Saving Winter Wonderland?

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening…

Every holiday season, millions of avid skiers and snowboarders eagerly await the start of their favorite winter pastime.  As ski resorts prepare for opening weekend, the anticipation for the thrill of laying the first tracks on fresh powder is palpable. During the most recent ski season, North American resorts saw a combined 73.4M visit [1]. Yet, despite this excitement, the ski industry is directly threatened by the consequences of climate change.

Climate change has led to warmer winters, less predictable snowfall, and shorter seasons.  Experts predict that 70% of the snow in the Alps in Europe could disappear by 2100 [2]. Some U.S. ski resorts could face 50% reduction in season lengths by 2050 due to changes in snowfall [3].  Vail Resorts, owner of 14 ski resorts, operates over 42,000 skiable acres and is taking measures to combat the unpredictability of their seasons driven by climate change through artificial snowmaking [4]. Today, artificial snowmaking helps cover 88% of America’s ski resorts [5].

In the lane, snow is glistening…

Artificial snowmaking requires sourcing and delivering a significant volume of water to resorts, managing when and where to create snow, and monitoring the efficiency and efficacy of the system. Vail Resorts receives water from multiple sources; the company has ownership interests in nearby water reservoirs in Colorado and long-term agreements with state utility companies in Utah.  Given growing demand for snowmaking, Vail Resorts has also diversified its water sources to ensure adequate supply.  For example, Heavenly Resort’s snowmaking output rate is sometimes limited by the capacity and speed of delivery by its suppliers – state utility companies; as a result, Vail has purchased water rights to develop on-mountain underground wells for additional supplies [6].

While snowmaking has allowed Vail to control for unexpected weather patterns, its reliance on water resources has led to the emergence of new risks, such as potential future changes to legislation around water usage and rights.  In 2012, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) filed and won a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to against a directive to transfer of water rights on Forest Service lands to the federal government [7].

“The snowmaking staff manages more than 200 air water guns…that blow piles of crystals…for a grooming team of 20 to transform into skiable trials.  With 30,000 feet of pipes and hoses, the system can cover 73% of the resort’s 4800 acres” [9]
In addition to sourcing the delivering the necessary water and energy for snowmaking, Vail Resorts has also developed a sophisticated operations team and systems to manage the endeavor.  Heavenly Resorts employs a 38-person team to decide how much, when, and where to make snow.  The team is constantly monitoring the outside temperature and humidity in addition to the air pressure and water flow of its equipment.  Impressively, the team has a maximum output rate of 1 foot of snow over 43 acres in 12 hours under optimal conditions [8].

Vail Resorts has also taken further measures to combat its own environmental impact by investing in sustainability initiatives to reach zero net emissions by 2030.  Further, the company claims that 80% of the water used in snowmaking is returned to the environment.  Longer term, Vail Resorts has invested in summer programs and activities to diversity its revenues, hopefully decreasing its reliance on the winter season; last year, the company launched summer programs to three more resorts in addition to the existing summer business at Whistler, Park City, and Stowe.

A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight…

Vail Resorts can further explore opportunities to improve its snowmaking operations and invest in new technologies for creating artificial snow.  For example, newer and more efficient snow-guns can use less water, and better monitoring technologies can more rapidly detect and repair any leakages, thereby minimizing valuable water resources.  The resort can also substitute snow with dirt for some of the construction of its freestyle terrain to reduce water needs [10].  Furthermore, Vail Resorts could consider proactively investing in research for technologies to enable snowmaking in higher temperatures, such is the endeavor of researchers at Norway’s SINEF Institute [11]. While snowmaking helps Vail manage predictability and summer programs diversifies the company’s revenues, Vail Resorts can also invest in extracting more revenue per skier visit by growing ancillary services to combat the shortening seasons, such as activities for non-skiers, more dining options, and expanded offerings at the ski school.

Whistler Mountain, picture taken Mar 2017

 

…Walking in a winter wonderland [12]

Do you think its justified to use water- and energy-intensive snowmaking operations to combat short-term unpredictability of climate change?

Do you think the skiing industry should even survive in the face of the increasing severity of climate change given its direct impact on its local ecosystem (e.g., vegetation, animal life, forestry)?

 

 

 

 

(789 words)

 

[1] Vail Resorts Inc., 2017 Annual Report, http://investors.vailresorts.com/annuals.cfm, p. 6, accessed November 2017.

[2] Jess Shankleman, “Alpine Snow May Shrink 70% by 2100,” Bloomberg News, February 16, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-16/it-s-snow-go-for-skiers-by-2100-as-climate-change-hits-the-slope, accessed November 2017.

[3] Cameron Wobus et al., “Projected climate change impacts skiing and snowmobiling: A case study of the United States,”  Global Environment Change Vol. 45, July 2017, http://www.sciencedirect.com/sci ence/article/pii/S0959378016305556, accessed November 2017.

[4] Vail Resorts Inc., 2017 Annual Report, p. 4-5.

[5] Porter Fox, “The End of Snow?,” New York Times, February 7, 2014, https://nyti.ms/2ob54VF, accessed November 2017.

[6] Vail Resorts Inc., 2017 Annual Report, p. 18.

[7] Ann Zimmerman, “Water Fight Hits the Slopes,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar 2012, via ProQuest, accessed November 2017.

[8] Evelyn Spence, “Fake Snow, Real Money: The High-Tech Fight to Save California Skiing,” Bloomberg News, March 6, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-03-06/fake-snow-real-money-the-high-tech-fight-to-save-california-skiing, accessed November 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Facts on Snowmaking,” National Ski Areas Association Website, http://www.nsaa.org/media/248986/snowmaking.pdf, accessed November 2017.

[11] SINTEF, “A future for skiing in a warmer world,” ScienceDaily, February 2017. www.science daily.com/releases/2017/02/170201093251.htm, accessed November 2017.

[12] Tony Bennett, Winter Wonderland.

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12 thoughts on “Saving Winter Wonderland?

  1. Interesting read! I had no idea of the extent of the sustainability programs from Vail. To answer the question of whether snow should be manufactured for skiing, I do not think it should. While I love skiing and am happy to hear that 80% of Vail’s water for snowmaking is returned to the environment, I read an article that snow creation uses 100 gallons per minute. This seems like a huge environmental price to pay while more than 1.2 billion people in the world do not have enough drinking water. Additionally, it appears to be unsustainable as the world continues to have less and less water.

    I also wanted to add that extreme weather could potentially mean more blizzards and more snow (snowpocalypse!), even if in some years its means no snow. This variability in skiing conditions cannot be controlled by manufacturing snow and probably impacts revenues as customers may be less willing to plan expensive ski vacations in advance if they are unsure about weather patterns. I feel like Vail needs to think of a strategy to maximize when they have a lot of snow as well as when they have no snow.

    Finally, I read an awesome article about a free service called Sunweb’s Ski Guarantee that will reroute travelers to other ski resorts if 2/3 of ski lifts are closed due to no snow at a resort. I recommend Vail create its own program between its 14 resorts to offer this option to people who purchase ski packages as a way to maintain customer satisfaction while also reducing dependence on artificial snow making.

  2. Thanks Jenny for this insightful article – I did not know that the making of fake snow had a negative environmental impact. In response to your questions, I believe that resorts should severely limit their usage of snow-making machines due to the impact these machines have on the local ecosystem. According to one article I read, the extended snow cycle that alpine resorts have as a result of artificial snow alters the natural climate cycle of the surrounding region. Additionally, snow-making can actually cause alpine rivers to run dry for long portions of the spring, which has an enormous negative impact on the foothills ecosystem. Another article also mentioned that the loud (115 db) snow making machines can disrupt the nocturnal behavior of certain animals, which also has broad implications for the local ecosystem. One could likely assume that snow-making results in a lot of unhappy owls!

    That said, a unilateral ban of snow-making machines, as Brooke recommends, could also have a severe negative impact on the employees of ski resorts and their shareholders, so I believe a more nuanced solution is required. I agree with your recommendation of investing in more efficient snow-making equipment, but I would also add a few more recommendations: i) More proactively market the use of resort land in the summer for hiking, camping, etc. in order to make resorts less reliant on the ski season ii) gathering natural made snow from neighboring un-skiied mountains and iii) Creating (and promoting) cross country ski trails that may not require as much snow.

    That said, a reduction in the skiing season will likely mean a nearly commensurate decline in resort revenue for most firms, so any adaptation in snow-making behavior will likely need to be driven by legislation. Let’s hope the ski resorts cooperate with the government to devise a solution that is able to balance environmental sustainability with a reasonably long ski season!

    – Andrew

  3. As a skier, I’m at first saddened by these projections of reduced snow and shortened ski seasons. Then as a business school student, I’m curious about Vail resort’s investment strategy with respect to their expanding holdings of ski resorts. Taking a cynical perspective, I see Vail capitalizing on an opportunity to consolidate ownership of ski resorts and water resources to gain control of the market as it shrinks, thereby increasing its control of supply. I wouldn’t be surprised to see ski prices (season passes, lift tickets, ancillary goods and services) rising at an accelerating rate going forward.

    As you mention, Jenny, and as Andrew references as well, there are many ways ski resorts impact the environment such as deforestation when opening new ski trails, disrupting animals with loud snow guns, trash accumulation, energy usage. Vail resorts is acknowledged for their commitment to reducing these effects. When it comes to water usage, however, they seem to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Articles I’ve read in the Denver Post and in Powder Magazine that praise Vail’s climate change reduction strategy omit the water usage issue.

    Brooke mentioned she’s happy to hear that 80% of the water used in artificial snow making is returned to the environment, but I’m shocked – where does the other 20% of the water go? Does this mean there is 20% less water (per cycle) in the natural environment for natural snow formation? With the incredible volume of water used per minute, it seems like the water resources could be at risk of depletion – a problem that is not solved by emission neutrality, which Vail is working towards.

    If the water usage rates of artificial snow-making are indeed a threat to the local ecosystem, Vail is exacerbating the problem of a reduction in natural snow and accelerating the decline of natural skiing. The biggest losers in this equation (besides wildlife) are the back country skiers that rely on natural snow. But Vail doesn’t care about these skiers – they don’t buy lift tickets.

  4. Really interesting read, thanks Jenny. While it seems like Vail and other ski resorts could be doing a lot better in terms of their own sustainability, I don’t think we should be holding these ski resorts to a higher standard (of net environmental impact) than any other company in the leisure industry just because they are closer to nature. E.g., water theme parks also probably use massive amounts of water that do not get returned to where they came from. If it turns out water parks use up more water and energy than ski resorts, we need to make sure they are held accountable first. (To quickly answer Jen’s question about where the remaining 20% goes: I think Vail meant 80% of the water they use from their local watershed returns to the same watershed each year… So the remaining 20% escape their local watershed but goes somewhere else in the broader ecosystem)

    So I would want to see a comparison of energy consumption per hour of leisure time across ski resorts, theme parks, water parks, and other leisure activities to see if ski resorts are really less sustainable than other forms of experiential leisure. If not, I think they are justified in using snowmaking to combat weather variations. However, if they really are using more energy than other types of resorts, I think that would be a strong argument to hold them more accountable and impose regulations that might lead to electric snowmakers and adoption of solar panels at these resorts (especially since they get ample sunlight and solar panels are unaffected by the cold). I’m sure as climate change continues and snowmaking is more heavily leaned upon, these companies may end up increasingly detrimental to the environment, and if they aren’t already comparatively worse than water parks, they might be eventually.

    In the long-run, man-made snow is not going to be a satisfying replacement for real snow. As a snowboarder, I find it easy to tell what’s manmade snow and what is real snow, and I would not go to a resort just to ride on fake snow! So if these ski resorts want to continue operating in the same locations, they might need to invest in better snowmaking technology anyway – higher quality as well as more sustainable.

  5. Very interesting article! As an avid skier snow machines are present in our reality. There are two issues that make me a bit concerned in this article. One is the question of quality in the snow produced by machines vs natural snow. The other issue relates more to a concern of what is the industry doing to prevent 70% of the snow to disappear in the coming years.

    In a Bloomberg article, it is mention that the quality of man made snow will never be the same as naturally made snow. The tradeoff here is that a day with snow beats a day with no snow. It also mentions how the quality of man made snow is improving thanks to technological advancements and accurate weather predictions. This goes to my second concern: is this enough for the industry?

    Is the Skiing initiative not worries that 70% of the snow will be gone in future years? I wonder if there is anything they are doing to advocate for climate change. It really is surprising that instead of finding a solution to the real problem we are satisfied with developing new technologies that replace the natural processes.

  6. Great work Jenny. Very much agree with you that the additional costs of artificial snowmaking driven by global warming seem to be incredibly wasteful. That being said, I do think it is acceptable to use artificial snowmaking at Ski Resorts. As Phil mentioned earlier, the 20% of lost water isn’t lost for good, it is simply lost from the local water supply the same way lakes and streams lose water to evaporation. I worry more about the power consumption to run these artificial snowmakers, rather than the lost water. To this point, ski resorts such as Vail should focus on sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar to power the snowmaking process. For a company as close to the environment as Vail Resorts, 2030 seems like an awfully long time to get to zero net emissions, and I would challenge them to beat this target, as they did for their last environmental goal in 2012.

  7. A “wonderful” read on the benefits that artificial snow-making has been able to bring to the unpredictability of weather conditions at skiing locations. I think there are several levels of usage that would be justifiable from a sustainability standpoint such as maintenance of currently existing snowfall to avoid running out of snow during the middle of the season. However, using these machines to create or extend a season on a mountain seems unnecessary. Both of the second instances will likely strain the system and their own reserves the most when the temperatures are not conducive to the water and energy usage being the most efficient.

    Additionally, jumping on the 80% returned to the environment seems an odd statistic. Is there a way to either increase this percentage through landscape design or even reclaim the runoff to reuse within the snow creation system? In the standard sustainability motto of reduce, reuse, recycle, letting the water runoff seep away through the ground seems like a potential way to reuse their raw materials.

  8. I found this article is very interesting. I do believe that in the short term, it is justified to use water and energy intensive snowmaking operations to solve the problem at hand, however I would focus a lot more on conducting research to create more efficient snow guns for the medium term. With that said, I do not believe that this will be a long term solution. I do agree with the fact that “Ski-related Businesses” can also invest in summer programs and activities to address the decreasing revenue issue due to climate change, however with the issue at hand, being environmental change, I am not optimistic about the long term prospects of these businesses. Water melts at 0 decrees Celsius. How can we make water freeze at higher temperatures? And if we do manage to do so, how high can we go? I feel that this solution is also a temporary one.

  9. I agree that improving snow-making capabilities is a good medium-term solution to mitigate risk for Vail Resorts. The investments they are making in technology and water rights help support this strategy. In the long run, it is very likely that ski seasons at current properties will still get shorter as temperatures warm. One way to mitigate this, is to open new resorts in locations with better long-term prospects, such as further north in Canada. To do so, they would need to buy land, and make significant investments to develop the resorts and the infrastructure required to get people there. They should work with the Canadian government to support these investments, as the government would likely be interested in the improved tourism revenue potential. Opening new resorts could cannibalize sales from existing resorts, but if existing resorts are already operating at capacity this could be an alternative to expansion at existing properties.

  10. Hi Jenny, section titles for the win! But also, what a depressing question. I know you want the answer to be yes, and so do I.

    Realistically, it’s hard to argue that adding snowmaking to an already energy- and resource-intensive activity like skiing is a great thing for the world. I’d be interested to know how it played out in Tahoe resorts during the California drought over the past few years.

    That being said, it sounds like Vail Resorts at least is doing a lot to minimize its impact. A net zero emissions policy by 2030 is fanstastic and makes me feel better about skiing. And if 80% of the water they use is returned to the watershed, that should go a long way to minimizing the impact too.

  11. I believe it is justifiable for ski resorts to combat short-term unpredictability of climate change by water- and energy- intensive operations as long as the operation proves that it would not damage the surrounding environment permanently. I believe it is totally unfair that ski resorts and skiers have to pay additional costs for operation to cope with climate change, the results of unregulated energy-intensive industrial opeations. Thus, if I were a ski resort operator, I would first work with the government to craft and implement environment standards for artificial snowmaking operation in ski resorts. Second, I work with the government to implement a carbon tax and distribute its tax revenues to industries which suffer from climate change including ski resorts. It is reasonable for ski resort operators to receive subsidies to purchase or develop energy- and water-efficient equipment if the government secures tax revenues from the payers who cause climate change. Unless these initiatives are not implemented, unfortunately it is likely that skiers have to pay more costs and less people would enjoy skiing in the future, as skiing becomes scarce, luxury goods under climate change.

  12. Jenny, thanks for writing this great piece! As a skier, this topic is near and dear to my heart, and it saddens me to learn about not only how ski resorts are impacted by climate change, but also how their methods to fight against climate change have negative implications.

    Given the negative impact that creating artificial snow has on the environment, I do not believe resorts are justified in using these methods to combat climate change. However, the issue here is squarely a game theory dilemma. This is a competitive market. If Vail Resorts stops creating artificial snow, that is great and can positively impact the environment, but does it mean that everyone else will stop these operations? Probably not. Other ski resorts may see this as a competitive opportunity to provide more snow for visitors, even if it does impact the environment. It’s a challenge to convince business in a free market to suffer short-term losses for a benefit that requires industry participation.

    I want to believe that the skiing industry should survive, but I’m probably a bit biased as a skier. However, I believe that if the industry contributes to fighting climate change and supporting the local ecosystem, it can still survive.

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