Climate Change Will Hurt Winter Resorts in California, Across U.S.: Report

Warmer winters, shorter snow seasons and less snowpack could mean suffering for mountain resort towns, two nonprofits say in a call-to-action

Climate change will have a severe negative impact on the $12.2 billion winter sports industry, affecting the tourism economy in 38 states including California, a new report warns.

With dozens of mountain resorts from Mount Shasta to Big Bear Lake, California is second only to Colorado economic activity from skiing, snowboarding, and the snowmobile industry – and the state thus has much to lose, according to the report.

Designed to galvanize both politicians and winter sports business leaders to push for legislation addressing global warming, the report was issued Thursday by California-based nonprofit Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-headquartered advocacy group. The report was written by two University of New Hampshire researchers.

"A bad snow season hits the economy of three-fourths of U.S. states, some more than others. … This impact is not something we can just ignore," said the NRDC's Antonia Herzog in a conference call for reporters Thursday. "People's livelihoods, jobs and lifestyles are going to be affected."

"The trend is clear for the long term – less snow, shorter seasons," Herzog added.

California's $1.4 billion winter tourism industry – which supports about 24,000 jobs, according to the report's data from the 2009-10 season – has already seen an impact. The state saw a nearly 5 percent drop in skier visits between high and low snowfall years over the past decade, the report states.

That drop in skier visits meant a loss of $100 million across California mountain resorts, and 1,200 fewer jobs, the report said.

According to the report, called "Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States" (PDF), $1 billion in revenue and up to 27,000 jobs were lost nationwide over the last decade due to reduced snowfall.

The winter of 2011-12 was the fourth warmest on record, with about half of ski areas opening late and closing early, the report said.

"There's no doubt that climate change is real and is impacting our industry," said Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Pacific Palisades-based Protect Our Winters, which advocates for snow sports fans and companies to work to address climate change.

Those conditions will get worse, the report's authors warned.

Scientists predict that by the end of the 21st century, without any intervention, average global temperatures will increase 4 to 10 degrees – meaning a shorter snow season and reduced snowpack.

Snow depths in the Western United States could decline by 25 to 100 percent, the report states.

In the Sierra Nevada, home to Lake Tahoe resorts and Mammoth Mountain, snowpack is projected to decrease between 40 and 70 percent by 2050, the report specifies.

"The ski and snowboard industry has known for years that climate change threatens the industry," said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Ski Co., on the call with reporters. "We know if it doesn’t snow, we're going to have less revenue, and that means less jobs in ski towns. It's harder for people to feed their families."

Schendler said snow sports industry leaders needed to "get off their asses" and press Congress for action in recognition of what he called a climate change-caused "existential threat" to mountain resorts and related businesses.

He added that the science proving the existence of climate change is still denied by some in the winter sports industry.

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