Protecting winter: Snowmaking has helped Steamboat Resort to combat climate change, but could it have unforeseen consequences?
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Amid local discussions on the effects of climate change, snow has emerged as one of the gravest concerns.
For generations of skiers and riders, Steamboat Resort’s claim to fame has been its fluffy Champagne Powder — so coveted that the name has been trademarked. Ensuring future generations get to enjoy similar winters has become a rallying cry for local climate activists like Steamboat Springs High School junior Emi Cooper, who has pressed for greater environmental action with depictions of a time in which her children or grandchildren would not have snow to ski on.
Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. convened a panel discussion last week on its snowmaking operation and, among other things, how it relates to the effects of climate change. The discussion featured the resort’s chief snowmaker, a water attorney, a climate expert with the Nature Conservancy and the city’s water resource manager. Almost every seat was full in the 125-person presentation hall of the Bud Werner Memorial Library, with some people standing in the back.
The panel discussed how, in many ways, snowmaking provides a buffer for the warming effects of climate change. It effectively has protected winter for thousands of ski resort communities. But some posed questions over how increases in manmade snow could have adverse, unexpected consequences.
Snowmaking is becoming an ever-vital component of a ski area’s operations, Sarah Jones, the resort’s new and only director of sustainability and community engagement, told the crowd at the introduction of the panel discussion. This is due primarily to decreased snowpack attributed to warming from climate change.
Snowpack across Colorado has been thinning since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with losses as much as 60% at some measurement sites. Scientists from Colorado State University and the University of New Hampshire project further reductions in snowpack by the end of the century, with losses as high as 30% in some areas.
Less snow means less money, not just for resorts, but for the communities in which they operate. Over the past 15 years, winters with low snow totals led to a decrease of 5.5 million skiers nationwide, according to a report from the Protect Our Winters nonprofit and REI, the outdoor company. That translated to economic losses of $1 billion and 17,400 jobs.
Snowmaking has come as a godsend to ski resorts, helping to make snow conditions more reliable and in turn stabilizing local economies.
More than 90% of ski resorts in North America now utilize snowmaking, Jones said. Some mountains on the East Coast produce snow during the entire winter season. Steamboat Resort only makes snow for two months, according to Jones.
Scientists expect temperatures to rise further as the effects of climate change worsen, increasing the reliance on snowmaking. A draft of the city’s recently updated water conservation plan includes a section that accounts for these changes, urging more conservative water management.
As the plan explains, statewide annual average temperatures have increased by 2 degrees over the past 30 years. Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder say average temperatures could rise by another 3.5 to 6.5 degrees by 2050.
“This will likely increase outdoor irrigation demand and depending on precipitation levels, could result in an increase in duration, frequency and intensity of droughts and an overall decline in water availability,” according to the water conservation plan.
With this in mind, water scarcity has emerged as a top concern, an issue that could detriment essential services, such as agriculture, as well as recreation.
Steamboat’s snowmaking guru
Corey Peterson has worked at the ski area for 16 years, first as a snowmaker, then as snowmaking manager, and now as the director of slope maintenance. Producing snow is his craft, and he gets plenty of opportunity to exercise it.
As he told the crowd last week, the ski area has an arsenal of 200 snowmaking guns and 40 miles of pipes to get water to those guns. During a normal winter, the snowmaking crew manufactures about 600 acre-feet of snow, the equivalent of 195.6 million gallons of water.
All of that water, Peterson said, comes from the Yampa River. Most of the water, about 80%, returns to the river when the snow melts in the spring and summer. The rest is lost to evaporation, he explained, about the same amount that a reservoir loses to the same process.
According to Peterson, his job benefits not only the resort’s operations, it also preserves the local watershed. He described all that manmade snow as an efficient storage of water, an artificial way to create an on-mountain reservoir.
Dr. Nathan Stewart, head of the sustainability studies program at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, conducted research last year with a group of students and the U.S. Forest Service. Using Burgess Creek as their study area, they explored how artificial snow impacts ecology.
Stewart acknowledged this study was limited in scope, comprising a small portion of the tens of thousands of acres of Routt National Forest. Nevertheless, his work supported some of the environmental benefits Peterson described.
For example, Stewart explained how artificial snow keeps moisture on the mountain longer. White snow helps to reflect sunlight and drives down temperatures — a phenomenon called albedo. Keeping that reflective blanket on the mountain for larger portions of the year could mitigate some of the projected temperature increases.
“There may be some inherent value in having this durable surface sit up there,” Stewart said.
Cause for concern
But gaps in the literature raise questions for Stewart about the effects of manmade snow on mountain ecology. Artificial snow has slight differences from its natural equivalent. Not only does it take longer to melt, it contains higher concentrations of minerals and nutrients, according to researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. While this can be a boon for some plant species, others thrive in less-rich soil.
“One consequence of the different composition is an alteration of the natural ground covering, as plants with higher nutritional requirements suddenly begin to dominate,” the researchers told the German news site Spiegel International.
Stewart also questioned the effect a later spring and summer runoff could have on plant and fish species in the upper watershed. Again, the literature is not clear on these impacts.
“There are still more unknowns than knowns,” Stewart said.
Of course, effects of climate change already are changing mountain ecologies, arguably to a much larger extent than artificial snow.
As Tim Sullivan, the climate change program manager for the Nature Conservancy, explained during the panel, as snowpack leaves the mountains sooner, flowers germinate earlier. That has taken a toll on migratory pollinators like birds and butterflies that now arrive too late to feed on the plants.
“We are beginning to see stressors and a potential decline in population for those species,” Sullivan said.
The flowers, in turn, rely on the pollinators to spread seeds and promote new growth. Both have been negatively impacted by rapid changes in seasonal variability, Sullivan said.
The need to protect winter, an unconceivable worry a century ago, has become a top priority for many Steamboat residents and government leaders. The popularity of the panel discussion exemplifies how much the community cares about climate issues and want to find solutions.
Both the city of Steamboat Springs and the broader Routt County have committed to a joint climate action plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable community. Gov. Jared Polis has set a statewide goal of reducing emissions by 90% in the next 30 years.
One person at the panel discussion brought up the fact that it takes energy from fossil fuels to power the ski area’s snowmaking operations.
When asked if the resort has plans to integrate more renewables into its energy portfolio, Jones said it is “looking forward to renewable energy options.”
Of chief concern for snowmaking is the availability of water in the coming decades. The city’s water resource manager, Kelly Romero-Heaney, pointed to the water conservation plan as a major way to ensure residents, from farmers to snowmakers, have enough water to meet demand. She encouraged the public to weigh in on the plan, which is still in draft form, through an online survey. It can be found at engagesteamboat.net/savewater.
No matter how much research goes into the effects of climate change, the success of any solutions will require commitment and caring from the broader community to preserve the landscapes that make Steamboat a treasured mountain city.
At one point during the panel, Peterson took a break from the technical talk, describing in poetic detail his love not just for the job but the mountain that makes his job possible.
“There’s nothing thing like being up there on a cold, clear night,” he told the crowd. “You feel like you have the whole mountain to yourself. You can see every star in the sky.”
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At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Yampa River’s temperature was 72 degrees at a spot in the Chuck Lewis Wildlife Area south of Steamboat. That’s about 15 degrees higher than the typical average.