Meltdown in the Ski Industry

A major player in the US ski industry attempts to protect a critical input – snow.

After the paltry level of snowfall in the last two Winter Olympic Games – held in Sochi and Vancouver – climatologist Daniel Scott studied which cities would be cold enough to hold the Games in the future. Using emissions projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and climate data from the World Meteorological Organization, Scott concluded that as few as six previous hosts of the Winter Games would have the appropriate climate to host again by 2100. [1]

The impacts of climate change on winter sports may seem trivial compared to the much more urgent problems of food security and coastal flooding. However, winter tourism contributes a sizable $12.2 BN to the US economy annually and employs over 200,000 people. [2] The ski resort industry is estimated to have lost over $1 BN in aggregated revenue between low and high snow fall years over between 1999 and 2010. [3]

Aspen Skiing Company, operator of the Aspen Snowmass resort complex in Colorado, is among the largest US skiing companies. Average Colorado temperatures have increased by two degrees in the last 30 years, and Aspen has 30 more frost-free days compared to 1980. With melting snowpack across the Western United States, skiing is expected to be relegated to the top quarter of Aspen Mountain by 2100 in a high-emissions scenario. [4] Climate change not only presents an existential threat to the Aspen Skiing Company, but also to the surrounding ski towns who are economically reliant on its resorts.

In response to already warming temperatures and erratic snowfall, Aspen is implementing a series of climate mitigation and advocacy strategies.

The largest project on the mitigation front is a much-heralded partnership with the Elk Creek coal mine to convert vented waste methane into carbon negative electricity. According to the company’s latest Sustainability Report, the methane-to-electricity conversion plant produces 24 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually and eliminates three times the carbon pollution created by the resort each year. [5] In addition to the methane plant, Aspen also operates a micro-hydroelectric plant and a solar array, which together prevent emissions of 700,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Other mitigation projects include construction of ski lodges and other buildings that are certified by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership Energy and Environmental Design Program (LEED). These constructions sport features such as recycled furnishings, solar power, and digital controls to mitigate electricity and hot water waste. [6]

The second prong of Aspen’s environment sustainability strategy is advocacy to drive policy change. The company is a member, and currently fills the position of Board Chairman, of the Protect Our Winters (POW) campaign, an advocacy group comprised of athletes and outdoor sport companies. POW’s recent lobbying efforts are directed in support of the EPA’s Clear Power Plan, which aims to reduce emissions from coal-burning power plants. [7] Aspen complements its membership in POW by training every employee in climate science and communicating the mission of POW to customers. [8]

Aspen is also a signatory of various other commitments and declarations related to climate change, for example, the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) project, which seeks to bring together public and private sector actors to pass meaningful climate legislation. [9] However, beyond conferences and declarations, the practical impact of these organizations is relatively ambiguous.

Undoubtedly Aspen is a leader in the ski industry in terms of climate mitigation and advocacy. However, the company continues to avoid any serious climate adaptation strategies. Here, the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in Canada may provide a useful model, having recently unveiled a $345 MM “weather independent Renaissance” with investments in a water park, warm weather mountain sports, and an indoor sports complex. [10]

Rather than following similar diversification strategies, the majority of ski companies, Aspen included, are doubling down. In the 2009-10 ski season, 88 percent of resorts relied on artificial snow to defend against – and perpetuate – the early effects of climate change. [11] Even the Whistler plan earmarks some funding for environmentally detrimental artificial snow generation and indoor ski and snowboard areas.  Snow-making requires a tremendous amount of water (150,000 gallons to cover one acre with one foot of snow) and electricity ($500,000 annual expense or roughly 50 percent of resort energy costs). [12] While water use by the ski industry pales in comparison to agriculture, the diversion of water from select streams could nonetheless have additional ecological impacts, such as endangering local fish populations. As snowcaps recede and temperatures rise further and further, both electricity costs and water shortage problems are likely to compound.

Climate mitigation and advocacy are a good start, but without serious consideration of adaptation strategies, Aspen will need to engage in environmentally detrimental activities to protect short-term profits. This promises to be a slippery slope.

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[1] Scott, Daniel, et al. “The future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World”. University of Waterloo (2014).

[2] Burakowski, Elizabeth and Matthew Magnussen. “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States”, National Resources Defense Council, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fox, Porter. “The End of Snow?” The New York Times, 7 February 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-snow.html?_r=0. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[5] Aspen Snowmass. “Sustainability Report 2014”. Available at: https://www.aspensnowmass.com/~/media/aspensnowmass/pdfs/environmental/sustainability-reports/2012-sustainability-report.ashx. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[6] Aspen Snowmass. 2016. Green Operations. Available at: https://www.aspensnowmass.com/we-are-different/programs-and-practices/green-operations. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[7] Protect Our Winters. 2016. Our Work. Available at: http://protectourwinters.org/our-work/. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[8] National Ski Areas Association. “Sustainable Slopes: Annual Report 2016”. Available at: http://www.nsaa.org/media/276021/SSAR2016.pdf. [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[9] BICEP. “BICEP Companies Commit to Climate Action.” Available at: https://www.ceres.org/bicep. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[10] Whistler Blackcomb Renaissance. 2016. Whistler Blackcomb Announces Renaissance Long-Term Strategic Plans. Available at: http://renaissance.whistlerblackcomb.com/new-ways-to-play. [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[11] Burakowski and Magnussen, 2012.

[12] Ibid.

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4 thoughts on “Meltdown in the Ski Industry

  1. This analysis of the environmental impact of ski resorts was very interesting. There is clearly an incentive for ski resorts to advocate for a more environmentally conscious world as global warming directly effects their bottom line. It would be interesting to know how Aspen’s efforts thus far have effected their financials. For instance, are Aspen’s alternative energy solutions and sustainable ski resorts saving them money in addition to the environmental benefits. It seems like if a ski resort could show that investment in sustainability positively affected their bottom line, more resorts might be willing to take on that investment.

    1. BunnySlope – I have also struggled with this paradox: how does a ski resort reduce its carbon footprint when its increased dependency on energy is a direct result of climate change? Should a resort make its own snow if the net impact is negative from an environmental standpoint, thereby continuing the negative feedback loop? Revenue diversification may make ski resorts less reliant on snow, but these companies will, nevertheless, blow snow as needed in order to continue to grow overall revenue. As a result, ski resorts should focus on snowmaking innovation to overcome the contradiction that occurs when their current energy consumption negatively impacts their product (skiing).

  2. It will be interesting to see if/when other ski resorts follow the lead of Whistler Blackcomb resort and invest in providing recreational activities which aren’t snow-dependent. It seems like it will depend at least in part on how willing the resorts are to define their company’s purpose/industry more broadly than they have in the past. If a resort views itself as a provider of “active vacation experiences” they might be more willing to mimic Whistler Blackcomb than a resort that views itself more narrowly as being in the skiing industry.

  3. Ski resorts are an interesting example because they are not (mostly) part of the problem, but rather a victim of climate change. Sure all businesses consume resources that contribute to climate change, but many other industries are implementing sustainability initiatives because of government regulation, societal pressures, corporate responsibility, or consumer demands. The ski industry is making changes by necessity. And more important than changes to reduce their own impact on the environment are strategies to simply survive — like those made by Whistler Blackcomb. Another place I think is very important for the ski industry to focus is advocacy. They have a very real example of how climate change is effecting us right now. Not in 200 years, but right now. I remember feeling inspired by the realization that I may not be able to teach my children to ski in lower New England where I first learned due to climate change. Examples like this, where climate change isn’t some far off intangible concept are critical to influencing public opinion.

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