ASPEN — Colorado’s $2 billion ski industry could be dead by 2050 unless radical steps are taken to address global warming and save the state’s prized champagne powder.
This is not a line from the latest Hollywood disaster flick about the impending climate apocalypse. And it’s not the Chicken Little ravings of some kook on late-night talk radio.
This gloomy pronouncement comes from an executive at the Aspen Skiing Co., operators of a four-mountain ski mecca in one of the world’s best-known and poshest destination resorts.
“Things look bleak,” said Auden Schendler, the company’s director of environmental affairs.
The most likely scenario for Colorado’s 25 ski resorts, unless global emissions of heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases are reined in: “Gone in 2050 ... maybe — good case scenario — gone by 2100,” he said.
Schendler’s pessimism is based on numerous climate-change studies that predict declining mountain snowpacks in coming decades as the West warms.
“Most analyses project a decline, if not total demise, of downhill skiing by the mid or latter part of the 21st century,” proclaims the federally funded Rocky Mountain/Great Basin Regional Climate-Change Assessment, a 240-page study produced by more than 125 researchers.
But uncertainty about the amount of warming, the reliability of computerized climate models used in such studies — and especially about how precipitation patterns will change in the Colorado Rockies — leaves plenty of room for speculation.
In the Colorado ski industry, opinions about the likely impacts of climate change run the gamut, and some observers reject Schendler’s views as overly negative and unjustified.
Even so, few in the industry dismiss the climate-change issue completely.
“Climate change is a potential risk in our industry. It’s on all our radar screens,” said Bill Jensen, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Vail Resorts.
“But I’m not as pessimistic as Auden,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to adapt.”
Jensen envisions scenarios in which Colorado ski resorts could benefit from a few degrees of warming.
Schendler’s boss at Aspen, President and Chief Executive Officer Patrick O’Donnell, called climate change “the most pressing issue facing the ski industry today.”
But O’Donnell said he remains optimistic that global greenhouse emissions will be curtailed and the warming problem controlled.
And Aspen Skiing Co. is moving ahead with plans for a $400 million revamping of the Base Village at Snowmass, which suggests the resort’s owners remain upbeat about the future of Colorado skiing.
Scientists acknowledge the limits of the computer models used to project future climate at the regional level. But despite the unknowns, certain changes seem unavoidable if warming continues, they say.
In the Rocky Mountain/Great Basin Regional Climate-Change Assessment, scientists concluded that some outdoor recreational activities, such as fishing and golf, could benefit because warmer temperatures would extend the summer season and make winters milder.
But downhill skiing would likely suffer, according to the study, released with little fanfare in February two years ago and published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Likely major effects on the Colorado ski industry would include a shorter ski season and increased reliance on artificial snowmaking. The season would be squeezed at both ends, fall and spring, and attempts to make up for a natural-snow deficit with man-made snow could backfire due to warmer temperatures.
The two computerized climate models used in the regional assessment, known informally as the Hadley and Canadian models, project a 4.5- to 14.4-degree warming in the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin by 2100.
But most of the latest models suggest the West will warm between 3.6 and 10.8 degrees by 2100 as levels of heat-trapping gases continue to rise, according to Daniel Cayan, director of the climate research division at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
Even 4 degrees of warming in the Colorado mountains could have a “huge impact” on the ski industry, said Aspen’s O’Donnell.
The company attracts 1.3 million visitors each winter to its four mountains: Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.