Champions of Snow Feature Piece: Climate Change and the Ski Mountain Industry
By Michael Green, Executive Director
As we say goodbye to winter, our routines have adjusted and those uniquely winter tasks feel habitual. We pull out our shovels each snowfall and sprinkle salt across the front steps. Add 20 minutes into our commute plans. Pull on an extra layer or two on the bitterly cold days. And for the adventurous among us, plan as many trips to the slopes as possible.
Whether you ski, snowboard, snowmobile, or sled, fresh snow means you get to strap on your gear, head out to your favorite mountain, and spend hours doing what you love most. Families look forward to the day when they get to see their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren carry on what they love to do. Yet, in recent decades, winters have been getting warmer and snow sport seasons have been getting shorter.
People often associate climate change with sweltering summers, rising sea levels, and stranded polar bears on melting glaciers. However, climate change will have a huge effect on the snow sports community and industry as well if we don’t start taking action now. The skiing industry in particular is feeling the burden of warmer winters.
Between 2001 and 2009, the ski mountain industry lost an estimated $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue from fluctuating snowfall year to year. It is also estimated that by 2100, only 4 out of the 14 major ski areas in the Northeast will remain open. In the winter of 2009/10, which was a particularly low snowfall year, the Northeast ski mountain industry lost 1,700 jobs and $108 million in economic value compared to previous high-snowfall years.
With current predictions indicating winter temperatures to rise an additional 4-10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, winters are going to continue to accumulate less snow, mountain sports seasons will get shorter, the industry will continue to lose money and the communities dependent on snow will continue to struggle. Climate change doesn’t just happen overnight – it occurs gradually. Therefore, in order to combat warmer winters in the skimountain industry, we need to be able to mitigate our impact and adapt to the inevitably warmer conditions.
In response to these threats, my organization, Climate Action Business Association, set out to identify and showcase ski mountains that are tackling this challenge head-on. Our “Champions of Snow” initiative is part of our efforts to organize small, local businesses to take targeted action on climate change. I had the privilege of talking to 5 ski mountains in the Northeast that are making a conscious effort to mitigate and adapt to warmer winters: Bolton Valley, Shawnee Peak, Berkshire East Mountain Resort, Mt. Abram, and Mad River Glen. They are all small, locally cherished resorts pioneering sustainability in the industry, and most certainly deserve the title Champion of Snow.
As I chatted with these mountains, I got a sense of what makes each one unique, and was left with four key takeaways about the resiliency to climate change in the small mountain ski industry.
1. Last winter was particularly tough across the board.
For those of us that love having snow on every edifice we see, last winter was a real buzzkill on the East Coast. This lack of snow proved to be particularly difficult for the Northeast ski industry, which relies heavily on having cold enough temperatures to keep snow on the slopes. This meant that the ski season started later and mountains depended largely on man made snow.
“We don’t make snow for the sake of making snow. We make it if we need to” explained Shawnee Peak’s Geoff Homer. However, mountains like Shawnee Peak are using new, energy efficient snowmaking techniques that maximize snow production while using less of the compressed air, diesel, and money that traditional snowmaking requires.
“People don’t want to see another repeat of what we had last year”, said Mt. Abram’s Dave Scanlan, who has the first fleet of 100% airless snow guns. Therefore, mountains are gearing up to be as prepared and efficient as they can be with the uncertainty of the coming winters.
2. Energy efficiency and renewables are a great way to cut costs and emissions.
The newest trend in the ski mountain industry is the use of energy efficiency equipment and renewable energy for day-to-day operations. Berkshire East’s Jonathan Schaefer explained, “We started to look 20 years out and see where electricity would be. It’s pretty elastic. We viewed solar and wind as a solution to the future electricity prices”. Berkshire East is the only ski resort in the world that generates 100% of their electricity from onsite renewable energy. Utilizing renewable energy can help mountains power their snow guns and facilities while saving money in the long run.
Perhaps the simplest way to save energy is to just do less. By maintaining a healthy forest, implementing snow reservoirs, and keeping operations and facilities simple, Mad River Glen requires significantly less energy than its neighbors do. “It’s not what we do, it’s what we don’t do” said spokesman Eric Friedman. They use so little energy that they are able to purchase it like most homeowners do. When large scale renewable energy is not an option, minimizing consumption and utilizing the natural defense mechanisms of nature can be just as efficient.
3. Take advantage of what the other seasons have to offer.
A common trend in the ski mountain industry is to incorporate activities from other seasons into their business model. Whether it be mountain biking, zip lining, hiking, or more, having these attractions can help bring in revenue throughout the year. Berkshire East generates most of their revenue from summer operations. As Jonathan Schaefer explained, “We’ve diversified our business to the point where 60% of revenue is coming from year round operations.” Adapting business models to include other opportunities is an effective way to increase resiliency during warmer winters.
4. Being sustainable doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
When I asked each mountain what advice they would give to other mountains, a common theme emerged: it’s okay to start with small initiatives and then work your way up to bigger ones. That is exactly what each of the 5 Champions of Snow did. “I would encourage people that are considering it to not wait, even if you can only do a little bit now” says Geoff Homer.
Most of the mountains got to where they are today by starting with actions as small putting in LED lighting and recycling bins, or planting more trees. “It’s the right thing to do for the environment” said Bolton Valley General Manager, Josh Arneson. Even the small things matter as warmer winters continue to impact not just the ski mountains, but all who call them home.
It’s important to stay positive as we enter into another winter season. Knowing that there are smaller mountains taking active steps to reduce their impact on warmer winters acts as a guiding light for those of us that cherish and value them. The Champions of Snow have showed us that climate change isn’t so black and white, and while we mostly hear about how it affects us in the summer, climate change is a winter issue, too.
You don’t need to be the Aspens of the world in order to be sustainable. Even if it is just switching to LED lighting or putting up signs urging guests to recycle, those little things can still make a difference. The snow sports community is already bonded by our strong love for snow. Let’s strengthen our bond and work together to make sure we can share our favorite winter pastimes for generations to come.
A big thank you to Bolton Valley, Shawnee Peak, Berkshire East, Mad River Glen, and Mt. Abram for their contribution, insight, and environmental stewardship. It was a pleasure learning about your amazing mountains and I wish you all the best of luck in the coming seasons. You are all doing great work.
Michael Green comes to CABA as a seasoned advocate for climate policy and environmental action. Since 2012, he has served as a representative to the United Nations focusing on international climate science and policy. In his role at CABA, Michael manages staff and oversees the development of all program areas. He sits on the Board of Boston area non-profits as well as a policy advisor to national business associations on topics ranging from energy policy to climate adaptation. Michael is a Northeastern University graduate with degrees in international affairs and environmental studies, course work at the University of Edinburgh’s MSc Program in Environmental Protection and Management and Harvard Business Schools CORe Program.