News Column

Study: Climate Change Threatens New Mexico Ski Season

Aug. 16, 2012

A recent study by a New York-based think tank predicts New Mexico ski areas will have to spend more on snow-making in coming years due to climate change if greenhouse-gas emissions remain the same.

The July 26 study by an organization called Demos, titled "New Mexico's Rising Economic Risks From Climate Change," suggests global warming already has exacerbated threats to the economy in a variety of ways and will continue to do so unless the government intervenes.

The study cites a 2009 report from economic consulting firm ECONorthwest that predicts the state's economy would lose $1.639 billion to global warming between 2009 and 2020, assuming governments do not rein in greenhouse-gas emissions. The report predicts the state economy would lose $3.325 billion between 2009 and 2040.

The ECONorthwest report predicts that 2 percent to 3 percent of the state's losses will result from fewer skiing days. It predicts that the state's economy will lose $50 million between 2009 and 2020 and $78 million between 2009 and 2040 due to the loss of skiing days alone.

"Climate change will have serious adverse effects on the tourist industry," the Demos study states. "Warmer winter weather, reduced snowpack and earlier melting will shorten the ski season and force ski areas to spend more money on snow-making equipment and operations."

Data from the Global Historical Climatology Network show the average temperature in Red River gradually rose from 38.1 to 40.3 degrees Fahrenheit from 1911 to 2006, with numerous peaks and valleys in between. The network projects average temperatures of 40.2 to 40.4 in 2020 and 40.9 to 41.9 in 2040, depending on the level of greenhouse-gas emissions in those years.

Ski New Mexico has little historical information about the number of days the state's ski resorts have been open each year, but the number has remained relatively consistent from the 2008-09 season to 2011-12. The ski areas evaluated were open for an average of 102.75 days in 2008-09 and 101.4 in 2011-12, according to the organization's figures.

The number of days Red River Ski Area was open decreased in that time frame, from 128 in 2008-09 to 110 in 2011-12. The number of days Angel Fire Resort's ski area was open increased from 94 in 2008-09 to 102 in 2011-12.

Red River Ski Area spokeswoman Lauren Judycki-House said the slopes have been open from the day before Thanksgiving to the third weekend in March annually for about 40 years. She said the ski area has had to make more snow during certain years, but she does not believe the need for snow-making has been gradually increasing.

"You can't have consistent weather. We're not necessarily looking at it from a global warming standpoint, but every once in a while you get a La Nina [a weather pattern in the Southwest that typically means less precipitation and warmer temperatures]. And whenever you do, you have to work with it," she said. "Some years, it's just colder than the others, so we get to make more snow."

Angel Fire Resort spokesman Dave Dekema said the ski area consistently makes snow from November to the end of January.

Ski New Mexico Director George Brooks said some ski areas in the state have been shortening their ski seasons over the years, and he expects more to do so in the future -- but not because of climate change. He said annual skier visits are down nationwide and in New Mexico, and more ski areas than before are closing on days when they traditionally receive fewer visitors.

Statewide, Ski New Mexico's statistics show that the number of annual skier visits hit 1.3 million in 1986-87. The figure hovered around 1 million until the 1997-98 season and dropped to 416,000 in 2005-06. The state's ski areas had 964,000 skier visits in 2009-10; 691,000 in 2010-11; and 856,000 in 2011-12, Ski New Mexico reported.

Dekema attributed lower skier visits during the last two years to strong La Nina weather patterns and news reports of unfavorable ski conditions, which he believes were wrong.

Brooks said a large portion of New Mexico skiers come from the Albuquerque area. He said many of them lose interest in skiing in the late spring -- when temperatures in the area can hit 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit -- even though March often brings more snow than any other month to New Mexico ski areas.

"I think you'll see ski areas in the future that will be downsizing operations while they're still operating," Brooks said, adding that this will likely result in a financial benefit rather than a loss for ski areas. "I think you'll see smarter and wiser decisions as far as operations and areas to increase their bottom line. It may not increase their growth, but it will increase their bottom line."

Angel Fire Resort moved opening day from Thanksgiving to December about 10 years ago because fewer skiers came in between those times. When the ski area was open for Thanksgiving, Dekema said, the resort continued to pay for staff and operations during the slow weeks that followed.

"It isn't for climate reasons necessarily that we've shortened our season ourselves," he said."We have not been open for Thanksgiving in more than a decade and have had our most profitable ski years since."

Ski New Mexico does not lobby for policies that would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but Brooks said many ski areas in the state have adopted "green" practices for both environmental and self-preservation purposes.

For example, he said, some New Mexico ski areas have offered rewards to customers who carpool. Others have implemented mass transit systems, have acquired reusable containers, have ramped up recycling efforts and have purchased energy-efficient light bulbs.

"Ski areas are good stewards of the environment," he said.

Brooks said Ski New Mexico representatives recognize the potential threats of climate change, but he does not believe the changes will be devastating for the industry. "To say we're not concerned, that would be an understatement," he said. "But it's not something that we spend a tremendous amount of time on. ... I don't think there's any reason to panic."

Dekema shares a similar view.

"We're maybe slightly more optimistic than a report that would suggest that the next 20 or 40 years is doom and gloom," he said.

Both Angel Fire Resort and Red River Ski Area offer a variety of summer activities, and Judycki-House said Red River continues to make revenue even in warm weather.

"As of now, [climate change] is not a concern," she said. "Obviously, we're trying to increase our summer business anyway. So, coming up with activities for the summer is our main focus at the moment."

Source: (c)2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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