Lake Tahoe’s new reality: Study says Sierra Nevada snowpack to suffer sharp decline

A recent study points to a rapidly-rising "snow line," the elevation at which rain turns to water, in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Claire Cudahy / Tribune file photo

Imagine Lake Tahoe with no snow year round.

Every winter storm that reaches the basin brings only rain.

No skiing. No snowboarding. No winter sports of any kind.

As unpleasant and uncomfortable a thought it is, Tahoe is staring at a drastically different future.

A dramatic decline in the Sierra Nevada snowpack will be felt the most in Northern California by mid century, according to a study published in December 2018 by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

Those findings were reiterated Wednesday during the 23rd annual Operation Sierra Storm: “The New Reality,” a national weather conference hosted on Tahoe’s South Shore.

That new reality could send Tahoe’s winter tourism economy sliding down its world-class slopes and to the bottom of the lake.

Tahoe will be 1st to feel the burn

The tallest mountain surrounding Lake Tahoe, Freel Peak, sits at 10,891 feet. Mount Rose and Monument Peak at Heavenly Mountain Resort are the only other peaks that reach 10,000 feet surrounding the basin.

While tall, those are modest compared to other peaks in the Sierra Nevada.

Farther south, the range runs south through Yosemite National Park and grows to a top height, Mount Whitney, of 14,505 feet near Lone Pine, California.

The lower elevation mountains are why Tahoe will feel the burn of a dwindling snowpack first, according to the Berkeley Lab study.

By 2100, the study says the entire Sierra snowpack will suffer a 79 percent decline.

To reach that conclusion, lab scientists analyzed snowpack upstream of 10 major reservoirs — three in Northern California, three in Central California and four in Southern California. On average the climate models projected 79 percent less snowpack at peak timing by the end of the century compared with historical levels and a shift in peak timing to four weeks earlier.

The peak timing is important to water managers because it indicates the start of the melt season.

The Sierra’s snowpack stores a third of California’s water supply and it gradually melts off in the spring into the state’s managed reservoirs.

Dr. Kristie Ebi, a lead author for a special report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Wednesday that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) from the pre-industrial era would require unprecedented societal changes, but is possible. She said having it increase to 2 degrees Celsius would have much bigger consequences.

“We’re seeing incredible shifts, a completely different kind of weather pattern,” Ebi, the Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE), and Rohm and Haas Endowed Profession in Public Health Services at the University of Washington said to a crowd of about 100. “In just a couple of decades, we’re going to be looking at a completely different future.”

Ebi was not involved with the study by the Berkley Lab.

Slopes have been Tahoe’s top draw in winter

Lake Tahoe Visitor Association President and CEO Carol Chaplin says skiing and snowboarding are the biggest draws for tourists in the winter, but adds the association continues to see more non-skier activities due to additional opportunities like tubing or snow-play parks.

“I think we could make the case that our younger generations like multiple activity experiences as opposed to a singularly focused ski experience,” Chaplin said.

LTVA points to 2010-11 figures from the California Ski Association, or Ski California, that say ski visitors direct spending in the Tahoe and Shasta regions account for $742 million. There is no breakdown between the North and South shores, nor is there data available to estimate skier/snowboarder visits, although Vail Resorts has indicated online in its quarterly annual results that pass sales are up 21 percent from the previous year.

Seeing change coming, state ski trade associations, including Ski California, have joined the Outdoor Industry Association, SnowSports Industries America and National Ski Areas Association to form the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership to provide leadership on climate change — and to ratchet up political pressure.

“Our 32 member resorts in California and Nevada are thrilled to join our fellow ski states in supporting action for climate solutions,” said Mike Reitzell, president of Ski California. “As an industry, we can make an impact through advocacy, innovation, and collaboration with the legislature, guests, and other industries. California enjoys the largest outdoor recreation economy in the United States; and as a state, continues to be a leader on climate initiatives. Climate action requires the efforts of many, not the few. Our ski industry will continue to be part of the solution.”

Ski California has been proactive on climate change since the turn of the century when a national policy was adopted.

Ski areas are striving to reduce carbon emissions in their operations and supporting a clean energy economy.

Diamond Peak Ski Resort last year became STOKE certified, a designation designed specifically for surf and ski tourism operators. The organization is on a mission to assist resorts in developing systematic approaches to sustainability, environmental responsibility, customer loyalty and staff retention.

“Ski areas are making great strides in reducing carbon emissions in operations and supporting a clean energy economy,” Chaplin said. “We all need to do our part. We all have a role to play in reducing our carbon footprints and in advocating for climate change solutions.”

Chaplin’s examples include developing renewable energy on-site through wind, solar, and geothermal technology; applying energy-efficient green building techniques; retrofitting existing facilities to save energy; investing in efficient snowmaking systems; replacing inefficient compressors in snowmaking operations; using alternative fuels in resort vehicle fleets; implementing anti-idling policies; and providing or promoting carpooling or mass transit use by guests and employees.”

Snow lovers better come get it now

Without sweeping changes, this snow-less future is coming.

The LTVA recognized long ago that operating on a year-round basis makes good business sense and Chaplin said the revenue from the spring, summer and fall seasons continue to increase with more diverse recreation.

While measuring the snowpack in early January at Mount Rose, Natural Resources Conservation Service Nevada hydrologist Jeff Anderson said his main concern, rather than the snowpack reading that day, was the long-term trend of a rising snowline.

That line is moving up the mountain at 125 feet per year, according to Anderson.

Do the math: It’s time to either move to Colorado and take advantage of the higher elevation resorts or get it now while the getting is still good.

“There are big shifts happening snow tourism, in all kinds of weather-related tourism,” Ebi said. “You better enjoy your time here and hope there isn’t a drastic change in the next couple of decades.”

Correction: This article was changed to reflect the elevation at Mount Rose.

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