Local weather change poses menace to winter recreation companies in Utah

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A worker softens snow to prepare the ice castles for visitors. The Ice Castles in Midway are one of many winter sports businesses that could be affected by climate change. (Isaac Hale/The Daily Herald via AP)

Winter has ended in Utah and the weather is getting warmer, leading scientists, water conservation organizations and climate protection activists to become increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change on snow in Utah.

Ski Utah’s website states that Utah has more than 15 world-renowned ski resorts and other winter businesses like outdoor ice skating, snow tubing and the Ice Castles. Utah is known for having the “biggest snow on earth” and is a popular place for winter tourism.

Winter is coming to Big Cottonwood Canyon. With global warming, ski resorts need to find new ways to adapt to a shorter winter season. (Ashley pun Eveson)

According to the research article “Climate Change and Utah Ski Resorts: Impacts, Perceptions, and Adaptation Strategies,” the length of the ski and snowboard season is expected to become shorter and more variable as the climate warms and rainfall decreases.

Utah’s economy depends on snow cover. According to the research, “National analysis found that particularly snowy winters contributed an additional $49 million to the state’s economy, while snowless years contributed a 7% decrease in skier attendance and a loss of $53 million led to the economy in Utah.”

NASA has published a Climate Change Facts and Causes webpage stating that the Earth’s temperature is increasing due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, which increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Companies are not immune to climate change. It’s not a matter of if companies will be affected by climate change, it’s when,” said Jeff Bousson, manager of Utah Clean Energy’s climate program.

Utah’s winter economy could be in jeopardy as the season shortens and snow cover decreases, Bousson said. He said Park City lost six weeks of snow last year because of climate change.

Utah’s snowpack makes up 95% of Utah’s water, said Nick Halberg, a research and policy analyst with the Utah Rivers Council. According to the research report, snow cover has decreased by around 20% in recent years.

“Climate change is inevitable. We just have to figure out what we can do to adapt and find out. There are mitigation actions we can take,” Halberg said. “Any businesses that rely on snow are going to have a tough time, but hopefully they’ll find a way to adapt and keep their business afloat.”

Snow melts around a car parked on the BYU campus. Rising temperatures are causing the snow to melt faster than in previous years. (Ashley pun Eveson)

The Ice Castles in Midway, a business that relies on cold weather to create a wintry visual experience for visitors, was forced to close earlier than usual due to warming in early February, according to Ice Castle officials.

Winter stores may have to close earlier than expected, Bousson said. Snow machines can help ski resorts extend their season, but it can be expensive and time-consuming.

Peter Howe, a researcher at Utah State University, studies human environmental geography, specifically the “intersection of human perception and cognition with vulnerability and adaptation to climate change,” as his biography puts it.

Howe grew up in Utah, where he could see the effects of climate change through droughts, wildfires and poor air quality, he said. He described climate change as “the biggest challenge for us as a society” that will have many “negative impacts on people and the things people value”.

“Climate change affects the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. The situation of winter farms is an example of the threshold we are at when it comes to climate change. It could potentially make the season unprofitable and much shorter going forward,” Howe said.

Other businesses, like outdoor ice skating rinks in Utah, are also at risk because the weather isn’t cold enough to freeze water, Howe said. For an economy dependent on winter and snow, climate change poses a threat to businesses that have historically depended on snow.

Two dogs enjoy the snow in Provo Canyon. Climate change will affect the community in many ways and impact future generations of animals and people living in Utah. (Ashley pun Eveson)

“Even though it’s scary, we shouldn’t be discouraged. Climate change is having a significant impact on our water resources and the solution to this is conservation. We just have to keep doing what we can,” said Halberg.

Halberg encouraged all Utahns to get involved in slowing climate change. Joining student groups and encouraging lawmakers to fight climate change are potential ways local residents can help, he said.

“What we do now over the next 8 to 10 years will have a serious impact on what kind of climate change we want to live in,” Bousson said.

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