Reactive Measures to Declining Snowpack

A short evaluation of climate change's impact on The Aspen Skiing Company.

Brief Industry Background

 

Climate change has resulted in warmer winters and ultimately less snowfall, resulting in a condensed winter season. For certain industries, such as the ski resort business, global climate change directly impacts viability given inconsistent and reduced snowfall. The Aspen Skiing Company, which owns four ski areas in Colorado, is proactively addressing climate change through several initiatives directed towards increasing the lifespan of its threatened industry. However, these initiatives are largely reactive and a large portion of the damage has already been done. Reduced snowfall results in fewer winter sports enthusiasts and ultimately a weaker operating environment for the Aspen Skiing Company.

 

Impact of Climate Change on Industry

 

Widely diverging weather patterns have largely increased the variability of snow conditions across the United States. Historical warming has already strained the industry by increasing the frequency of warm winters. 2015 marked the second warmest year on record in the United States with Western Mountain snow packs hitting record lows.[1] Record low snow packs have led to a decline in overall rider visits to mountain resorts. According to the National Ski Areas Association, total visits for the 2014-15 season declined 3.8% to 53.6 million visits “from the 5-year industry average of 55.7mm skier visits”.[2] Ultimately, the negative economic impact of such declines are far more expansive than the financial results of companies like The Aspen Skiing Company. Such declines impact the economies that have developed surrounding such resorts, translating to increased strain on local businesses.

 

Industry Initiatives to Combat Reduced Snowfall

 

Increasing warming trends in the norther half of the United States have forced the Aspen Skiing Company to adapt to decreasing mountain snowpack levels. Snowmaking is obviously the most proactive measure taken by ski resorts to combat variability in snowfall. While this is an effective approach, snowmaking “come[s] as a $500,000 expense annually and consumes up to 50 percent of resort energy costs”.[3] While this may appear as environmentally burdensome, roughly 80% of water consumed in snowmaking returns to the watershed.[4] Additionally, increased technology surrounding snowmaking has increased the overall efficiency through measures, such as installing water coolers and increasing volumes by using highly efficient snow-guns.

The Aspen Skiing Company has made a pledge to sustainability, ultimately promoting the long term viability of its business. It employs such practices as greenhouse gas reductions, renewable energy procurement, water conservation, resource efficient transportation and waste reduction to enable its longevity.[5] Notably, The Company invested $5.5mm in a partnership to capture waste methane from nearby coalmines to produce enough energy to cover Aspen Skiing Company’s annual energy usage.[6] In an effort to prevent emissions, the hydroelectric Snowmass Power Plant was installed, using water from snowmaking ponds. Such efforts taken by the Aspen Skiing Company simultaneously improve the operational efficiency of its resorts while dedicating resources to environmental sustainability. These measures ultimately increase the long term viability of its operations as the Aspen Skiing Company faces the daunting pressures of climate change.

 

Further Measures to be Taken

 

The Aspen Skiing Company can only do so much to limit the long term impacts of climate change. Warming trends directly impact the long term viability of its operations and further measures must be taken to combat these trends. It must further develop year-round resort offerings to create a more diversified revenue stream. No longer can the vast resources of such resorts lay dormant in the summer. Additionally, such resorts may consider moving to a single peak model. While limiting the overall ridable terrain, mountains can increase operational efficiency by blowing snow and limiting lift operations to only one peak. Furthermore, these organizations must dedicate themselves to long term sustainability measures while establishing new environmentally friendly industry norms. While this is an industry facing tremendous headwinds, I believe there are potential measures that can be taken to increase the long term viability and sustainability of such operating models.

 

Word Count: 755

 

[1] “State of the Climate: National Overview for Annual 2015.” NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Jan. 2016. Web. 4 Nov. 2016. <http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/national/201513>.

[2] National Ski Areas Association. Skier Visits Dip Slightly to 53.6 Million in 2014-15. National Ski Areas Association. 4 May 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2016. <http://www.nsaa.org/media/242270/Kottke_press_release.pdf>.

[3] Burakoswki, Elizabeth, and Matthew Magnusson. “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.” (2012). The Natural Resources Defense Council, Dec. 2012. Web. 2 Nov. 2016. <https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/climate-impacts-winter-tourism-report.pdf>.

[4] “Facts on Snowmaking – National Ski Areas Association.” National Ski Areas Association. Web. 2 Nov. 2016. <http://www.nsaa.org/media/248986/snowmaking.pdf>.

[5] Kaplan, Mike. “Environmental Policy.” Aspen Snowmass. Web. 04 Nov. 2016. <https://www.aspensnowmass.com/we-are-different/programs-and-practices/environmental-policy>.

[6] “Green Operations.” Aspen Snowmass. Web. 04 Nov. 2016. <https://www.aspensnowmass.com/we-are-different/programs-and-practices/green-operations>.

Previous:

Life Healthcare: Managing the cause and effect of climate change

Next:

Changing Climate’s Challenges to TATA Tea

3 thoughts on “Reactive Measures to Declining Snowpack

  1. Sam, as someone who loves skiing, I enjoyed reading about the initiatives Aspen is undertaking to combat climate change. In addition to the steps outlined in your article, I am impressed that Aspen encourages people to take action both in Colorado and Nationally by trying to influence climate change legislation. [1] I wish other resorts, in particular Vail, would take similar measures.

    I agree that Aspen should dedicate itself to long term sustainability measures, however, I disagree with your statement regarding Aspen’s summer offerings and suggestion that the Company may want to move to a single peak model.

    Unfortunately, we can’t see a breakdown of revenue by seasons as Aspen is a private Company, but from their website we do know that Aspen has a wide variety of summer offerings, including gondola and lift rides, biking, and other activities. [2] I think it’s a bit of a stretch to imply that the vast resources of the resorts “lay dormant” during the summer, and I’m not sure there’s all that much more Aspen could be doing to diversify outside of their current summer offerings.

    Aspen is known for its wide variety of terrain and pleasant mountain experience, so I do not believe moving to a single peak model would be a wise decision. The four mountains owned by the Aspen Skiing Company are somewhat distinct in their feel and difficulty, so customers would not be able to get the same variety of terrain if the Company were to move to a single peak. [3] Furthermore, even if the Company increased uphill capacity, moving to a single peak would likely significantly increase traffic on the slopes and in the lodges surrounding the mountain. This change in experience would likely significantly reduce the number of visitors to Aspen, which would be extremely detrimental from a financial standpoint to both the Aspen Skiing Company and the Town of Aspen. In suggesting changes to operations, we need to weigh the benefits of greater sustainability with the costs of implementation, and I believe the costs of switching to a single peak model would be far too great.

    [1] Take Action, Aspen Snowmass website, https://www.aspensnowmass.com/we-are-different/take-action
    [2] The Summer Experience, Aspen Snowmass website, https://www.aspensnowmass.com/plan-your-stay/the-summer-experience
    [3] Aspen Ski Resort | Aspen Colorado, Ski.com website, http://www.ski.com/aspen

  2. Sam, great post – I found it a very interesting read. However, I was a bit skeptical about your claims about the minimal environmental damage of the ski resort and decided to dig in a bit further particularly on the snow machines.

    While I do applaud The Aspen Skiing Company (“Aspen”) for taking environmentally precautionary measures in their snowmaking, it seems that there are limits to their solutions. For one, even if Aspen returns to the watershed 80% of the water consumed in snow making, unfortunately periods of low water while the water is on the slope as snow can be devastating for the rivers and lakes where the waters are typically sourced from. By lowering or actually completely depleting the water levels of these nearby natural water sources, fish and other animals are left without water which prevents them from breeding [1]. Additionally, recent efforts to replace the natural sources of water with water extracted from treated sewage has introduced dangers levels of minerals such as zinc, copper, and lead.

    In fact, during a previous dry spell when Aspen decided to heavily rely on their snowmakers, they were sued by local environmentalists in the Colorado Supreme Court to stop them from further harming the surrounding ecosystem[2].

    The particularly dangerous aspect of snowmaking for Aspen in a business sense is that much of their clientele are avid outdoors-people who deeply care about the environment. As a result, having an environmentally unfriendly policy such as snowmaking can have severe negative impact on Aspen and its brand, which may end up hurting Aspen even more than not having enough snow.

    While I do applaud Aspen’s efforts in climate change and agree that they have made great progress, I hesitate to give them as strong praise as you have. It seems that skiing in an environmentally responsible way may be a much more difficult – and by extension likely a much more expensive – proposition than we may think.

Leave a comment