Ski and Ride While You Still Can.
By G. Harvey and N.R. Mallery
The January-February issue of the Sierra Club’s magazine, Sierra, had an article, “Dirtbag Snowboarders Rescue Our Climate.” It speaks volumes to the plight of the winter sports business, and by extension all businesses with any dependence on winter weather, as the climate changes. You can find it online at http://bit.ly/sierra-club-snowboarders.
Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, is quoted in the article saying, “From the climate science I’m looking at, the ski industry doesn’t have a real vibrant future.” That is an understatement, because it does not evoke the full image of what is going on. When we speak to troubles for the ski industry, what we are really talking about is something ranging from deep sadness to heartbreak for the scores of thousands who love to ski or snowboard.
Aaron Teasdale, the article’s author, wrote it from personal experience. He described a trip he had made to Bolivia to ski the glacier on Mount Chacaltaya. That was clearly an exhilarating experience for him. Sadly, neither he nor anyone else will ever be able to do it again.
With rising temperatures and declining precipitation, Chacaltaya’s glacier finally melted completely in 2009. Scientists tell us that it is almost certainly gone forever. Also very nearly gone is Lake Poopó, whose waters the glacier fed, and which had an average total area of about 250,000 acres. The thousands of people who lived along the lake’s shore, many supporting themselves by fishing, have nearly all moved away. One thing that remains is a fleet of fishing boats, lined up along what was once a shoreline, but is now an arid plain.
The Sierra article describes a growing group of young people who have discovered that the winter sports they love passionately are threatened. One of them, perhaps their “elder spokesman,” is Jeremy Jones, who has been filming snowboarding movies since 1995. Since then, he has become one of the world’s best known snowboarders. He has been voted Snowboarder magazine’s Big Mountain Snowboarder of the Year eleven times.
A game-changing event really opened his eyes to some stark truths. Jones is quoted in Sierra, “I was with a bunch of guys in their early 30s. … They were so proud, showing me where they learned to ski. I asked why it was closed and was shocked when they said it just doesn’t get enough snowfall anymore.”
Jones was so disturbed about the changing conditions and his inability to find a climate group focused on the winter sports community, that he founded an organization to fight climate change through education for winter enthusiasts who want to see it be around for our kids. The organization is called “Protect Our Winters” (POW). It can be found at protectourwinters.org. Its members include a large number of ski and snowboarding athletes, including many from the northeast, that are fighting for our winters.
POW’s Riders’ Alliance includes prominent athletes from all over the world. Olympian Kelly Clark and Andy Newell two of several who are native Vermonters. Others who are from the Northeast are Alex Diebold, Devin Logan, Jack Mitrani, Benji Farrow, and Seth Wescott.
POW has been turning into a real powerhouse, lobbying politicians in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. Told that they needed to show numbers, such as numbers of jobs and contributions to the economy, to substantiate the issues and influence the politicians, it began some serious work doing research.
In 2012, POW partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to commission a report, Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. This showed that over the ten years starting in 2000, the winter tourism industry, which had averaged $12.2 billion per year and supports 211,900 jobs, lost revenues of $1.07 billion in low-snow years. At the time of this writing (January, 2016), most of the ski resorts in the Northeast only have a portion of their lifts operating and trails are covered with mostly man-made snow.
The effects of climate change go far beyond winter sports and rising seas. As the world warms up, it does so unevenly. Different places warm by different amounts, at different times of year. For example, Brattleboro, Vermont, where only 20 years ago the lowest winter temperatures on the coldest winter nights frequently reached to -20° F, may get through this winter with the coldest temperature seen not below zero.
The hardiness zone maps gardeners use work just as well to predict what pests will live in an area. Pests that used to be killed off in the cold winter nights of the Northeast find it easy to survive in the warmer environment.
Deer ticks, and the Lyme disease they carry, have moved farther north than ever before; ticks are killing moose through fatal anemia and causing many other health issues for people and pets. The host of insects also moving farther north with the changing climate includes wooly adelgids, which has killed entire forests in some places, and a variety of pests that destroy fruit and vegetable crops. This past summer many blueberry farms in the area experienced huge crop loss from the Spotted Wing Drosophila, which is just one example.
The maple syrup industry has already been suffering from climate change in the Northeast, but for different reasons. Maple syrup is highly dependent on weather, which is getting harder to predict. Sap is often running over two weeks early, but has also run two weeks late, or more, in unpredictable weather conditions. Insects and fungi that attack the trees are increasingly a problem. Air pollution damages trees, but not nearly so much as increasingly damaging weather, from hurricanes to ice storms. These problems have been increasing slowly for many years, and the situation for US syrup producers has been made worse locally by competition from Canada, which has seen its climate change to favor syrup production. Many years ago, Vermont was the biggest producer of maple syrup in the world, but now 75% comes from Quebec, and Vermont’s share is down to 5.5%. It is sad to think that those who follow us may never taste fresh flowing sap from our maples.
We want our children to enjoy what we have enjoyed, and that includes the thrill of playing in the snow. So we tell all who will listen, “Ski, snowboard, and save winter sports while you still can.” But winter sports are just a poster image for the problems of climate change.
Slopes are rated with symbols, and a double-black diamond is one of the toughest and most dangerous. In reference to the times we live in, Sierra quotes Schendler, “This is a double-black-diamond moment. This is the place where we cannot fall.”
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