The Somber Truth of Ski Season and Climate Change
One Colorado ski resort will shorten its ski season by 82%
The past ski season was epic in Colorado. I took the above pic after the Fourth of July between Copper and Leadville. There was still plenty of snow up top. Was this year an anomaly? According to a research paper by the University of Colorado and the US EPA, big changes are ahead for the ski industry.
One premiere Colorado resort will decrease skiable days by almost 50% in the next 20 years. What does this mean for the Colorado ski industry and real estate?
Background of the Study
The study by the University of Colorado and the US EPA was completed in 2017 and has a sobering warning for many ski areas in North America. Due to climate change, the study predicted the amount of skier days that would be lost due to warming temperatures. It assumed that a resort could blow snow at 28 degrees thereby mitigating the impact in some areas, while other resorts, due to climate change, would be unable to blow enough snow to compensate.
What are the Results of the Study?
I’ve summarized the findings below from the raw data (follow the link for the full details).
On a macro level, Colorado and many of the Mountain West resorts will have a small decrease in skier days with Colorado averaging about a 16% decline in skiable days, decreasing from 186 days to 159 days. To put it in perspective, most of the major resorts in Colorado now operate for about 150 days a year.
Not all Snow and Sunshine for Colorado!
When you dig into the data, two resorts jumped off the page. Steamboat and Buttermilk mountains had huge declines in skier days compared to the rest of Colorado. Steamboat showed a 48% decline, while Buttermilk (near Aspen and host of the X Games) showed a 38% decline. I’m not sure what the reason is behind the decline, but it could be due to a lower base elevation (for example Steamboat’s base is around 7 thousand feet).
But don’t panic, I don’t think Steamboat is going to cut its season in half anytime soon. Steamboat already has plans to move ski school and other operations further up the mountain, which would greatly mitigate any losses from climate change and they have invested heavily into new snowmaking technology to also help.
Although many resorts will be able to adapt, climate change will be difficult for resorts to overcome. We are seeing this today as resorts consolidate. Only the most well capitalized resorts will be able to survive, which will lead to even more consolidation and eventually the loss of many resorts that do not have the capital to invest.
For example Vail resorts has invested over $1.2 billion in snowmaking and other resort improvements and continues to invest heavily announcing 180 million for the 2019/20 season. Alterra, the new kid on the block, also announced it would invest $181 million for the 2019/20 season. Climate change will exacerbate the divide within the ski industry. Only the strongest and most well capitalized will be able to survive the changes.
The Northeast and Midwest Will Have the Largest Impacts
According to the study, in the next 30 years Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Maine, New York and many others will have such short seasons (for example 12 days in MA) that skiing will be unfeasible in these areas. Maine and Vermont will also see severe declines in skier days, dropping 72% in Maine and 53% in Vermont.
Why Is This So Important?
The ski industry is an $8.4 billion industry. Even small changes add up in such a large industry. If this study is accurate in its prediction of climate change, the ski industry will be radically altered. Currently, the western resorts rely on “feeder” resorts from the Midwest and Northeast to help drive traffic. For example, someone in OH might go to their local ski hill and learn the basics of skiing and subsequently book a trip to one of the larger resorts like Breckenridge. Without the introduction to skiing that many receive in their local markets, destination travel to larger resorts in the west will slow.
Mountain West Will Become More Desirable
On the flip side, the Mountain West, according to this study, will fare considerably better than other areas throughout the country with much smaller impacts to skier visits due to climate change. Furthermore, resorts in Colorado and Utah that have resorts at high elevations will have the ability to adapt by blowing snow or possibly moving operations higher on the mountain. This will enable resorts in the Mountain West to provide a more consistent experience for skiers than other parts of the country.
How Will Real Estate be Impacted?
Real estate in Colorado and the Mountain West will remain desirable. Many purchasers of mountain real estate are motivated by the lifestyle of the mountain towns, not just skiing. For example, Aspen is known more for their “social scene” of high rollers than their skiing. This trend will continue as mountain towns continue to be viewed as very desirable places to live As temperatures warm, high altitude mountain towns will become even more desirable.
Climate change is real and will impact communities throughout the country. Skiing in many areas will no longer be feasible while others will have shortened seasons and will have to adapt to the changes. Many ski resorts on the East Coast will no longer be feasible, and western resorts will spend hundreds of millions of dollars transforming because of the new climate dynamic. How climate change plays out fully is still a mystery, but I can say with certainty that only the biggest resorts will be left standing.