Are We Part of the Problem?

“How can you say that? We’re one of the most eco-conscious groups out there.”

That’s the exact response I got from a colleague of mine on the Patrol when I asked if we as skier’s and rider’s are a part of the problem.

I don’t disagree with his statement. For the most part, those who enjoy winter sports are incredibly aware of the environment and climate change as a whole. We see it happening in-front of us, after all.

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Vernon Peak of Mountain Creek February 24, 2018.

 

But is awareness enough? Is being conscious of what we’re watching happen before our eyes and continuing on our merry way the best we can do? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s not.

“This winter is crazyy” –every soul under the sun.

Our winters are becoming more and more unpredictable, and there’s one culprit. Us. For those who say we couldn’t possibly make an impact on the world, that we don’t have any influence over it’s weather patterns, and how could we be so egotistical to think that we have that much power, etc. wake up. We are a domineering species on this planet and we have touched much of the available land. We’re changing the world, and it’s not for the better.

“The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that 2016 was the hottest year since modern measurements began in 1880.” –Director of National Intelligence

This is happening at a much quicker rate because of us: humans. If you believe we were able to produce enough food for entire populations on a mass scale in the form of factory farming, is it really that hard to believe that we are having a massive impact?

We are watching our winters become less and less, retreating further into elevation. The spring thaw that hit last February, the February before, and the February before that has become grown longer and started a little sooner each year.

 

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Vernon Peak of Mountain Creek, February 25, 2017.

 

The creek unfreezes earlier again this year at my mountain and the snowmelt runoff is flowing faster and more furiously down into the surrounding rivers. The temperature steadily creeps up and the rains are becoming more and more, in place of the snow that used to fall and the cold that kept the creek frozen in time. The peace I come to find at the mountain is interrupted these days with the flowing streams and rivers from the runoff. It’s a strange feeling hearing these sounds as we close rather than just the steady whoosh of snow moving under our feet.

“It’s crazy weather; this is insane for February,” people say to me. Some of these people will also say that climate change isn’t that drastic or that we still have time before it takes effect.

It is in effect.

It’s happening here, and it’s happening fast.

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Mountain Creek’s “Great Northern” trail on February 24 of 2018

The Northeast of the United States is outpacing the rest of the world in its increasing temperatures and drastic weather patterns. You aren’t hallucinating seeing spring come sooner each year; it’s real. You’re not in an alternate reality when we get hit by 3 heavy snowstorms a week after high 60 and low 70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. You’re not dreaming, you’re here, and you’re in the middle of our own attack. Our own chaos. Our own extinction. Possibly. And no, I’m not being dramatic.

Its effects aren’t in the future, they’re happening now. Temperatures in the winter have increased at an average rate of 1.3°F per decade since 1970. This results in less snowfall, less lake freezing, and wetter, more saturated lands.

From New Jersey to Vermont, less snowfall each year can be devastating for the mountains. Wildlife and vegetation aren’t the only sufferers from less snow. The significant decrease in snow-covered days has a dramatic impact on mountain operations, tourism, and local populations.

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This is a vision of the future of our peaks in the middle of winter.

Every season my local mountain blows a lot of man-made snow. Tens of thousands of gallons of water are pressurized and blown into the air to crystallize into snowflakes. And the amount they blow is increasing. One example of the colossal amounts of water we use is an area in Massachusetts, which was found to pull as much as 4,200 gallons of water each minute for their snowmaking. There are times when my local hill in NJ has 118 guns going, each requiring an average of 100 gallons of water per minute for each snow gun.

 

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“The Might Gaw”

 

Why does this matter?
Why am I saying any of this?

There is a footprint that we create in our environment in making snow. The cost comes in many forms, largely in part due to generator and electrical use in our buildings, and direct damage to the environment by pulling water from lakes and ponds, hauling equipment, drainage, the list goes on. The majority of the time, we are doing more harm than good to our environment when we create snow, which we commonly offset by suggesting that the economic benefits outweigh the environmental impact.

The problem is this: the two aren’t the same, and they speak for different causes. Intertwined, sure, but not the same, and so one’s loss does not get made up by the other’s gain. In fact, the more we impact our environment, the greater losses our economy will face from less ski operations. Conversely, the economy could spike and the environment continues to degrade. You see my point, the two are mutually exclusive.

This deficit is only destined to increase at the current rate that the climate is changing. The rate that the climate is becoming more unstable. Don’t get caught up on the “climate change” language. It’s just that: language used to describe what is happening. The climate is changing to a more unstable one that is globally warmer. Based on current weather models and historic data, these temperatures show no sign of decreasing in the near or even distant future.

Snow for the northeast are projected to crawl into the upper corners of Maine by the end of the century.

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Projections for end of the Century 2000. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

 

Snowmaking isn’t the only thing resorts do that grates against the environment, however. From powering lifts and buildings to running snowcats, snowmobiles, and company vehicles, the weight on the environment and the footprint resorts create is rather large.

Maybe this is all blown out, and not something you have grave concern over, but consider this:

  • You will not see the world as you know it now
  • Your children will not experience the same opportunities you did
  • Your children will see their towns and cities slowly covered by water
  • Your children will watch species of animals you grew up with die off
  • Your children’s children will experience food scarcity
  • Your children’s children will watch the collapse of your hard work

Fear-mongering is a silly tactic used by people to drive the rest of us to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. In this case, these predictions are real and are already being realized by coastal communities. This is not fear mongering, this is reality knocking, and it may not be on your doorstep yet, but it will be if we don’t do something to slow the rate at which our climate is changing. Need proof? The United States is already spending massive amounts of money, almost $50 million, to relocate small communities due to encroaching waters on their land. This is just one example of the change that is already at our doorstep, and rising past our ankles.

“This warming is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography.” –Director of National Intelligence

In Section 335 REPORT ON EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE of bill H.R.2810 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated: “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation”. Former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gordon Sullivan stated: “Climate change is a national security issue. We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world”.

Leaders in the United States government and military acknowledge our situation.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What can be done

Substitute snowmaking for year-round artificial surfaces

Artificial surfaces that allow the ground to breathe limit the impact we make on the environment. By doing this, skiers can still enjoy the hill, people can still experience winter sports, and a winter playground is now a year-round experience. Even if only implemented on the lower portions of our mountains, the amount of water used and the amount of snowmaking involved would be dramatically different. Snow will still fall at higher elevations, and limited, efficient snowmaking could be used to supplement snowfall.

Sheffield Ski Village: el curioso caso del incendio que acabó con una estación de esquí
Sheffield Ski Village in it’s heyday, circa 2000. Image courtesy of Lugares de Nieve

My first time on skis was on artificial surfaces at Sheffield Ski Village (since ruined by arson) in the UK. No, it wasn’t snow. It wasn’t magical and fluffy. But it got me on skis, and learning how to make my first turns. It was skiing that I could do any time of the year, anytime I wanted to practice, and it taught me the importance of staying upright. Does it compare to being on snow? Funnily enough, yes, kind of. Can you lay out your turns, fully engaging your edges? Not so much. However, what you can do is practice wedge turns (pizza/snowplough for you non-teaching folks), gliding turns, moguls, and park features. You can practice most of the skiing and riding that the vast majority of the public will engage in at a resort. That’s a big plus.

Improve snowmaking equipment

Snowmaking equipment has evolved since we first started making snow. New technology improves energy efficiency for snowmaking by converting to primarily external mix guns.

At Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, they cut air consumption in half at 19 degrees wet bulb by using LP3 (fan-driven) snowmaking equipment. In 1998 it took 6,523 kilowatt hours (kWh) to convert 180,000 gallons of water (equal to an acre foot of snow) into snow. In 2006 it took 3,804 kWh to convert 180,000 gallons into snow for an acre foot. Jiminy averages 700 acre feet of snow per winter. In 2006, the system’s old technology would have required 4,566,100 kWh versus 2,661,400 kWh in 2015. This is almost 50% of the energy that would have been used, annually saving almost 2 million kWh. That’s a lot.

Run efficient generators that harness waste energy

Efficient generators not only maximize their power output per source of power, but take advantage of the by-products of their use, either from the equipment they run, or in the generation of power. We see this today in electric and hybrid cars that use regenerative braking. You can read more about how this works here. If the automotive industry is utilizing this, surely the generators we run can recoup some of the energy too.

French ski area, Les Gets in the Portes du Soleil, replaced their diesel generators with solar panels to manage the power of the ski lifts, and use the lift itself to generate energy. Their operations recuperate kinetic energy on other chair lifts from the rotation of the return pulleys on the pylons.

At Snowbird in Utah, resort owners elected to construct a co-generation utility plant powered by three Cat® G399 gas engines, each connected to a 650 kW generator. The generator sets are used in conjunction with a combined heat and power solution that maximizes the energy produced by the engines. Heat is recovered from exhaust gas, engine jacket cooling water, lube oil cooling water and turbocharger cooling water to produce steam or hot water that can then be used for a variety of different things.
This approach achieves total energy system efficiencies of 70 to 80 percent, resulting in lower fuel consumption and reduced emissions compared with processes that generate heat and power separately.

Jiminy Peak installed a cogeneration unit in their Country Inn. This cogeneration unit uses propane gas to power a motor. The motor produces heat which is cooled by circulating water. The hot water produced during the cooling process provides the heating source for the core of the building, including the year-round outdoor pool, hot tubs and John Harvard’s Restaurant & Brewery, as well as the Front Desk facilities and conference rooms of the resort.
What makes cogeneration particularly popular is that a by-product of the motor’s operation is the production of electricity – essentially two for the price of one. The cogen unit produces 400,000 kWh per year, which is consumed entirely on-site, thereby reducing the need for 400,000 kWh from the grid. Cogeneration systems are more environmentally friendly than traditional power plants and will result in the reduction of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

Aspen Skiing Company has been making grand steps since 1997 for green operating. They are another of the resorts that use waste energy produced by other systems, and they use it to drive major operations. They have partnered with a nearby coal mine, an energy company, and a gas company to capture waste methane vented from the project. The three megawatts of power produce as much energy as the ski co. uses annually—approximately 24 kWh. This initiative also eliminates three times the carbon pollution created by the resort each year by destroying the methane that would otherwise be leaked to the environment.

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Harness the forces of the environment to power systems

On July 1, 2008, Aspen Skiing Company installed a 147 kW solar array at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) in Carbondale, Colo. The 147kW system sits on one half acre of ranchland owned by the high school and is the largest solar electric installation in western Colorado. The array is currently powering the school’s science building and feeds excess energy into the town of Carbondale’s power grid. Annually, it will produce 200,000 kWh (enough power for 20 average American homes) and keep 400,000 lbs of carbon dioxide out of the air.

To further reduce its CO2 emissions Aspen Skiing Company developed a 115 kW micro-hydroelectric plant on Snowmass Mountain. Using water from a snowmaking pond, it generates 150,000 kWh annually, preventing the emission of 300,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Aspen isn’t the only large resort to do this. Whistler Blackcomb has The Fitzsimmons Creek Renewable Energy Project, which produces enough power to match the total annual energy consumption at the resort. Located within Whistler Blackcomb’s operating area, the run-of-river project produces 33 gigawatt hours of hydro electricity per year. Just to be clear, 1 gigawatt hour is 1 million kilowatt hours, so 33 million kilowatt hours. That’s enough to power the ski resort’s winter and summer operations including around 40 lifts, 17 restaurants, 270 snowguns and countless other buildings and services.

Jiminy Peak began producing environmental power after three years of creative financing, studies, and engineering challenges in the summer of 2007. Zephyr is Jiminy Peak’s 1.5 megawatt wind turbine that uses three 123 ft blades mounted to a 253 ft (76m) tower. From blade-tip to ground, it’s 386ft (116m) tall. Jiminy’s wind turbine generates 4.6 million kWh (kilowatt hours) of energy per year – about 33% of the resort’s total electricity consumption. When wind power is the strongest, the turbine can power up to 50% of the resort’s operations in winter.

“The turbine helps to protect the long-term viability of Jiminy Peak as a resort, and therefore helps to assure jobs better than being at the risk of changes in power prices” –resort statement.

While protecting job security for employees, the turbine eliminates the need for many destructive forces. 1 gallon of diesel fuel is needed to generate 12 kWh, and so by Jiminy Peak’s estimates, this eliminates the need for 113,022 gallons of diesel fuel each year to generate power. The turbine also eliminates the production of what would have been:

  • 7,100,000 pounds of CO2 (greenhouse gases)
  • 33,000 pounds of SOx (a leading contributor to smog and the chief cause of acid rain)
  • 10,000 pound of NOx (a leading component to smog and a cause of asthma)

Jiminy Peak went to great lengths to ensure that this project did as little damage to the environment as possible, evaluating local wildlife interaction, plantlife, aviary migration routes, etc. finding that there would be little impact on any local populations.

“Perhaps more importantly is the impact of this wind turbine on our generation’s grandchildren and great grandchildren in a country where we have too much dependency on fossil fuel for energy.”—resort statement.

Introduce automatic lighting and heat controls

Whistler Blackcomb reduced annual electricity consumption by 4,575,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) by introducing automatic lights and heat controls. That’s enough energy to power 450 Canadian homes for a year, or 425 US homes (yes, the United States is less energy efficient, no surprises there). By replacing 11,000 light bulbs with more efficient and environmentally friendly light bulbs, they saved 1,533,000 kWh annually.

Jiminy Peak replaced 1,000 watt bulbs with 400 watt high efficiency bulbs on 5 trails with the ability to go to 1/2 wattage when used during snowmaking. That alone saves 53,505 kWh annually.
Base Lodges, Country Inn, John Harvard’s Restaurant, Cricket slope, Mountain Operations, Berkshire Express, and Cricket lift were all retrofitted with energy efficient LED bulbs in the Fall of 2015. This is saving the mountain approximately 171,551 kWh annually. As of 2016, the 180, 360, and Lower Slingshot trails were planned to be upgraded with energy efficient LED slope lighting, and Jiminy planned to have all of its trails illuminated with energy efficient LED’s within the following 2 years.

 

THIS IS NOT ALL THAT WE CAN DO.

These are just a few of the things we can do to make skiing sustainable. This isn’t something you or I can do alone, but it is something that we need to be vocal about. We need to talk to our mountains, petition our operating companies, speak to our resort management, and speak up for what we want. The changes don’t just happen around our mountains either, they need to happen everywhere. What happens in Texas has an effect on Vermont. What happens in the East has an effect on the West. Let’s be sensible about energy and do what’s right.

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Stoked me, G8 Aspen Highlands Bowl

We are all connected, and we must start thinking that way.
We are all so very connected and our world is smaller than we think. Heck, we near about say it every day.. “Oh, what a small world”. Well let’s start acting like it’s something we truly care about, rather than standing behind special interest groups that support what drives against us. Let’s make an effort to manage our health and the health of everything we love on this planet by living sustainably, within our means. We stand to lose it all.
Put very simply: if you like skiing, riding, enjoying the mountains, you should not only be aware, but be actively pushing for our resorts to make our way of life sustainable. The benefits reach far beyond enjoying snow, from job stability and our economy, to the cleanliness of our streams, rivers, and surrounding environment.

We can do more, and we must do more. The examples set by the likes of Aspen Skiing Company, Whistler Blackcomb, Jiminy Peak, Snowbird, and Les Gets, are just that: examples. Examples of what can be done, and where a few are paving the way today.

We must continue to educate others about this problem, and not stand idly by as our mountains continue to melt earlier, our winters become more unpredictable, our weather systems become more unstable, and our environment continues to suffer.

 

Let’s not be here in 20 years wishing articles like this had been seen, because as far as I can tell, this may just turn out to be “another warning” that generations ignored.

 

Sources:

National Geographic.

Union of Concerned Scientists.

Thoughtco.

Boston Globe.

Huffington Post.

Cat.

Aspen Skiing Company.

U.S. Energy Information Administration.

kWh book source.

Whistler Case Study.

Natural Step.

United States Congress.

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