By David Schissler – Early in December Big Snow America opened North America’s first indoor ski area in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Its closed environment creates a constant temperature of 28 degrees allowing year-round snowmaking and grooming on a 200-foot wide slope. The climate control will assure superior conditions at all times given the temps will never vary. The “hill” has a 160-foot vertical drop with terrain for beginners to advanced skiers and a terrain park. At its steepest the slope reaches 26-degrees or about half the steepest runs in North America. The lift turns 365 days a year.
Big Snow is open from 10:00 to 10:00. Tickets are sold in 2-hour blocks for $39.99 on site and $29.99 online. Additional 2-hour blocks are available for $20 at time of purchase. Kids six and under ski free with an adult ticket.
“Big Snow is a game changer for skiing and snowboarding in the United States,” Hugh Reynolds, vice president of marketing and sales for Snow Operating, said. “The unprecedented access to year-round snow combined with the center’s unrivaled location … will allow us to provide opportunities never before seen, and to move the needle on growing the sports in a big way.”
Big Snow may be here none too soon. Climatologists predict many of our treasured western resorts may literally melt into history by 2085 due to rising temperatures. The winter of 2014-2015 may be a precursor of things to come. That season was so snow starved that some areas didn’t open at all and others worked hard to adapt to the diminishing snow pack. Some resorts were limited to the upper lifts only.
The University of British Columbia recently conducted a study indicating the 2014-2015 ski season may become our new normal. “It’s kind of an interesting canary in the coal mine.” said Michael Pidwirny, an associate professor at the university. “I think a lot of people can’t wrap their heads around what scientists are saying about how climate change is going to change their life, but a lot of people ski, and a lot of people do winter activities.”
Professor Pidwirny and his master’s students Ethan Clark and Kalim Bahbahani investigated how climate change affects the conditions for a healthy snowpack. They began by calculating the baseline air temperatures and using historic weather data at 154 ski resorts from Canada to California, then applied the data to 15 different climate models and scenarios regarding temps and greenhouse gases based on the widely used Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Every skier knows the two things resorts need most are cold temps and precipitation. The historical data and models used in the study show climate change will dramatically reduce the number of days in the ski season and may force some resorts to close completely. It says a 120-day season may be instore for over 90% of western resorts. “Skiing is in trouble,” Pidwirny said. Although there is year-to-year variability, his prediction for resorts is bleak: “For most of them, they’ll shut down.”
In Scenario 1, only a third of the 154 ski resorts have seasons longer than 120 days. Many resorts consider 100 days the break-even point in their season. This scenario also predicts 21 resorts have zero skiable days since temperatures remain above freezing all season. In Scenario 2, with little done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, only 9% of resorts would pass 120 days. Nearly one-third will not have one skiable day all season. Resorts in coastal states will be the hardest hit. For example, Mount Hood would be the only resort open in Oregon and nothing will be skiable in California. Yet air holding more moisture may produce more snow over the Rocky Mountain resorts.
Another recent study conducted by the University of Waterloo, the University of Innsbruck in Austria and Sport University in Beijing, came to similar conclusions. “The future of our multi-billion-dollar ski industry depends on our climate choices,” said Daniel Scott, the executive director of Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change and the study’s co-author. “In total only 66 of the 171 ski areas (35 in Quebec, 26 in the US Northeast, and 2 in Ontario) are able to achieve both economic indicators under the high emission scenario, indicating the potential for substantial losses of operating ski areas and a transformation of these markets as early as mid-century. If we do not achieve the Paris Agreement, in the latter half of the century, only high-elevation areas of the Vermont and New Hampshire and select ski areas in Quebec will be able to maintain a 100-day season and open regularly over the Christmas-New Year holiday. Warmer winters projected by mid-century will accelerate the financial challenges for ski areas in the three regional markets,” the report said. Between the Northeastern U.S., Quebec and Ontario represent a $2.1 billion market altogether.
While all these changes are taking place demand for machine-made snow is expected to increase. Ontario ski areas will need to boost snow production by 179% by the 2050s in a low-emission scenario, and 256 % in a high emission scenario.
What does this mean to the overall economy? If we lose skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and other winter sports the US will lose tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars per year according to the non-profit Protect Our Winters.
Cover photo by Gabby Jones/Bloomberg/Getty Images)