Will the Snowpack Be Back?

As skiers and snowboarders try to forget a dismal year, the winter-sports industry braces for a new normal.



It was mid-January 2015. And Carson Guy, an enthusiastic Alpine skier who’s usually on the slopes between 50 and 100 days each year, was headed to Alpental. OK, so it looked like rain at the base, but c’mon. It was Alpental. It was January. The summit is at 5,400 feet. Anyway, if he didn’t even try, he figured, it’d certainly be a loss; he wouldn’t get in a day of skiing.

So he and his buddies decided to chance it. They packed up their gear and headed—courageous, hopeful, intrepid—to Chair Peak Basin, a spot near “the very top of Alpental,” the tallest mountain at The Summit at Snoqualmie, the most-visited ski area in the state. “And we get to the trailhead, and lo and behold . . . ”

Yep, a skier’s worst nightmare: “Dirt.”

“We turned around and went to a matinee,” he recalls with an anguished laugh. “We were just standing there in the parking lot getting rained on,” whereas, typically, at a place like Alpental, “there’s feet and feet of snow and you put on your skis in the parking lot.”

By April 1—when, historically, much of the region’s peaks hit their maximum—many parts of the Cascades were out of snow completely.

Last year, though, as every Washington skier knows, any snow left in any ski area’s parking lot was snapped up immediately. Snow teams snagged it for the base of chair lifts or tubing hills or anywhere else they could make it work. Snowcats toiled around the clock, scooping and spreading every single inch that fell onto muddy slopes in an effort to make one or two complete runs. The Summit at Snoqualmie didn’t open a single run until the last few days of December—and had closed up shop completely by February 11. Across the state were ski-racing leagues that never raced; avalanche training courses that were never held; mom-and-pop ski areas and even kids’ tubing areas that never opened at all.

And the snow stats are dizzying: As of February 1, 2015, snowpack in the southern Cascades was at an astounding 18 percent of normal; in the Olympics, it was just 7 percent. By April 1—when, historically, much of the region’s peaks hit their maximum—many parts of the Cascades were out of snow completely. Ski areas were closing weeks or months early; even the Mount Baker Ski Area, which holds the world record for the greatest amount of snowfall in a single season, closed on March 9. “In my 50 years of being in the ski business, this has been the least amount of snow that I have ever seen,” said Mt. Baker Ski Area manager Duncan Howat in an end-of-season video statement.

Methow Trails, a nonprofit organization that maintains the largest cross-country ski area in North America, managed to keep snow around long enough to welcome “refugees” from other regions, says executive director James DeSalvo. In bleakest March, Methow Trails offered its Nordic paths for free to anyone holding a season pass anywhere in the world. Downhill skiers, snowboarders, and ski bunnies of all stripes flocked to the Methow Valley. “People were looking for a winter experience, more than anything,” he says. The winter was nearly over “and they hadn’t seen snow.”

Of course, anyone who relies on snowpack for a living (or for getting out of bed in the morning) will tell you that last year was what the professionals call “a crappy winter.”

There are feasts and there are famines; we all have to contend with this kind of thing from time to time. But ask climate scientists, and they concur: This kind of thing is an analogue for the future, and Washington’s snowpack is going down. Period.

“Instead of talking about what caused this year’s warm temperatures—it could have been a fluke; we don’t know yet,” says Guillaume Mauger, research scientist at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group (CIG), “talk about this year as a dress rehearsal.” It wasn’t a lack of precipitation that caused the barren slopes; it was the warmth. And that’s exactly what climate models predict over the next century in the Pacific Northwest: pretty stable levels of precipitation and gradually warming temperatures.

According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the average temperatures for December, January, and February in the Pacific Northwest last winter were 5.6 degrees above normal (based on the averages for 1970–1999). That might not sound like a lot, but “from a weather-geek perspective,” Mauger says, “that’s insane.”

Climate models predict that probably by 2050—and almost certainly by 2080—the average winter temperatures we saw this year will be just that: average winter temperatures.

According to a CIG report from 2013, all climate models “project that this warming will be outside of the range of historical variations by mid-century.” That means that, relative to 20th-century averages, the average April 1 snowpack—even in low or medium greenhouse gas scenarios—is “projected to decline by 56 to 70 percent by the 2080s.”

Another UW study found that spring snowpack in the Cascades closest to the Puget Sound had already dropped by 8 to 16 percent due to climate change, and could drop up to 21 percent more by 2050. According to NCDC data available through the Washington state climatologist’s office, spring snowpack at many, many monitoring sites is going down—maybe just by a few inches per decade, but still, it’s going down. At Stampede Pass, the decline since 1943 is 24 percent; at Dommerie Flats, near Cle Elum, the decline since 1939 is 93 percent.

“There’s no question that [the snowpack] has gone down, that’s for sure,” says Alan Hamlet, a professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Until 2012, he was on staff with the CIG, and has studied both snowpack in the Pacific Northwest as well as the impacts low snow levels could have on the region’s ski areas. “The cause might not be as fully elaborated. Different studies attribute [the decline] to ‘natural variability,’ whatever that means,” says Hamlet, adding, with a laugh, “As opposed to ‘climate change,’ whatever that means!” But the reduction in snowpack through time? “There’s pretty strong agreement about that.”

Mauger is more blunt. “There is absolutely a consensus,” he says. Any controversy over the data among Washington’s climate scientists is “actually a false controversy.”

Warmer temperatures mean ski seasons are likely to decrease in length, too—particularly at lower elevations. According to a study Hamlet conducted back in 2000, climate models suggest that at Snoqualmie Pass, even by 2025, “the likelihood of opening by December 1 could decline by 50 percent, average season length could decline by 28 percent, and the likelihood of rain when the ski area is open could increase by 25 percent.” The models also suggest that by 2080, the average length of the ski season at Snoqualmie Pass will be—wait for it—10 days.

And sure, snowpack data can be what scientists call “noisy,” says CIG deputy director Joe Casola, because of precipitation data conflating with temperature data; very wet and very dry years can confuse a warming trend. “Snowpack records look like a roller coaster, especially if you’re looking at short periods,” he explains. But “if you look at how much warming we should be getting in the coming decades, the warming signal overwhelms the ups and downs in the roller coaster.”

Washington ranked second only to Oregon for the impact poor winters had: Low-snow years dropped ski area visits here by 28 percent.

Snowpack impacts ski areas, but it also affects summertime stream flow and fish populations and forests—all kinds of things. This century, Casola says, “I think that snowpack loss is one of the most important hydrologic changes we’re going to be dealing with.” But at the same time, he adds, don’t freak out: Precipitation should stay pretty steady, and a lot of places are far more arid than Washington.

Still, the production of snow has a pretty specific requirement: 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you’re a ski area, “Having more precipitation doesn’t help you too much,” says Alan Hamlet. “If it’s too warm, it’s too warm.”

It sounds alarmist. But since those in the ski industry are arguably “farmers of snow,” regardless of climate predictions, they’ve got to roll with the punches. And last winter was a big, fat punch in the face.

“Last season was one of those seasons,” says Guy Lawrence, marketing and sales director for The Summit at Snoqualmie. “It brings you up short—and obviously makes you revisit good practices of snow management and business management.”

Something as simple as regular maintenance of the slopes, long before there’s hope of snow, makes things a lot better once a dusting comes along. Grasses and stumps and shrubbery can get in the way in low-snow years. “If you’re down to a 12-inch snowpack, but the slope has been well maintained,” says Lawrence, “generally speaking it’s not going to be too bad.”

A lot of ski areas spent a whole lot of time last year just “moving snow around,” says John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association and former general manager at Stevens Pass—pulling it from underutilized areas and sticking it on the slopes. (Though last year, he argues, was hardly the worst he’s seen in the region; during the 2004–05 winter, Stevens Pass was forced to open and close three separate times.) Even thinking about ditches can make a difference: “We often cover up certain sections of drainage so it makes it easier for the snow to accumulate,” says Guy Lawrence. “Stuff like that.”

Unbelievably, every little tweak really does count. Methow Trails created a Low-Snow Year Committee to develop as many strategies as possible in the event of more winters like the past few, says DeSalvo. Packing down snow as firmly as possible to delay melting; cutting back the tree canopy so snow falls on trails instead of trees; even just angling some trails ever so slightly toward the north instead of the south, he says, can be “the difference between a couple weeks of being open or closed for us.”

And although it’s more common at ski resorts in the east, and sounds kind of apocalyptic to some Pacific Northwesterners, snow-making is on the rise here, too. Some resorts, like Mission Ridge, outside of Wenatchee, rely pretty heavily on fabricating flurries; White Pass, near Yakima, was able to stay open last season thanks to its snow-making operations. The Summit at Snoqualmie has a snow-making machine, but the area’s high dew point, warm temperatures (their average is in the high 20s), and limited access to water makes the operation kind of a challenge. Still, says Lawrence, “we definitely would like to have more.”

Ski areas are diversifying their activity offerings, too—you know, just in case. Stevens Pass started a mountain-biking operation in 2011, for instance. The Summit at Snoqualmie stopped maintaining its mountain-biking trails in 2002, but they might reconsider. Tubing is a forgiving winter sport—albeit generally catering to a different demographic—and in the Methow, they’ve started to create a lot more fat-biking trails. “That whole movement is starting to take off,” says DeSalvo. “Even if we don’t have much snow, we could still have a great fat-bike season!” Luckily for Methow Trails, though, a Nordic trail system is more forgiving in low-snow years. “We only need one good storm per winter,” says DeSalvo, “and we can groom those six or 12 inches for hundreds of miles.”

According to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, low-snowfall years between 1999 and 2010 cost the U.S. downhill ski-resort industry more than $1 billion—thanks largely to people simply not hitting the slopes. Washington state ranked second only to Oregon for the impact that had: Low-snow years dropped ski area visits here by 28 percent.

Partly to combat stats like that, at the tail end of the 2013–14 winter season, The Summit at Snoqualmie introduced a 100-day guarantee for their season passholders: For every day less than 100 days that the facility is operational, Snoqualmie promises to put one percent toward the next season’s pass. Last season, the resort was open just 40 days. But since the conditions of those 40 days were so substandard, they’re offering passholders a discount of 80 instead of 60 percent on this year’s season pass.

That might seem like a huge financial hit. But it’s more important to Snoqualmie that their patrons keep coming back. Season passholders are “the cornerstone of our business,” says Lawrence. “The impact [of the 100-day guarantee] is obviously significant, but we believe in it strongly enough that we want to back it up.”

The Summit at Snoqualmie is one of the top 10 tourist destinations in Washington state and home to one of the biggest ski-school operations in the country, he adds. “When we struggle, it’s no good. It’s no good for a lot of people. We sometimes feel like we’re a barometer for the local ski industry—for better or for worse.”

Chin up, ski lovers: It’s not all bad. Winters like these present opportunities, too. “Skiing was almost nonexistent this year in the front country,” says Matthew Palubinskas, mountaineer and longtime member of the Snoqualmie Pass ski patrol. But even though May conditions in 2015 were like mid-August’s conditions in previous years, “In the backcountry, I was out all year.”

As was backcountry zealot Kristina Ciari—she has been backcountry skiing in Washington every single month for the past 47 months (often in a tutu). Her goal, she says, “is to get to 100,” but really, “I’ll do it until I don’t love it anymore.”

The good news is, bad snow year or no, the Pacific Northwest is one of the few regions in the country—possibly the world—where that is possible. Carson Guy, who works in the outdoor industry, says he’s seen an uptick in interest in backcountry skiing over the past few years—more interested customers, and more gear that’s backcountry-compatible. “The ski resorts know this, too. They’re trying to open up more backcountry-accessible terrain and are enabling their customers to get those skills.”

As for this winter, well . . . the forecast looks middling. A strong El Nino brewing in the Pacific means there’s a high likelihood of warmer temperatures throughout Washington, particularly western Washington, according to the Washington state climatologist’s office. And their prediction through January 2016? “Elevated chances of below-normal precipitation statewide.”

But the region has seen a lot of different kinds of winters in El Nino years, says Washington’s assistant state climatologist Karin Bumbaco. And even in the worst climate-change scenario, “There’s lots of variability in the system. In the mid-to-late 2000s, we had a succession of pretty big snow years. It’ll happen again. So, you know,” she jokes, “don’t give up your annual pass from now until 2050!”

The most important thing for ski areas, says Methow Trails’ DeSalvo, is making sure people maintain their appetite for winter. “The worst thing is to have people not take their skis out for a whole calendar year because the snow conditions were bad.” That’s part of why so many ski areas offer reciprocity deals with other resorts, he says: “We want to keep winter front-of-mind.”

Plus, as every Washington ski area takes care to point out, a bad snow year in the Cascades is still a heck of a lot better than it would be in other parts of the country. “We get totals that other regions would love to have,” says Guy Lawrence, citing Snoqualmie Pass snowfall data that still puts the area’s annual average in the 300- to 400-inch range. “I feel like, honestly, we’re pretty spoiled here. It’s a shock when we don’t get an abundant season—it throws people.”

It’s all about managing expectations, perhaps. “Every year I have at least one epic day,” says Kristina Ciari.

And Carson Guy? “I’m just trying to be optimistic this season.”

Sara Bernard writes about environment and education for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at sbernard@seattleweekly.com or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy.

 
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