The vanguard victims of climate change - the most vulnerable to current conditions - include mountain populations that depend on cold and snowy winters. In the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and Rocky Mountains, winters have been getting less cold with less snow. The ski and snowboard industries are not optimistic. As these aerial shots of a dry winter (top) and a normal winter (bottom) show, the writing is plainly on the wall. But it's not just the winter recreation that will suffer. The reduction in snowfall and rainfall and the shrinking of glaciers will affect water-based recreation during the warmer months, too. And that's not to mention the overall reduction in water supply for a fast-growing population.
The US Global Change Research Program (yes, such a program does exist, supported by our tax dollars) is conducting a US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (whew!), and its Regional Paper: Rocky Mountain/Great Basin Region describes the likely impacts on a climatic region that has been developing steadily for the past century.
Warming conditions ... hold the potential to trigger avalanche conditions that are a risk to skiers, boarders, and hikers and would hasten the retreat of glaciers, a process that has already begun. For example, the area covered by glaciers in Glacier National Park has declined by 70% from the area occupied at Park establishment in the early 1900s. At present warming and recession rates, all glaciers in the Park are expected to disappear over the next 30 years.But it's really the threat to the winter sports businesses that looms most darkly over the Rockies. There's the hope that shorter winters and longer warm seasons will open up more business opportunities for mountain biking and backpacking, but no one can believe that these activities will replace the revenue that comes from winter lodging, eating, shopping and lift passes.
Also impacted by the effects of climate change on the ski industry would be the many support industries that derive revenue from skiing. Ski equipment and clothing manufacturers and retailers, travel agencies, resort hotels, and local restaurants could all face economic challenges should the RMGB ski industry be compromised. Impacts on property values would also be in this same category. Many of the ski areas that are associated with significant amounts of private land (many areas are built only on national forests) are the locations of major, up-scale, real estate development. Vail and Aspen in Colorado, Deer Valley and Park City in Utah, Sun Valley, Idaho and Jackson, Wyoming are prime examples. Lots and homes are routinely valued in millions of dollars. Ski-area officials are in wide agreement that these property values would plummet if skiing were to disappear, even with allowances for continued use for summer recreational activities.In its report, the Global Change Research Program does recommend some actions to mitigate damage from climate change, but it's meager recompense.
- Inform anyone thinking of opening new facilities that it's a bad bet.
- Develop other activities for visitors to enjoy during warmer winters.
- And support and facilitate water conservation, because if the water supply disappears, nothing else will work to support existing mountain communities