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USU researchers explore impact of climate change on Utah’s ski resorts

A photo taken on a ski lift at Park City ski resort.
Patrick Belmont
Utah State University study concludes Utah will warm dramatically and ski resorts face shorter seasons due to climate change. Park City ski resort in Utah, taken during the first week of April, 2021.

Snowy mountains are the winter backbone of Utah and the lifeblood coursing through the state’s ski resorts. Yet, the reality of climate change means there’s a chilling prospect of less snow in the future.

Researchers at Utah State University have released a new paper that delves into what lies ahead. It concludes Utah will likely warm dramatically. It’s called “Climate Change and Utah Ski Resorts: Impacts, Perceptions, and Adaptation Strategies,” and it was recently published in the journal Mountain Research and Development.

Emily Wilkins is lead author, and she sat down with KUER’s Pamela McCall to talk about their findings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Pamela McCall: In the study you talk about some of the concerns resort managers are grappling with — including the potential for shorter seasons. 

Emily Wilkins: A lot of people really enjoy skiing over the holidays such as Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year's. If the opening dates of the season have to be pushed back and those holidays are no longer covered, that's a big concern.

PM: How likely is that to happen? 

EW: We've already likely seen a shift in opening dates, but in the future it's going to get even more dramatic. And it's not going to be the same every single season. There's definitely going to be some more variability in the amount of precipitation we get each season. Some seasons might [have] high snow and there's no problem opening at the regular opening dates. But some seasons might have more variability and might not have as much early season snow.

PM: In your conclusion, you state that Utah will likely warm dramatically. What's the timeline that we're looking at? 

EW: So we projected out to 2100, and we also looked at historical data from 1980 — and from 1980 to present, we've already seen warming at all of these resorts. Climate change is already happening at these resorts. The Utah resorts are warming faster than global trends, which makes sense since higher elevation locations usually are warming faster around the globe than lower elevation locations. And then when we project out to 2100, the trends are going to continue. We're going to continue to see warming.

PM: What about Utah's famous dry powder? What's going to happen to that? 

EW: We did actually look at the snow quality. Of course, Utah is known for its really great dry powder. Having a less dense snow is really important. And from what we saw, it looks like in the last 20 years or so, there's been a slight increase in the snow density. We only have 20 years of data for this, so I wouldn't say the results are conclusive and we'll need to look more and more into the future how that's going to change. But of course, as climate change warms the Earth, the air can hold more moisture. And so that's why we see this possibility of denser snow events.

PM: Your study states that resorts will likely have to rely on snowmaking in order to adapt to climate change. What are some of the variables that resorts face right now and will increasingly face when it comes to making snow? 

EW: You can't make snow at any temperature. You still need a certain temperature to be able to make snow. About 23 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for snowmaking or colder. Snow can be made at 28 degrees Fahrenheit or colder if the conditions are really dry, which a lot of Utah is. But you still need these temperatures that are under 32 degrees and you need it usually for at least a couple of hours to fire up all the snow guns and actually be able to make the snow. And what we've already seen since 1980 to present is that the proportion of the ski season, so the number of days where snowmaking is possible is declining. Which again makes sense: as temperatures are warming, there's going to be fewer and fewer days that meet the threshold that's needed for snowmaking. There are also other concerns with water availability. That might be an issue in the future that a lot of water's needed to make snow.

PM: What is the timeline for the drastic changes that we're talking about? I mean, everybody wants to know about our precious ski season. How long do we have to actually either make change or just get out there and consume as much of it as we can while it's still here? 

EW: That's a great question. We've already seen changes. I don't think there's one timeline where it's going to be like "By 2100, all the resorts are closed." I don't think there's going to be anything like that. I think there's just these slow incremental changes we've seen over the years and we're going to continue to see in the future — again with maybe like a shortening ski season. So it becomes later and later when resorts are actually opening or they're closing sooner or closing certain runs that require a lot of snow or are south facing. So I think it's going to be incremental changes. I don't think skiing is going to go away ever. But there might be some seasons where maybe the skiing is great in Utah, but it's not great in other locations. There might be less options for skiers in the future. Being ready to bust out your mountain bike if the conditions aren't quite what you wanted for skiing and there's not enough snow on the ground and just being more flexible and adaptable, I think is going to be important.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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