Analysis of Predicted Climate Change Impacts on U.S. Winter Tourism Sector


             Global climate change provides many implications for the future of our planet. However, with an expected nation wide increase of 4°-10°F, a decline of 25-100% of the western snowpack and a decrease of up to 50% of Northeastern snow seasons by the end of the century, a looming problem exists for winter tourism. Because winter tourism is largely resource dependent, the loss of snow has been shown to result in the decline of visiting tourists and recreationalist, which is followed by an economic decline. With upwards of $12.2 billion added to the U.S. economy annually and roughly 211,900 employees, winter tourism contributes to the economic security of our nation. Yet without a greater understanding of how our economies may react to climate change under varying emission scenarios we must first understand how climate related changes will impact the winter tourism sector of the U.S. Thusly, this study examines the global and regional impacts of climate change on both ski industries and local ecosystems. Anthropogenic forces have been found to be the greatest contributor to climate change in the past century and thusly realistic adaptive strategies for winter tourism firms are also discussed. The projected loss of snow will result in the loss of our winter tourism sector. We must therefore work preserve our winters through the mediation of climate change.


            Increased research outlining the influence of global climate change on the longevity of our winter months has yielded a widely acknowledged paradigm amongst economists, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts. That is, as increases in global temperature continue to rise, precipitation events will yield less snow, declining our snowpack and shortening our winter months (Betts, 2011).  In a state that relies heavily on the contribution of winter tourism to the health of its economy, snow is currency and global climate change is a looming recession bubble. Within the United States alone the winter tourism industry is predicted to contribute $12.2 billion in economic value and employ over 211,900 workers (Burkowski & Magnusson, 2012). Thusly, the interruption of our naturally occurring hydrogeological cycles will inevitably impact the health of our mountain town economies, our lifestyles and more importantly our environments. As warming trends continue into the future, it is imperative to assess the total impact of climate change on the ski industry and understand how those changes will radiate not just across the United States but also throughout the world. Primary implications of global climate change on the ski industry in the United States are discussed here along with an analysis of expected climactic changes for our winter months.

            To truly recognize the potential hazards that may follow an event as extreme as the loss of our winters, one must first understand the causes behind such a situation. When considering changes in seasonal predictability, it is imperative to understand the effects of climate change. Climate change refers to a deviation in the mean properties of a climate that persists for several decades or longer (Hegerl et al., 2007). To that end, it is well documented that our planet is experiencing severe climate change as global land and ocean temperatures have increased 1.53°F from 1880 to 2012 (IPCC, 2014). Also, climate change may be attributed to external forces or internal forces. External forces would include naturally occurring events that contribute to the climate like changes in solar radiation or volcanic activity while internal forces may be attributed to anthropogenic activity (Hegerl et al., 2007). While naturally occurring external factors should be considered in the collective understanding of climate change theory, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in their fifth assessment that external factors are likely to contribute only -0.1°C to 0.1°C of climate variability (2014). The IPCC goes on to elaborate with 95% confidence, that more than one half of the observed increases in global temperature from 1951 to 2010 were caused by greenhouse gases that possesses anthropogenic origin (IPCC, 2014).

            The IPCC does not conduct independent research but rather compiles current research and draws accurate summaries to reflect the body of climate change science. Therefore, we may conclude that the consensus within the scientific community on the major cause of climate change is anthropogenic activities. Of those activities, the major contributors of direct carbon dioxide emissions include, electricity and heat production (25%), agriculture, forestry and other land use (24%) and industry (21%) (IPCC, 2014). Increases in greenhouse gas emissions have been widely discussed as the primary cause for climate change and its effects are now being seen through out the entire world (Delsole et al., 2014). With more greenhouse gases in the environment less heat is escaping into space and more is returning to the earth. This results in many drastic changes such as the warming of our oceans, the melting of glacier and artic sea ice, increased seasonal variability, and a trend that shows our winters are warming more quickly than our summers (Hitz & Smith, 2004). Human induced warming of the climate system is widespread and building scientific evidence is predicting with high likelihood the potential devastating results. With surface temperatures increasing and the resulting decline of our winter months, anthropogenic forcing and its effect on the winter tourism must be highly assessed and immediately mediated.

Regional Trends:

             In Alan Betts paper Climate Change in Vermont (2011), he discusses data observed in Vermont and the greater New England area over the past fifty years and considers the regional impact of climate change. Betts highlights the annual average temperature in the Northeast as having risen by 2°F since 1970, with the average winter temperature increasing by twice as much. Climate trends over this time have displayed a higher frequency of days above 90°F, less precipitation falling as snow and more as rain (with the resulting decline in our snowpack), and earlier occurring spring melts. In fact, these trends show that the growing season for frost sensitive plants has actually increased by 2 weeks over the past forty years (Betts, 2011). The observed changes in Vermont and New England’s climate are consistent with global trends and lead Betts (2011) to predict that Vermont will not only be experiencing a progressively later arrival of winter over the coming decades, but also a shortened ski season with less snow as well as more freezing rain and melt cycles.

            New England is not alone in falling victim to these climate changes. In a recent interview with NPR host Scott Simon, Audon Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Company, pointed out that climatologists have predicted shorter winters with progressively less snowfall and increased storm strength such as larger blizzards or precipitation events (2013). In Vermont alone annual precipitation rates have increased by 15-20% over the last fifty years with a noted 67% increase in total precipitation during very heavy downpours (Betts, 2011). Increases in storm strength have been discussed as a side effect of a warmer planet, especially in the consideration of Hurricane Katrina, super storm Sandy and Vermont’s Hurricane Irene (Hitz & Smith, 2004). However in reflection of North American snowfall, Anne Nolin, professor of geosciences and hydroclimatology at Oregon State University pointed out a 1.5-2% decline in spring snowfall across the United States over the past few decades (Ferner, 2013).

            This trend holds devastating effects for not only the ski industry who depend on the replenishment of snow for their ski trails but to all living organisms within the ecosystem as a whole. Deems et al (2013) assessed variations in the flow of the Colorado River which provides water to 40 million people in two countries and noted a significant decline runoff from the basin. Climate models from their study projected 5-20% runoff losses from the basin by the mid-21st century due to anthropogenic warming (Deems et al., 2013). Research conducted by Deems et al (2013) attributed increased dust loading to the decline of snow albedo, resulting in peak snowmelt occurring an average of 3 weeks earlier than in the mid 1800s.

            This shifting snowpack in western mountains alters the timing of flow regimes in western rivers and streams after spring snow melt. This in turn may have numerous effects on fish who are highly sensitive to changes in peak river flow and the force of spring melt discharges. Reproductive success will be impeded for those species that rely on the specific timing of the spring snow melt to coincide with migratory and reproductive behavior (Williams, 2006). Earlier peak flow can also scour vulnerable stream ecosystems, altering nesting sites or causing insect hatches to occur sooner than the arrival of juvenile fish that depend on them as a food source (Harper & Peckarsky, 2006). Environmental temperatures also play a fundamental role in the distribution of not only various fish species but also all biological organisms. With regions becoming both warmer and drier, thermal and dissolved oxygen conditions of rivers and streams may prove to stressful for many fish species. Habitat that meet the requirements of cold water fish species is projected to decline by 50% across the United States by the end of the century (Jones, 2013). These habitat changes may be accompanied by other ecosystem stressors such as an increased prevalence of wildfires, invasive species, water pollution and vulnerability to disease. Water withdrawals due to earlier spring snow melt or a decline in total spring run off clearly spell destruction for all members of the ecosystem not just humans.


             Information provided by the Vermont tourism data center (1999) indicates that Vermont possesses 18 ski areas, employing over 13, 000 people and contributing over $43 million in taxes. Estimations of value added to the states economy was also predicted by Burkowski & Magnusson (2012), who projected total winter tourism during the 2009/2010 winter season to contribute an amazing $771 million to the states economy. We may predict then, that in a small state like Vermont which receives a large economic stimulus from their winter tourism, the decline of winter snowpack would also result in the decline of the local economy. In fact Vermont is especially vulnerable to this phenomenon. Because tourism is such a major component of Vermont’s economy, the loss of visiting tourists would be promptly followed by economic decline. In a comparison of average annual skier visits on low vs. high snowfall years, it was discovered that Vermont had 9.5% fewer skier visits in low snowfall years (Burkowski & Magnusson, 2012). This was consistent with the entire Eastern region of the U.S. where the resulting value added to the state economy ranged from $51 to $40 million in losses on low snowfall years (Burkowski & Magnusson, 2012).

            Shorter winter seasons are, as Schendler points out, extremely strenuous on a ski industry that may run in deficit for most of the year and make it’s major earnings in the later months of the winter. In his NPR interview, Schendler used the example of Mammoth Ski Resort, which in 2011 had to lay off one third of its employees due to poor seasonal snowfall and drastically low sales. This, Schendler states, has a massive effect on the surrounding economy and the well being of the business’s that thrive on the tourist sector of ski regions. In particular, Vermont could suffer the loss of 737 jobs and $60.8 million in potential ski resort revenue on low snowfall years (Burkowski & Magnusson, 2012).

            At the current rate of declining snowpack and increasing temperatures, it is projected that more than one half of ski resorts in the Northeast will not be able to maintain the standard 100-day long ski season by 2039 (Ferner, 2013). This catastrophe could reach it’s climax in 2100 when it is estimated that only 4 out of 14 major Northeast ski resorts will remain profitable enough to remain open (Ferner, 2013). Nation wide US ski resorts employ over 211,000 people and generate $12.2 billion in annual revenue (Ferner, 2013). With an estimated increase of 4-10°F by the end of the century, ski areas are beginning to see the writing on the headwall (Christenson et al., 2007).

Adaptive strategies:

            With increased recognition of the implications of climate change on the environment and our economies, states and businesses must work together to combat extreme weather changes. This is truly a national crisis as 38 states have value added to their economies from downhill skiing or snowmobiling (Burkowski & Magnusson, 2012). Furthermore, winter temperatures are projected to continue rising through at least the end of the century while snow depth is expected to decline 25-100% in the western U.S. and the length of the snow season in the Northeastern U.S. may shorten by as much as 50% (Frumhoff et al., 2007; Peacock et al., 2012). In order for local economies to combat this pitfall, certain adaptive strategies must be adopted. However to reduce this form of vulnerability, strategists must weigh the overall effects of reactive plans which may lead to more negative effects than positive. Adaption strategies must therefore not exacerbate the global procession of climate change in order to be effective in the long run. 

            Several adaptive strategies are currently being utilized or are soon to be at many ski resorts, however the form of them often varies. Because the ski industry is dependent on snow as a resource for the act of skiing, a ski industry may combat snow loss by simply harvesting their own through snow guns and cloud seeding. Yet while this provides the desired socioeconomic result, it does not approach the greater biophysical problem. Other firms may address this problem via self-regulation programs or carbon friendly business models in order to decline greenhouse gas emissions (Lash & Wellington, 2007). Such a program is currently sponsored by the National Ski Areas Association and called the Climate Challenge. This voluntary program assists ski resorts in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating energy usage, educating the public and supporting sustainable development (NSAA, 2014). While ski resorts may be able to compensate for some economic loss, due to poor winter conditions and low skier visits, through means of summer programs like mountain bike trails, it is fundamentally flawed logic to expect actions such as these to preserve our winters in the future.


            The loss of the snow on Vermont’s ski resorts is minor in comparison to the global implications that climate change may include. We’ve already begun to note a rapid increase in raging wildfires, the advance of harmful invasive species that destroy our natural ecosystems, the acidification of our oceans, the melting of the glaciers and Arctic sea ice and the alteration of biogeochemical cycles lending to creation of more destructive storms. It has been noted that we are entering the Anthropocene, a time where the cumulative impact of human beings is so great that the permanence of them will be seen in geologic history for eternity. Many have suggested that if the greater percentage of the earths warming is due to greenhouse gases of anthropogenic origin, then it is time for a fossil fuel resistance. The future of not only our ski resorts resides in the continued activism and outreach of educated groups of people who are willing to approach real solutions.

            In order to safeguard our winters and equally the lifestyles of thousands and a particularly vulnerable winter sports industry, we must commit to change. Clean energy and climate policy must be supported in order to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and slow the warming of our winter climates. We must also protect and enforce the laws that we currently have such as the Clean Air Act, which gives the responsibility of regulating industry related carbon emissions to the EPA. If we hope to preserve our winters for future generations, we must call on our political leaders for sustainable changes that will ensure the success of not only reducing the effects of climate change, but also preserving a global past time. Winter tourism not only provides economic prosperity to mountain towns across the U.S., but it also unites people with their environments, empowers communities and provides endless amounts of enjoyment. We must therefore act now and protect our winters.

Taylor Luneau

Works Cited

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