What You Need to Know About the Snow

Growing up in Utah, I fondly reminisce on the Halloween nights spent in snow boots trudging from house to house. My costume - whether it be a Hannah Montana rockstar fit or a killer ham and cheese sandwich - was always accessorized, and some would say dominated, by a thick winter jacket. In Park City, Utah, this was the norm. By Halloween, a kid could expect a little more than a foot of snow on the ground. Adults would speak of this snow in wonder, “Does this mean we’ll be skiing by Thanksgiving?” The possibility loomed in the air, inciting the hopes of ski bums all throughout the community. And back then, the idea of skiing pre-turkey-festivities was truly plausible. Such was not the case for local ski resorts this holiday season. 

At Thanksgiving this past year, many resorts once again pushed back their opening dates in the hope that snow would come in the forecast. Many resorts did not open until a week before Christmas this season, an idea that baffles many locals who recount “getting days in” long before the radios started playing Bing Crosby. 

The cause of this pushback is a gradual decline in snowfall due to rising greenhouse gas emissions which is rapidly altering the livelihood of many communities reliant upon the ski industry. According to The New York Times, the Western United States are expected to “lose an estimated 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed — reducing the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegating skiing to the top quarter of Ajax Mountain in Aspen”. Some sources state that years of “no snow” are much closer on the horizon than we expect, some hypothesizing that 2030 will be the demise of the ski industry in Utah as well as many other ski communities in the nation. 

For ski towns such as my own homebase in Park City, the effects of rising temperatures impact the overall livelihood of communities. The Park City Foundation recently reported that a “decrease in snowpack caused by global warming could lead to 1,100 jobs lost by 2030 and a $120 million economic loss in Park City alone”. As a community that hosts two influential resorts (including the largest resort in the nation, Park City), a gradual decline in snowpack directly correlates to a decline in the economic prosperity of the town itself.

 

Overall, tourism is one of the leading drivers of Utah’s economy; the impact of winter sports cannot be diminished in this discussion. “Tourism is a major industry in Utah that makes about $8.4 billion for the state of Utah, $1.4 billion of that comes from the winter sector”, says Paul Marshall, Director of Communications at SkiUtah. Yet Marshall insists that people who reflect on current ski conditions need to understand that we experienced conditions “way above average” last year, and that the median has once returned. 

Marshall elaborates that much of the disdain for current conditions comes from locals rather than tourists. “There are two ways to look at it - either a person comes from out of state and sees their trip as a vacation and a break from the norm and enjoys whatever is there, or a local compares their day of skiing to years before and is disappointed based on their memory”, he states. 

 

But locals have a big impact in the marketing of the ski industry, an impact that should be emphasized. Marshall refers anecdotally, “A lot of the harmful impact and poor reviews come from locals. Locals inadvertently tell tourists their views on the snow, and that’s what brings down overall pass sales and the strength of the industry. Imagine you come out for your ski vacation excited to go skiing with your friends or family. You get into your Uber after picking up your bags from your flight and your Uber driver asks you why you’re here. You say, “skiing”. He says that the snow isn’t that great and that you should have come last year. He drops you off at your hotel and the bellhop who helps you take up your bags mentions that, “these conditions are awful”. You meet up with your friends or family for dinner and your waiter tells you “he hopes your trip is enjoyable even with the lack of snow”. After all of this, any guest is likely not to go skiing, or if they do, they won’t enjoy their experience. A lot of the dissuasion comes from the jaded locals.”

 

Locals have a huge impact according to Marshall, but locals come in all forms. From the college kid headed up the mountain for MLK weekend with his steal of a pass, to the employee teaching toddlers how to “pizza” and “French fry”, a variety of locals exist among us. I spoke with Shaela Adams, a ski instructor at Solitude Mountain Resort about her experiences interacting with kids, parents, and fellow instructors when it came to snow conditions and how it impacted morale. 

 

“It’s easy to be negative”, she sighs, “when the skiing in December is similar to what you’d expect in April, it’s easy to be discouraged. There’s a definite difference in mood amongst the kids who keep coming back each year”. Currently, every Utah resort is far below their typical snowpack average at this time in the ski season. For Adams, her kids are skiing upon only 42” of base - a thin layer that becomes “well worn by several classes skiing on the same terrain”. At this time last year, resorts were touting powder days well over two feet of snow in a single day. Thus far into the season, the largest “dump” has been at Snowbird where they’ve reported a single 12” day.

This causes great concern for the ski industry and ski instructors including Adams. She laments about how current ski conditions can lead to greater hardship in the valley including issues of drought and forest fire, but also how gradually decreasing snow levels may never allow her to achieve a lifelong dream: teaching her children how to ski. 

 

For Adams, and for many families in ski towns, learning how to ski is a right of passage as a kid. Personally, I cannot remember a single winter that I wasn’t on the mountain alongside my mom or a bunch of rowdy kiddos at ski school. The basics of skiing although seemingly simple, can be a great lesson for kids about perseverance and the beauty of nature. Adams delves into how her family comes from generations of skiers, patrollers, instructors, all the way down to her generation. If the daunting predictions are correct, many of us will not be able to explain to our children the absolute beauty of a powder day, the wind zipping along your hair through your helmet, and the slick swoosh of skis upon a groomed run. 

 

Like many of the daunting aspects of life, I often turn to this subject in ignorance. I say to myself, “there’s no way that this can happen because I cannot believe it to be true because it pains me so dearly”. The idea of my children not learning such a wonderful past time due to my own actions (not recycling enough, buying items with too much packaging, driving on days I could simply walk) is frightening. But this is a fear we must all embrace in order to preserve the vitality of the community we live in. We must look at the facts.

 

Back to the New York Times, “if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise — they grew 41 percent between 1990 and 2008 — then snowfall, winter and skiing will no longer exist as we know them by the end of the century”. This a reality we need to grapple with. What does no skiing look like for Utah? Pretty bad. What does a limited water supply look like in a desert state? A decline in snow begins a “dangerous chain reaction of catastrophes like forest fires, drought, mountain pine beetle infestation, degraded river habitat, loss of hydroelectric power, dried-up aquifers and shifting weather patterns.”

 

The reality of this situation is that a low snow year is in the forecast. And it probably will be for the majority of our lifetimes. Yet this is not the time for moaning or groaning. As Marshall says, “locals should go out and embrace what’s out there. Be willing to go and try it for yourself”. Deals like the “Learn How to Ski Month” make learning and experiencing the beauty of winter a viable reality with extremely low pass and lesson prices. We must embrace what we have, acknowledge what came before us, and advocate for policy that will shelter our diminishing resource.  

So as I stare at the bright green grass coating every edge of University landscaping, I wonder if I am simply falling into the hubris of the “jaded local”. Perhaps I’ve seen my good days and I will only reflect into the deep abyss of “what has been” and “the lost pow days of history”. Yet, as long as I am a Utahn I will always be proud to say that Utah is truly home to the “greatest snow on Earth”, we just need to protect it. 

 

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