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How Montana ski areas are adapting to the climate crisis

How Montana ski areas are adapting to the climate crisis

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Wet, slushy snow is falling on a spring morning in Bozeman, and Cathy Whitlock, looking out her window, can see a part of Montana’s climate future — one where snowpack vital to the state’s water resources and economy becomes scarce.

The morning’s mix of snow and rain, Whitlock said, is an increasingly common type of precipitation that accumulates less as snowpack, leaving Montana without the natural frozen storage it needs to hold water in its mountains before melting and replenishing rivers, lakes and reservoirs in summer.

Whitlock, a climate scientist at Montana State University, is discussing the results of the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment (GYCA), a June 2021 report she authored with a coalition of scientists studying how climate change will affect the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) of the northern Rocky Mountains.

By the middle of the century, the report predicts, increasing temperatures in the region will decrease the amount of precipitation falling as snow and shrink the snowpack to a fraction of what it once was. Scientists have already documented a significant rise in temperature and decline in snowfall between 1950 and 2018, leading to a notable loss in snowpack.

Snowpack is also the foundation of a winter recreation industry that’s important to Montana’s economy, responsible for 5,093 jobs and $303 million in income in 2016, according to a report by the University of New Hampshire.

Sunrise

Bridger Bowl ski patrollers walk the ridgeline of the hill during an early morning avalanche patrol.

“When people think about Montana, they often think about the opportunities in the winter to ski and backcountry ski and snowmobile and so on,” Whitlock said. “So we’re just trying to relate to that audience.”

And ski areas have entered the conversation.

In the face of decreasing snowpack, ski areas in the Greater Yellowstone Area are taking steps to protect their most valuable asset and exploring options to adapt to a warmer future.

“We have the opportunity for our children and our grandchildren to be able to enjoy skiing, just as we’re doing now and as our parents introduced us to, if we take bold action on climate change,” said Bonnie Hickey, director of sustainability at Bridger Bowl near Bozeman.

Global warming effects

Increasing temperatures have already caused a decline in the amount of snow reaching the slopes each year, though the degree to which that trend continues is up to humans, Whitlock said.

“This isn’t a crime story. It’s not like we don’t know who did it,” Whitlock said. “We know what’s happening. We just need to solve it.”

Since 1950, snowfall in the GYA, where Big Sky and Bridger Bowl ski resorts are located, has decreased by 25%, translating to 23 fewer inches of snow falling annually, according to the GYCA. Average temperature in the region has risen by 2.3 degrees since 1950, the report also found.

Warmer temperatures cause more winter precipitation to fall as rain or a mix of rain and snow and lead to earlier runoff each spring. January snowfall has decreased by an average of 7.5 inches, the report concluded, and peak levels of spring runoff (a measure of when snowmelt is happening) in the GYA are arriving eight days earlier on average, compared with 1950.

Even under a scenario with a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, most of the precipitation in the GYA will be rain or a mix of rain and snow by 2100, and peak snowmelt is expected two to three weeks earlier, according to the report.

“The shoulder seasons for the ski industry are just going to be less reliable, less predictable,” Whitlock said. “And the quality of the snow is definitely going to change.”

Areas of Montana at lower elevations are most vulnerable to decreasing snowpack, Whitlock said, because temperatures increase with decreasing altitude. Under the same warming scenario, skiers should expect to see snow above 9,000 feet and most precipitation falling as rain below 9,000 feet by the end of the century, according to the report.

That leaves most ski areas in Montana with a predicament.

The summits of Bridger Bowl and Big Sky are located at 8,800 feet and 11,166 feet, respectively. Twelve of the 15 ski areas in Montana have a maximum elevation lower than 9,000 feet.

Sustainability critical to business plan

Faced with threats to the quantity and quality of their most critical operating resource, ski areas have taken steps to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and create revenue sources less dependent on snow.

In the GYA, Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Resort are aiming to increase energy efficiency while encouraging guests to get involved with sustainability.

Bridger Bowl covers 3% of its yearly energy consumption with power from a 50-kilowatt solar panel array, the maximum size allowed by state law, which is enough to run its ski patrol and Eagle Mount buildings and its beginner lifts and warming hut, Hickey said. The mountain periodically purchases new snow guns that are more energy efficient and repairs leaking water pipes to save snowmaking energy, Hickey said. It also upgraded all its light fixtures to use LED bulbs last season.

Bridger Bowl

Bridger Bowl covers 3% of its yearly energy consumption with power from a 50-kilowatt solar panel array, the maximum size it’s allowed by state law.

The lighting fixture project saves about 12 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to an annual report from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), and during the 2019-20 season a free bus service to the mountain saved an amount of greenhouse gas emissions equal to 31.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide. A composting program established in the 2019-20 season saved 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

During the 2020-21 season, Bridger Bowl emitted 1,198 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a decrease from 1,621 during the 2018-19 season, according to the annual reports.

To offset its emissions, the ski area last summer paid Native, a public benefit corporation based in Vermont, for a Montana regenerative grazing project that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The program pays ranchers to rotate their cattle through small pastures to reduce grazing pressure on concentrated areas of soil, increasing the health of the soil and its ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Big Sky Resort is working on similar projects, including composting, using energy efficient lights and appliances, and upgrading its snowmaking systems. The resort is using more low-energy snow guns and software that help minimize the amount of water needed for each acre of terrain, according to Stacie Mesuda, Big Sky’s public relations manager.

Big Sky also purchases renewable energy certificates (REC) from a company called CMS Enterprises equal to its electricity consumption. Though the resort’s energy utility, NorthWestern Energy, produces some renewable energy, Big Sky purchased RECs for all of its electricity usage due to uncertainty about how much was provided directly from those sources, according to Amy Trad, Big Sky’s sustainability specialist. For each REC purchased by Big Sky, one megawatt-hour of electricity from a clean energy source is produced for the electrical grid. The certificates fund wind energy production in Texas.

Big Sky produced 8,352 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent during the 2020-21 season, down from 15,704 during the 2019-20 season, according to the NSAA reports.

The resort also encourages its guests to offset their carbon emissions and provides a calculator that allows them to estimate their trip’s carbon footprint and purchase offsets through a company called Tradewater. According to the NSAA report, 65 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were offset by Big Sky guests during the 2020-21 season.

“Advocacy on the local level helps activate the public sentiment that would presumably, either with voters or consumers, influence government and big business,” said Taylor Middleton, the president of Big Sky Resort.

Both mountains are members of the NSAA Sustainable Slopes Challenge and Climate Challenge, which provide resources for tracking carbon emissions and commit ski areas to reduce waste and energy use and increase climate education.

A skier and snowboarder

A skier and snowboarder exit the new Powder Park chairlift at Bridger Bowl.

“There’s been a critical push from Montana ski areas to advocate for climate action and policies that support a stable environment for winter sports,” said Adrienne Isaac, communications director for NSAA. She said it’s important that resorts have joined advocacy calls with elected officials, for example, and publicized sustainability projects on the mountain for visitors and potential voters.

“They’re raising that business voice,” Isaac said. “That’s so critical to getting equitable and broadscale climate action, because that’s what it’s going to take to really make a difference.”

Northwest of the GYA, the ski area and tourism department in Whitefish in April announced a partnership with Protect Our Winters that focuses on raising awareness about solutions to the climate crisis and informing people about options for individual action. It will include educational videos asking visitors to donate to projects such as a solar array at the town’s wastewater treatment plant or Whitefish Mountain Resort’s conservation of whitebark pine.

“Not everyone can be a saint when it comes to being sustainable and not driving or things like that, but they can do something,” said Chad Sokol, the resort’s public relations manager. “So, it really is kind of a practical approach, a great way of looking at the climate change problem.”

Without reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, however, the declining snowpack trend won’t change. Part of the conversation about the future of skiing in the area is focused on what tools can be used to mitigate the shrinking ski season — and how to “activate summertime,” as Middleton at Big Sky Resort put it.

“We can operate a lot more efficiently if we could get a return on our investment over 12 months of the year rather than just the six months of winter,” he said.

Snowmaking helps mountains extend the ski season by filling gaps in early snowfall and supplementing the amount of snow available on skiable terrain, but it’s an expensive and complex tool because of the equipment and piping needed to move water around the mountain. Both Middleton and Isaac described it as an “insurance policy” against a period of bad snow, not a substitute for it.

“As the season progresses, snowmaking generally becomes irrelevant,” Middleton said.

About 170 acres of terrain at Big Sky are covered by snowmaking, 3% of the mountain’s total acreage, according to Trad. Snowmaking is focused on beginner and intermediate runs at low elevations, while the resort relies on natural snow to reach higher-altitude, advanced terrain.

Complicating snowmaking is its reliance on water and vulnerability to warming temperatures. The process, according to Isaac, is most efficient at or below 28 degrees.

“With the best technology now, you can only make snow up to a certain temperature,” said Hickey at Bridger Bowl.

Big Sky plans to propose using recycled wastewater for snowmaking, which Middleton said would happen within the next five years. The exclusive, members-only Yellowstone Club, near Big Sky, last summer became the first Montana resort approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to make snow using recycled wastewater.

Machine-made snow is not a “silver bullet” because of temperature constraints and the need for water, Isaac said.

Summer services, like activities such as mountain biking, golfing and ziplining, already add revenue opportunities between seasons for many resorts, but not to the level of skiing and snowboarding.

If Big Sky, which has summer activities and hosts events such as weddings and concerts, could get to a point where business is just as high during the summer as winter, Middleton said, “that’s nirvana.” He estimated summer business at the mountain currently accounts for 30% of its revenue.

Bridger Bowl is near many mountain biking trails, so it’s uncertain whether that activity would be a viable operation for the mountain, Hickey said, “but anything would be an option when we enter those discussions.” The mountain was forced to delay opening this year due to low snowfall.

“We’ll adapt and be forward-thinking,” Hickey said. “As we tackle any element of planning, we’ll be looking at impacts 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the road and making choices that help us move in the right direction to remain viable.”

Sokol described skiing and snowboarding as the “bread and butter” of Whitefish Mountain. So far, he added, the ski area hasn’t seen significant changes in the number of operating days to its season.

At Showdown Mountain Resort, which already hosts weddings and conferences, a new mountain biking trail will be operational by next summer, said Katie Boedecker, owner of the resort in central Montana. But changes to shoulder-season operations have “nothing to do with climate change,” she said.

“It’s a buffer against the bad season, which can happen, but the primary reason is to keep good people working year round,” Boedecker said.

Ski areas’ experience of being at the mercy of nature may be a key tool for handling declining snowpack.

“Our industry has always dealt with the major factor in our business success being something that we can’t control, which is the snow,” said NSAA’s Isaac. “As a result, we’re really flexible and adaptable, but there’s going to be a limit to what we can do.”

Whitlock, who spoke with Big Sky and Bridger Bowl after the release of the climate assessment, said both ski areas appreciated the information in the report and its focus on Montana.

She added that “they get it” and are taking action one ski season at a time. But emission reductions, she said, aren’t happening fast enough.

“I don’t think anyone’s approaching the issue with enough urgency,” Whitlock said. “I don’t think people realize how imminent the threat is and the need to take action.”

Big Sky Resort

Big Sky Resort is shown in this file photo. 

This story is printed with the permission of the Montana Free Press. The original story can be accessed here.

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