From ski tourism to local politics, and from winter road conditions to dicey weather forecasts, we take a broad look at how Colorado deals with the sometimes sloppy issue of snow.
This article was chosen as a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 City and Regional Magazine Award in the reader service category.
Imagine the Year 2100
Experts predict that global warming will dramatically alter our snowfall in the coming decades. Here, what Colorado skiing may look like in 90 years.
Climatologists, meteorologists, and snow scientists all agree that if global warming continues on its current trajectory, there is a chance that there will be no skiable snow in Colorado by the year 2100—an impending catastrophe that could spell the end of the state's $2.6 billion ski industry, which accounts for one percent of the state's gross domestic product and 31,000 of its jobs. Here's what they say may happen.
Although the push to curb global warming has been under way for years, should moderate to high greenhouse-gas emissions continue through the middle of the century, dramatic climate change could ensue. Big changes, especially in the Rocky Mountains, could become noticeable by 2030.
Average temperatures could increase by as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, a change that could shorten the typical ski season to late December through February from November through April.
Total precipitation in the mountains may decrease—and the amount of precipitation falling as snow could drop dramatically, meaning more annual precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. When it does snow, the crystals will be dense, making champagne powder a thing of the past.
The number of frost-free days could increase, making it difficult to create man-made snow early in the season. Because of a combination of higher temperatures and decreased precipitation, maximum snowpack (the date when melting begins) will occur in early February instead of mid-March. Which means "spring skiing" conditions will begin in the middle of the winter.
Higher elevations will receive the most natural snow, and they will also be the only areas cold enough for snow-making machines. Resorts may have to open higher terrain to take advantage of available snow. This could cause two issues: increased altitude sickness among visitors and less beginner terrain.
Consistent snow coverage will be limited to the top third of the ski mountains. Most, if not all, base villages could have zero coverage, making gondola service a requirement and midmountain amenities and facilities a must.
Later opening dates and earlier closing dates could mean that the ski resorts miss out on the Christmas and spring break vacationers they once relied on. More than one Colorado ski resort could shut down when it's unable to bring in enough money to operate.
A typical ski resort must be open for 105 days to yield an average profit margin of 6.5 to 7 percent. If a shortened ski season leads to even a one percent annual decrease in the number of tourists, the total economic effects could include losses of more than $375 million and more than 4,500 jobs by 2017. Imagine what it could be like by 2100. —LBK