Table of Contents
Dream on, if you’re planning a ski vacation at many resorts in the Western U.S. Despite what Game of Thrones warns, winter may not be coming. Or, at least, not the old-fashioned kind with lots of fluffy white stuff.
December 1 was stupefyingly warm in many towns out West, smashing dozens of weather records: It was 78 in both Buffalo, Wyoming, 100 miles north of Casper, and Jordan, Montana, 130 miles north of Billings. Sheesh.
Warm temperatures and lack of snow slow operations
In the Tahoe region at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California, no ski lifts (out of 29) or trails (out of 97) were open, it was 44 degrees and light rain was falling at press time, according to Snocountry, a website that monitors snow conditions, forecasts, total season snowfall and temperatures daily, searchable by state and resort.
At Heavenly, whose 4,800 acres boast awe-inspiring views of sapphire-blue Lake Tahoe and the most varied terrain of any Tahoe ski resort, the total season snowfall was anything but: zero.
The resort, by Lake Tahoe’s southernmost edge near the Nevada border, is one of 37 U.S. ski resorts operated by Vail Resorts, which include:
- Northstar and Kirkwood in Tahoe
- Vail, Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, and Keystone in Colorado
- Stowe, Mt. Snow and Okemo in Vermont
- Whistler Blackcomb in Canada
At Aspen Mountain in Colorado, three of eight lifts, 16 of 76 trails and 186 of 675 acres were open and it was 38 degrees, noted Snocountry at press time. It’s one of four mountains in Aspen Snowmass, whose Colorado resorts in two towns also include Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.
“We’re used to getting snow in October and it sticking around,” says Jeff Hanle, a spokesman for Aspen Snowmass. “We were very lucky to get 10 inches at Thanksgiving, but none since,” he told me on December 3rd.
At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village, Wyoming, three of 13 lifts and six of 131 trails are open, and it was 37 degrees that day. (In Jackson in the valley, it hit 52.)
Heavenly Mountain Resort – South Lake Tahoe, California
- 0 out of 29 ski lifts operating
- 0 out of 97 trails open
Aspen Mountain – Aspen, Colorado
- 3 out of 8 ski lifts operating
- 16 out of 76 trails open
- 186 out of 675 acres open
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort – Teton Village, Wyoming
- 3 out of 13 ski lifts operating
- 6 out of 131 trails open
Sure, 88% of the National Ski Areas Association’s ski areas use snow-making equipment if Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, but there’s a problem. Snow-making requires below-freezing temperatures (26 degrees is ideal), since the equipment blasts water from nozzles into ultra-fine droplets that freeze in mid-air and become snow crystals.
If it’s too warm, it’s hard to make snow, and an inefficient and costly use of water and electricity.
A Melting Gondola
“We usually start to make snow around November 1, and typically stop snow-making before Christmas because we have enough. But now we’re not even close. We’ve made one-fifth of the snow we made at this time last year. But skiing is the least of our worries in climate change,” Hanle adds.
“It’s the community, the planet, so we do what we can to drive home the message of dangerously warming temperatures.”Jeff Hanle, spokesman for Aspen Snowmass
That’s why Aspen Snowmass built a power plant to transform methane emissions into clean energy from an abandoned coal mine a decade ago – and why it recently installed a melting gondola sculpture.
Next to the life-sized sculpture at the top of Aspen Mountain is a sign noting the website of Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit of outdoor sports lovers who champion action to save the places they love from climate change, with a QR code.
A pro snowboarder, Jeremy Jones, founded POW in Boulder back in 2007, after observing many recreation spots were closed due to lack of snow. Its brand partners and members include Aspen Snowmass, Patagonia, The North Face, REI, athletes, scientists and creatives.
A sculpture of a melting ice cream truck in Australia inspired the resort’s creative director, who invited its artist to transpose his message of climate change to Colorado. He declined, so a local artist was commissioned.
Snowless Winters to Come?
About 78-94% of years may be almost snowless in much of the western U.S. by the end of this century if climate change doesn’t slow down, predicts a study in the November 2021 issue of Nature Reviews Earth and Environment.
The study’s shocks keep coming: The Sierra Nevada mountains may experience their first nearly-snowless 10-year span as early as the 2050s. (Back in 2015, the Sierras’ peak snowpack was a rock-bottom 5% of its usual snowpack). Today, snow cover nationwide is only 6%, the lowest level since record-keeping started in 2003.
The mountain west has lost one-fifth of its snowpack since the 1950s. That’s enough to fill our country’s biggest man-made reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona. (Lake Mead’s maximum is over 26 million acre-feet of water; each acre foot is 43,560 cubic feet, or one acre submerged one foot deep. But the reservoir is at its lowest level since 1937.)
However, the mountain west, from the Sierras, Rockies to the Cascades, is expected to lose another 50% of its snowpack in this century, notes the study, whose lead co-authors are from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, joined by scientists from UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, among others.
Only urgent action can reverse this. “Failure is not an option,” notes James Eklund, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
No wonder: While his entire state is experiencing drought, 40% of Colorado is facing “severe to exceptional” drought, says the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Snow by Region
Here’s the bad news on snow, from the National Climate Assessment, a 2018 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program which has chapters on each U.S. region.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was the lead agency for a team from government agencies, universities, national laboratories, and the private sector that compiled the report.
Wyoming, Montana, North & South Dakota, Nebraska:
In Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota and Nebraska, snow season is predicted to end 20 days sooner than past years by 2050, even if global warming is sharply curbed.
Alaska is warming faster than any other state. It’s warmed twice as fast as the global average since the mid-20th century. As frozen rivers people are used to driving over (called “ice roads”) are melting, some deaths and injuries are resulting. Since permafrost and sea ice are declining, coastal villages are prone to floods and severe erosion.
California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona:
In California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevada that get snow today may see rain only by 2050, though snow may still fall in high elevation areas. Large snowpacks in the western U.S. declined from 1955-2016. Since snow melt from the mountains in spring feeds the Colorado, Sacramento and other rivers, this affects the supply of drinking water, electricity, and irrigation.
In the Northeast, winters are warming three times as fast as summers. Precipitation in winter often turns into rain, instead of snow. Winter sports may not be happening, except for the most northerly region, if climate change isn’t reduced by the end of thiscentury.
Washington, Oregon, Idaho:
In Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the decline of snowfall is ramping up the risk of wildfires. Monsoon-like downpours of rain called “atmospheric rivers” are expected more often in decades to come.