel Scott, includes an analysis of Thunder Bay, a Lake Superior town 40 miles northwest of Minnesota.
Under a best-case scenario, if global warming is held to about 2 degrees Celsius over the next four decades, the ski season in Thunder Bay might shrink by only about a week, according to the report. However, almost half the region’s ski season would melt away by midcentury under the warmest climate scenario used in the study.
Ski areas in western Ontario will need to make up to 50 percent more snow within a couple of decades, and that percentage will climb higher by the end of the century, the Canadian study projects. Snow-making can offset some of the impact of climate change, it says, but running snow machines more often will reduce sustainability.
“It is not the shorter ski seasons, but the shorter ski seasons in combination with higher snow-making costs that are projected to pose a greater risk to ski areas,” it says.
Most of the snow on Minnesota’s ski hills already comes from machines, not the sky, according to Fred Seymour, alpine services manager for Three Rivers Park District. That’s why he thinks ski hill operators in this region might be less affected by climate change compared to higher-altitude, western resorts that count on more natural snow.
“In the Midwest, nobody has ever really relied on Mother Nature’s snow,” Seymour said. “You have to put down a certain amount of snow no matter what.”
What natural snow does fall enhances the machine-made base that’s already on the hills, and more importantly it gets people excited about strapping on their skis, he said.
But snow machines need cold temperatures, and Minnesota ski areas are noticing a shrinking window of opportunity for covering their hills, Seymour said. Part of the problem is that overnight temperatures aren’t dropping like they used to. That’s because greenhouse gases, much like clouds, are trapping heat that would otherwise have radiated into space.
As a result, ski areas are taking a close look at their snow-making systems and considering upgrades in order to get the most of cold-temperature windows, Seymour said.
A typical snow machine needs temperatures at or below 27 degrees Fahrenheit to crank out powder efficiently. A couple decades ago, the machines sputtered at anything above 15 degrees, and today the top-of-the-line can continue making snow at 30 degrees, according to Bill Logan, commercial leader for manufacturer Snow Machines, Inc., based in Michigan.
It’s an expensive solution, though. A snow gun costs between $20,000 and $35,000 and it can take several to cover an area. They also require a significant water source and a pumping system, infrastructure that can add millions of dollars to the project depending on the ski area’s layout and water sources.
While the industry tries to adapt, it’s also working to slow the pace of global warming. The National Resources Defense Council has teamed up with the National Ski Areas Association for a campaign called “Keep Winter Cool.” The goal is to get skiers and snowboarders to take a stand against global warming.
Its website lists actions skiers can take, including things like replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights to save electricity and swapping out snow tires after the season to conserve gas. It also spotlights several ski areas incorporating eco-friendly technologies and renewable energy sources.
Among the first such ski areas to take action was Buck Hill in Burnsville, which started buying wind power credits a few years ago through the Dakota Electric Association. It announced earlier this year that it will now be drawing 100 percent of its electricity from the wind program.
“It was a fairly simple decision on our part,” said Buck Hill General Manager Don McClure. “We just thought it made sense to be part of the solution.”