Some states are rich in oil. Some are rich in coal. Some are rich in farmland and fertile soil, and others still are made rich by woodlands or by the sea.
For Colorado, its resource wealth comes in the form of annual powder — the reliable blanket of white gold that keeps ski resorts open and fuels the engine of winter tourism. But, as the symptoms of climate change begin to manifest in the Rockies, winters stand to become far less predictable.
Which could mean a difficult future for Colorado at large.
The ski industry has a $4.8 billion economic impact in Colorado, according to an analysis by Colorado Ski Country and Vail Resorts. It generates 46,000 jobs in recreation, amusement, food services, lodging and other sectors. Nearly 7 million non-residents visit local ski resorts every year, and typically account for about 8 percent of Denver International Airport’s winter arrivals. That’s a lot of business. And it’s all wholly dependent on a foundation melting out from under it.
“We have data that shows we have lost about a month of winter — meaning a month [more] frost free days — since 1980,” says Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company’s Vice President of Sustainability. “What that means is that you’re really starting to see the shoulders of the season squeezed.”
Schendler describes how most of the profits of tourism happen at the margins of the ski season — around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and then again around Spring Break in late March. “You squeeze out Thanksgiving, and you squeeze out Spring Break, and that’s not something that the ski industry can sustain,” he says.
This year, Aspen — along with just about every other ski resort in Colorado — has felt pressure from a lack of snow. And a lot of would-be visitors are taking their time and money elsewhere.
That’s just the corporate tip of the iceberg though. Beneath the surface, ski country communities are suffering too. Mountain employees are being widely shorted hours because there simply isn’t enough work for them. That reality has caused resources like Eagle County’s Our Community Foundation (OCF) Food Warehouse to experience higher rates of resident use than ever before.
Susie Davis, the Director of Community Impact at OCF, explains, “To help address an urgent local need, we opened OCF’s Food Warehouse and delivery operations earlier than planned [in December instead of February]. The need has been created by the delayed arrival of snow, and the related service jobs that are impacted by weather and visitors.”
Davis, along with 50 dedicated volunteers, spent all day on December 21 purchasing, packaging, sorting and delivering over 1000 “Grab & Go” food totes for hungry service community members. “We’re offering a momentary Band-Aid, while we attempt to address bigger solutions,” says Davis.
But Colorado has had bad winters before, and Coloradans have endured hardships like these in the past. This isn’t unheard of. Once in a while the state has a warm winter with scarce snow, everyone suffers for few months, everyone grumbles and gripes, and everyone rides it out. Next season will be better, they say. What’s the big deal?
Ultimately, the problem is in the pattern. As climate change worsens, and the polar vortex becomes “loopier,” winters across much of the U.S. are expected to become more variable. And where once Colorado had predictable winters with predictable quantities of snowfall, it now might be facing more erratic weather patterns. And in the business of economies, the word “erratic” is a curse.
So, what can be done?
Colorado can adapt. That’s the only real option at this point. Because, really, climate change is already happening. Even if every nation and individual on Earth stopped all pollution activity today, right now, the momentum of our effect on the climate system wouldn’t slow to a stop for years. Change is here. If Colorado can’t flex and adapt to it, it could splinter under pressure.
Ski companies are already preparing for this. It’s part of the reason why Vail and Aspen are buying up mountains all around the world — essentially spreading their eggs into different baskets. They’re diversifying their geolocations to soften the loss if one ski area starts to suffer from warm winters.
“Both Vail and Aspen have acquired resorts in California, and elsewhere, and on the east coast,” notes Shendler. “The thinking is, ‘Well, if it’s bad in Colorado, and you get skunked, it probably isn’t going to be bad in California.’”
There will also likely be a heavy shift in focus towards summer activities. Ski hills are, obviously, great for skiing. But they also double as pretty rad mountain biking and hiking destinations. It’s a good plan B — a strong backup for an industry facing tumult.
Still, the mountain biking/hiking lifestyles don’t possess the kind of glamour the ski culture maintains. They don’t have all of the ritzy-fritzy frill, fur coats and flamboyance you’ll find in ski villages. It won’t attract the same customers. Even if these businesses can totally shift their identity from winter sports to summer sports, they will still take a hit.
And so will the communities bonded to them.