Clearly, the impacts of climate change on the international ski industry could be profound. However, the majority of studies that simulate the potential impacts on ski operations (supply-side) suffer from two key limitations that reduce their validity and limit the relevance for the ski industry, investors and other decision makers. The first common limitation is the use of inappropriate impact indicators, including, for example, snow cover (1 inch/2.5cm) or snow water equivalent on the first day of April, which provide no insight into required operational snow depth throughout the ski season. The second major limitation has been the omission of snowmaking. Analyses that do not account for snowmaking do not reflect the current operating realities of virtually all ski area operators, let alone their future adaptive capacity. Snowmaking has been an integral climate adaptation in the US for more than two decades. Today the proportion of skiable terrain with snowmaking coverage varies by regional market, led by the Southeast (over 90%), Midwest and Northeast (over 80%), while the Rocky Mountain and Pacific West markets are more reliant on natural snow at higher elevations, with snowmaking limited to lower elevations (less than 20%).
The majority of studies of the ski industry in the US suffer from both of these limitations, which present an inaccurate assessment of climate change risk in the literature and media. To address this knowledge gap, this study utilizes the SkiSim ski operations model, developed and applied in several ski markets worldwide (Canada, European Alps, New England, Australia, Turkey, Norway), with climate and snowpack data derived from high-resolution climate change simulations to examine the climate change risk of 349 ski areas across the contiguous US.
The SkiSim model simulates the capacity of a ski area with standardized snowmaking capacity and decision rules developed in consultation with ski area managers in multiple ski markets, to achieve operational snow depth between specified opening and closing dates (e.g., 1 Dec–31 March, but adjusted to each regional market). Daily snowmaking occurs when the snow depth is insufficient for minimum specified operating conditions (30 cm) and minimum temperatures required for efficient snowmaking are available (<= -5°C/23°F). The maximum daily snowmaking output is also prescribed to represent that of advanced snowmaking systems. Model outputs include season length, probability of operations during economically important holiday periods, and snowmaking requirements.
To generate the elevation adjusted (to ski area operational elevations) daily temperature, precipitation and natural snow depth inputs to SkiSim, output from nine global climate models is used to force a regional climate model and hydrological model resulting in high-resolution 4.17-km output for the contiguous US. Greenhouse gas concentrations are prescribed according to historical values for the present-day (1965-2005) and the IPCC Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 for the near to mid term future (2010-2050).
For concise presentation, only the ensemble average results with advanced snowmaking capacity at base operating elevation are presented. Average ski season length is projected to decline and variability is projected to increase in all five of the National Ski Areas Association regional markets. The largest reduction is projected in the Pacific Southwest and Pacific Northwest, where 4 weeks are lost from the ski season. Season length losses are much less in the Rocky Mountain (2 weeks) and the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast (l week or less). The projected impact for the many ski areas in the Pacific ski regions that rely primarily on natural snow was more substantial (-33% season length). The probability of being operational during the economically important Christmas-new year holiday period also declined nationwide, but declined the most in the Pacific Northwest, and Pacific Southwest regions (-26% and -20% respectively). Other indicators of economic impact show similar geographic patterns, with the probability of an impactful 80-day or less season increasing substantially in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest (from 11% to 35% and 37% to 60% respectively), while remaining largely unchanged in all other ski regions. In order to limit losses in season length, ski areas would need to increase the volume of snowmaking by 15% to 25% in all regions except the Pacific Northwest, and Pacific Southwest, where increased temperatures limited snowmaking to current levels. Two important caveats are that increased snowmaking costs may prove prohibitive for some ski operators and access to water supplies cannot be assumed in some jurisdictions.
The results indicate that with the assumption of sufficient investment in snowmaking and access to water, climate change over the next 4 decades does not represent a major threat to the US ski industry as a whole, but rather individual ski areas and destinations. Within each regional market the impact of projected climate change varies substantially among individual ski areas, with important implications for the competitiveness and sustainability of ski operators, publically traded ski conglomerates, and destination communities (including real-estate values).