By Leah Thayer CRESTED BUTTE, COLORADO
Imagine the wind blowing against your cheeks, silky white snow crystals flowing underneath your skis as you fly down the mountain. When you reach the bottom, adrenaline still pulses through your body. At the base of the mountain, you hear classic rock music, you smell the burgers and beers being enjoyed by fellow skiers, and you watch as old-timers dance around the cobblestone “stage” (the street).
Sounds like a pretty picture, doesn’t it? But, it’s ending. This long cherished magical culture and lifestyle of a small ski town is fundamentally changing. It could soon be a mere image of the past, thanks to climate change.
Climate warming is a very serious issue for ski culture, and it is one that scientists warn will continue to worsen if serious action is not taken.
“Now the snow is accumulating in different ways and water content isn’t as easy to predict,” says Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) executive director Ian Billick.
The ski community of Crested Butte, Colorado (population: 1,643), just three miles from RMBL, is seeing climate change impacting the local lifestyle. Historically, Crested Butte had more than 100 days a year where temperatures dropped below freezing. But in recent years, temperatures dropped below freezing only five to ten days, says Billick.
David Inouye, principal investigator at RMBL, researches how populations of plants and wildlife are being affected by climate change. Inouye has been at the forefront of pivotal research on wildflower blooms, a key tourism driver for the local area, second to skiing. He says the significant changes in timing and frequency of these blooms is due to unpredictable snowpack, caused by climate change. “It’s not a good sign for pollinators in the future,” says Inouye.
Climate change is playing out in Crested Butte in many ways. The risks to the infamous wildflower blooms, as well as changes in snow precipitation, represent major stresses to the tourist economy.
“Now all of a sudden, summer is profitable,” says John Norton, director of the Crested Butte- Gunnison Tourism Association, long term resident of Crested Butte, and former chief executive officer of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
With drops foreseen in winter tourism, communities like Crested Butte are devoting more time and money to summer programs such as the building and maintaining of mountain bike trails, ziplines, and alpine coasters. Auden Schendler, vice president of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, calls this phenomenon the “disney-fication of the outdoors.” If this continues, skiing could quite easily disappear as the primary economic driver for these communities, and eventually die out entirely.
The entire experience of a ski area is being altered. Instead of hearing the loud pounding of ski boots and the click-clack of skis, the new resounding sound is an intense hissing of snow guns.
Ski industries nationwide are now forced to spend millions of dollars making artificial snow. The external costs of such an endeavor, energy and water, are another cause for stress on the industry and the planet. Schendler and Aspen Ski Co. are mitigating this impact by sourcing the resort’s energy responsibly. The company has invested $5.5 million in a power plant that captures methane from coal mining, which destroys the ski area’s carbon emissions triple-fold, according to the 2019 Aspen Skiing Company Sustainability Report.
Amidst growing climate uncertainty, some people are nostalgic for the past. “I haven’t seen 50 below since I got here, now we’re skiing in t-shirts practically,” says Sue Navy, four-decade long resident of Crested Butte and board president for the nonprofit High Country Conservation Advocates.
So, how are classic rock-jamming, champagne-slinging ski bums going to save the world? They’re not, at least not alone.
“We don’t have time for individual change,” says Schendler, urging focused climate efforts on greater political and social change. The overall outlook on this issue is largely optimistic, but most people can also agree on the fact that dramatic action is required in order to bring about change, and to save the treasured lifestyle of the skier.