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UNH report sees climate change as a threat to state ski industry

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 07. 2012 12:44AM

Proponents of tougher regulation on carbon emissions think they have a potential ally in the multibillion-dollar winter sports industry, and on Thursday they took a step toward mobilizing that support with the release of a University of New Hampshire study claiming that "New Hampshire's winter tourism industry is headed downhill due to warmer winters."

The 36-page analysis, "Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States," used New Hampshire as one of five case studies to document the economic consequences of winters with low snowfall, warning that such winters will increase without aggressive efforts to mitigate climate change.

Every low-snowfall winter costs New Hampshire ski resorts an estimated $54.3 million in lost revenue and 17 percent fewer skier visits compared to high-snowfall winters, according to the report's authors, who suggest that, "Without intervention, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall and shorter snow season. ... The length of the snow season in the Northeast will be cut in half."

The study was conducted by UNH researchers Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson and was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, a group whose stated mission is to "unite and actively engage the global snow sports community to lead the fight against climate change."

It suggests the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry spread out across 38 states has experienced an estimated $1 billion loss and up to 27,000 fewer jobs over the last decade due to diminished snowfall patterns. Those estimates don't include the secondary impact on the bottom line of restaurants, lodging, gas stations, grocery stores and bars, according to the report.

Burakowski was joined by spokesmen for the two sponsoring groups and a ski industry executive in a conference call with reporters from the 38 states identified in the report. Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Ski Co., said the report provides the ski industry with the information it needs to lobby for tougher emission standards nationally.

"These data suggest that there is a monetized risk, and the solution should be for the ski industry leaders and trade groups to ... move as if this was an existential threat to their businesses, which it is," Schendler told reporters. "We need to get to Washington, write op-eds, use the base of 21 million winter enthusiasts in the sports world to drive critical policy changes so we can ski for the next 100 years."

That call to action was echoed by Andrew Herzog, assistant director of Climate and Clear Air Programs at the NRDC. "People's livelihood, jobs and lifestyles are at stake," he said. "The industry as a whole needs to take its head out of the snow before it melts away. ... They need to care and they need to start taking action."

'Adaptive strategies'

The fact that low-snow winters generate less income for ski resorts than do high-snow winters came as no surprise to Alice Pearce, president of Ski New Hampshire, the industry trade group.

After one of the best years ever in the snowy winter of 2010-2011, skier visits in New Hampshire dropped 20 percent in the snow drought of 2011-2012, she said.

"We may not be open from Thanksgiving to Easter anymore 20 years down the road," she said. "But there will still be a viable ski industry in New Hampshire." She said resorts in New Hampshire are investing in snow-making equipment and expanding warm-weather attractions like ziplines and adventure courses, to generate revenue that "takes away the sting of a bad winter."

Schendler said too many of his peers in the industry are taking that approach, using what he called "adaptive strategies," rather than mobilizing to protect their most important resource - snow.

Jay Lehr, science director for the Heartland Institute, is one of the leading naysayers when it comes to the impact of human activity on climate change. "I don't know what they hope to achieve by scaring people with the idea that there will be no skiing in coming years," he said. "There's no reason for gloom and doom. The next 10 to 20 years, we are going to see the same kind of variations in weather that we've seen in the last 10 to 20 years."

Burkowski told reporters, "There is a sliver of time between now and the end of the century when we could see years that have a high snowfall. We could end up with years like 2011, which was great for snowfall, and you will be able to keep your ski industry running for at least the next couple of decades."

Laurence Goss, a retired professor of tourism research at Plymouth State University, has tracked snow patterns and their impact on the ski industry for decades. He said the long-term trend has actually been for a slow increase in the number of alpine skiers, boarders and tubers at New Hampshire ski areas, even as the number of snowy winters has declined.

"However, Nordic skier counts and snowmobiling are strongly affected by weather conditions, as they do not operate on man-made snow," he wrote in an email. "The very long-term trend is that warming will likely continue, leading to shorter ski seasons and some ski area closings."

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Dave Solomon may be reached at

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