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Gregory Dennis: What happens when skiing melts away

For Winter Olympian Jessie Diggins, climate change is personal. She’s one of the world’s best Nordic skiers and an American — a rare combination in a sport dominated by Europeans.
But the snowy world that has dominated her life and sport is disappearing.
“Over the past three years, most venues have been exclusively on manmade snow,” Diggins told The New York Times. “In places like Davos, Switzerland, where they normally have three feet of snow, they’ve been snow farming and saving it for the next year because they don’t even count on getting snow anymore.”
Snow farming in the Alps. Not just for next week or next month. For next year.
Diggins, who placed sixth in the classic sprint in the Winter Olympics, is a Minnesotan who grew up skiing. But that world is changing as the climate warms and there is less snow.
She points out that last year’s American Birkebeiner, the nation’s largest citizen cross-country ski race, was cancelled due to lack of snow.
The Times reports that as humanity continues to emit greenhouse gases and warm the planet, “popular ski resort towns in the United States will lose huge portions of their ski seasons.” By century’s end, the massive ski complex around California’s Lake Tahoe will have only eight days a year of below-freezing weather: “Ski season would be essentially dead.”
Indeed, some of New England’s ski areas are already among the walking dead.
A study by Tourism Management concluded that with current warming trends, by 2039 only half of the 103 active ski areas in the Northeast will be economically viable.
As Grist.org put it, “In the ski business, there are no climate deniers.”
But can’t ski areas always make snow? Not if temps don’t get near freezing. And even then they have to think about their carbon footprint.
Snowmaking is energy-intensive. Unless we switch to broad use of wind and solar energy, making snow will only exacerbate the warming that comes from burning fossil fuels.
This doesn’t even consider the climate impacts from ski-trail grooming performed by huge machines running on diesel fuel. Grooming is a nightly activity at ski resorts from November to April. Assuming the snow even lasts into increasingly warm April.
Along with a lot of other skiers, I’ve personally seen the effects of climate change this winter. On a drive through the Sierra Nevada last month, we saw snow pack that was less than 25 percent of normal. Forty percent of California is now back in drought conditions caused partly by climate change.
Vermont has also been among states that are the hardest hit by rising temperatures.
We’ve experienced the effect of that in the past week. As now happens so often, weather that in times past would be snow fell here as rain.
Last Wednesday brought a welcome snowstorm, and my friends and I reveled in the goods at Sugarbush and Stowe.
But by the weekend when I ventured first to the Rikert Nordic Center and then Mad River Glen, the mercury had risen into the 30s. The predicted new snowfall turned to “immature snowflakes” (i.e., rain).
The rain-freeze cycle set up another run of bulletproof conditions. Which were described in online snow reports as “firm,” “technical” — and most memorably by Mad River Glen as a good day to stay home and have that second cup of coffee.
So what’s a ski area to do?
Jiminy Peak in northern Massachusetts took the unprecedented step of installing a wind turbine to generate clean energy. But that was back in 2005 and virtually no other resort has followed suit.
Sugarbush recently installed a row of free chargers for electric vehicles. One snowy day last week I had the pleasure of seeing my friend Rick arrive at the Bush and plug in his new Chevy Bolt.
But eight charging stations are mere dots in a huge parking lot filled with gas-guzzling, carbon-polluting SUVs.
Absent an end to more global warming, Vermont will be a big loser.
Ski Vermont has said the ski industry pumps more than $700 million a year into our state’s economy. We’re looking at a future where most of that money is likely to dry up and blow away in a warm wind.
Don’t count on our do-nothing governor to be part of the solution. Phil Scott adamantly opposes wind power and carbon pricing, which most experts say are essential parts of the solution.
As for Jessie Diggins — the Nordic skier who’s made climate issues a personal crusade — she’s pushing for a carbon fee and dividend. That solution involves some version of taxing fossil fuels to reduce carbon pollution, then remitting part or all of the revenue back to people.
A coalition of Vermont businesses, environmentalists and low-income advocates has proposed a version called the ESSEX Plan.
If Vermont wants to continue to have a ski industry — and if we Vermonters want to be able to go out and play in the snow — we would be wise to support a price on carbon.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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