CSU’s Ski Area Management helps industry combat climate change

Molly O'Shea

Eldora Mountain Resort opened Nov. 1, 2020, two weeks ahead of schedule. Eldora offers 680 acres of skiable terrain for visitors of all skill levels. (Skyler Pradhan | The Collegian)

Partnered with the Colorado Climate Center, Colorado State University helps prepare ski areas around the country for the imminent impacts of climate change to the industry. 

Instituted in 1974 with assistance from CSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station, the Colorado Climate Center provides climate services and information to Colorado’s general public, research scientist Becky Bolinger said. 

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“With continued support from the Agricultural Experiment Station, we are tasked with providing climate services and information to the people of Colorado,” Bolinger said. “This includes climate monitoring, which we do through (Colorado Agricultural Meteorological Network), outreach, climate communication around the state and providing climate data.”

Along with supporting ski industry management, the center brings together everything from climate maps and access to climate data around Colorado to the normals and extremes of the Colorado climate and drought information.

Part of the work the center is in charge of is providing climate-related information to any Colorado entity, which includes the many ski resorts. With the data provided by the research team, ski mountain management may be able to make the best decisions to combat climate change going forward. 

Natalie Ooi, program director of the Ski Area Management program at CSU and assistant professor within the department of human dimensions of natural resources, works closely with the ski industry on a wide range of issues that they are facing. 

This work is done through the ski area management graduate certificate program. Ooi explained that it mainly relates to employee training and development and succession planning within the ski industry as the program seeks to develop and train the next generation of industry leaders. 

“This particular research project is the first that we have done that is specific to climate change with the ski industry,” Ooi said. “The purpose of this project was to really identify what sources of data different ski area managers use, if any, to help them make weather, climate and drought-related decisions.”

The idea behind the research project was to help fill in any gaps that ski area managers may have and help them make more informed, data-driven planning decisions from season to season, Bolinger said.

Due to data privacy of the participating ski areas, the Climate Center is not at liberty to disclose specific ski areas that were a part of this research project. Twenty-one ski area managers were interviewed from 11 ski areas ranging across Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. Seven of those ski areas were specifically from Colorado, Ooi said. 

According to the Colorado Climate Center, climate change is already affecting ski areas around the world. 

What the Colorado Climate Center research shows is that people are broadly going to see increased average temperatures and resulting changes to precipitation, which will likely result in the shortening of the ski season over time. Winter sports enthusiasts should anticipate increased drought conditions as well, which will affect snowfall in these different regions, Ooi said. 

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“It is important to note that these impacts will not occur uniformly across the country, let alone the different mountain regions around the world,” Ooi said. “For example, the Rocky Mountain (Range), due to its higher elevation than other mountain ranges within the (U.S.), will likely be impacted less by the above than resorts in the Pacific Southwest or the Southeast.”

The east coast is already experiencing more rain-on-snow events, which make snowmaking difficult throughout the season, while the Pacific Northwest is seeing more dramatic swings from very large snow and rainstorms to increased drought years, Ooi said. All of these extreme swings are attributable to climate change. 

“Our reason for starting this project with the ski areas was to establish relationships with the ski industry, which Natalie has facilitated for us, and to learn how we might be able to help them,” Bolinger said. 

In the future, they hope to get more funding that can allow them to develop tools from climate data that can help inform a ski resort’s decision making, Bolinger said. While there is not currently a specific team focused on this, Bolinger said she has led this project and hopes to continue collaborations with Ooi and her department in future efforts.

Molly O’Shea can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @Molly_O23.