Sierra ski resorts may be first to feel economic heat of global warming |

Sierra ski resorts may be first to feel economic heat of global warming

Amanda Fehd

A report predicting global warming’s effects on California’s economy could have dire implications for Tahoe’s ski industry.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, snowpack could decline by 90 percent by the end of the century, said Michael Hanemann, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley.

Even under the best scenario, where greenhouse gas emissions stop today, Sierra snowpack could still shrink 36 percent over the next 50 years, according to Autumn Bernstein with the conservation group Sierra Nevada Alliance.

Hanemann is one of several scientists who helped produce the report, which will come out Dec. 5 as a step to comply with Gov. Schwarzenegger’s executive order this summer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a Climate Action Team.

Melting glaciers

It’s been reported that glaciers at several European ski resorts are already melting. If the Climate Action Team’s predictions are true, America’s ski resorts, the scientists suggest, may soon become the poster child for global warming’s impacts on the economy.

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A smaller snowpack and earlier spring melt would shorten the ski season three to six weeks by 2050, Hanemann wrote, noting a similar report released in 2004. By the end of the century, another four to nine weeks would be chopped off.

And, under a worst-case scenario, “skiing with natural snow in the Sierra would vanish except possibly at the very highest elevations,” according to last year’s report.

More information on the report is available at

An optimist

It’s hard to find any scientist who disagrees the Earth’s temperatures are getting higher. But global warming’s cause is still under debate as well as what effects it will have on different regions of the planet.

John Hallett, a cloud physicist for Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno, said a warmer earth means storm systems will move around quicker. Still, as many cold storms could hit Tahoe from the north as warm storms from the south.

“If you look at the amount of snow we had last winter in the Sierra, we did pretty well,” Hallett said. “I would be hard pressed to say that in general the ski resorts would do better or worse. I’m not all that pessimistic that we won’t be having some reasonably wet years.”

Others are seriously concerned.

“Global warming is going to have a huge impact on the Sierra,” said Bernstein of Sierra Nevada Alliance. “We think the ski industry should be leading the way in terms of reducing emissions and actively supporting legislative efforts to reduce emissions.”

Greener resorts

Some ski resorts are getting greener, Bernstein said. Northstar-at-Tahoe recycles oil from its French fryer in its biodiesel-powered snowcats. Alpine Meadows is also using a significant amount of biodiesel.

Sierra-at-Tahoe produces 3 million kilowatt hours of wind power each year, or enough to power 300 homes for a year.

And several resorts have signed letters of support for Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act, which proposes limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The bill has not passed the Senate.

Still, only 26 percent of resorts sponsor carpool programs. Three of 24 California resorts use wind or solar energy, and roughly 40 percent support the Climate Stewardship Act, according to Bernstein.

Sierra Nevada Alliance hopes to help skiers make informed decisions about where they spend their money. A sister organization, the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, issues environmental scorecards for ski resorts each year.

This year, Northstar and Kirkwood received lower grades of “D” because of their building projects, while Alpine Meadows and Sierra both got an “A”.