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Who Will Save Skiing?

It’s no secret. Climate change is happening, and skiers are paying attention.

“I want my kids to be skiing. I want their kids to be skiing,” says pro skier Julian Carr. “It’s completely conceivable that within a few generations, they could not be [skiing], at the rate we’re at.”

The U.S. government is now taking aim at the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. In early June, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations to slash carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Produced mostly by fossil-fuel-fired plants, carbon pollution is the main source of greenhouse gases in the U.S.

"Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, said in a statement.

For the winter sports industry, climate change looks abysmal. In scientific research and on once glaciated peaks, the evidence seems to be clear: decreasing snowpack, shorter seasons, warming winter temperatures, and erratic weather patterns, including extreme storms, droughts and precipitation. “A way of life for millions of people is at risk of simply melting away,” says Phil Huffeldt, coordinator for Snowriders International, a Denver-based nonprofit group working to preserve winters from climate change.

The proposed EPA regulations are headed to a public comment period the week of July 28 in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., and will likely face challenges in court and Congress. The proposed rules also provide states with some flexibility on how they meet pollution-reduction numbers. Some states have already taken action by reducing coal plant emissions, installing energy efficient power plants, and taxing pollution producers.

Mountain Towns Threatened

These environmental changes affect the winter sports industry—and the economy. For example, the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry lost an estimated $1.07 billion since 1999, resulting in fewer hires and shorter operating seasons, according to a University of New Hampshire study commissioned by the NRDC and Protect Our Winters.

Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters, the California-based nonprofit aimed at mobilizing the winter sports community against climate change, says low-elevation resorts, particularly in the Northeast, are suffering from climate change.

“It’s the inconsistency that’s really starting to hit these resort communities,” Steinkamp says. “They can’t plan on a really strong Christmas season; they certainly can’t plan on a strong Thanksgiving season. When you don’t have that kind of planning involved, it’s really hard to make money.”

To ultimately save mountain town economies, says POW’s Steinkamp, winter has to be stabilized. And he says the EPA’s proposed regulations are a big step forward.

In lieu of consistently snowy ski seasons, 88 percent of ski resorts use snowmaking machines—but that process accounts for as much as half a resort’s operating costs, according to the NRDC report. Daniel Scott, professor of geology and environmental management at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, points out that while more and more resorts are relying on snowmaking to keep their slopes viable, that solution may not last forever as temperatures increase. Optimal snowmaking requires a temperature of 23 degrees Fahrenheit, Scott says, and resorts with warming winter temps may not consistently meet that threshold.

But he says climate change won’t cause the end of skiing—at least not yet.

“You’ll have a contraction of the ski industry in terms of number of ski areas that are sustainable,” Scott says.

I get sad when snow is sad. Cheer up snow. @climatereality http://t.co/WRCwU8HJJ6 http://t.co/kp3NdCpRrA

— Ted Ligety (@tedligety) March 17, 2014

Not just a local’s problem.

While the proposed regulations are a step in the right direction, Scott says, they will have a minimal impact on snow levels.

“That initiative on its own won’t matter much to the future of the ski industry,” Scott says. “It’s positive. It helps. It’s part of the solution, but it’s not the solution.”

Unless the issue is addressed on a global scale, climate change will continue. “The atmosphere doesn’t care where the emissions came from.”

Perhaps the U.S. will act as a trendsetter, suggests Mark Williams, University of Colorado geology professor who’s affectionately dubbed the Professor of Snow.

“The new EPA rules are a tipping point,” Williams says. “They show the world that the U.S. is serious about dealing with greenhouse gases and climate change. The rest of the world has already taken notice.”

In fact, China announced a cap on emissions shortly after the EPA proposal was announced.

“I'm much more positive that humans are starting to address climate change at a global level,” he says. “And that makes a difference to the future of snow, ice, and snow sports.”