Idaho's ski economy susceptible to changing winters

Warm and dry 21/22 winter impacts snow sports
Posted at 4:40 PM, Apr 28, 2022

BOISE, Idaho — Every winter, millions of people head to the mountains to enjoy snow sports.

But activities like skiing and snowmobiling are vulnerable to a changing climate: warmer winters and declining snowpack tracked through the decades.

“We've been watching the weather. We've been watching the snowmelt. It's been an unusually strange winter," said Brad Wilson, general manager at Bogus Basin.

"Strange" is how many people would describe this most-recent winter season — including Wilson. As the head of Bogus Basin and a lifetime skiier, Wilson is essentially a professional weather watcher. Heavy December snowfall made both powder hounds and water watchers optimistic after last year’s drought, but instead there was record low precipitation in the first three months of 2022.

Related: Rain offers drought relief, but not enough

“March kind of turned the heat up and we had back-to-back weeks of well above average temperatures and then that just kind of puts the kibosh to the late season skiing," Wilson said.

Bogus Basin officially closed down operations on April 3 but the nonprofit later reopened for an additional day after getting substantial snow after the closing date.

Unpredictable winters are standard for the skiing industry, according to National Ski Area Association spokesperson Adrienne Saia Isaac.

“When you look at ski areas, we're really good at operating in uncertainty. For decades, the ski areas’ number one driver of business, which is snow, is something that we can't control," Isaac said.

Beyond the normal fluctuation of weather patterns in the Rockies, climate changeadds an additional uncertainty.

“As the model show us, if we do nothing, then not just skiing, but outdoor recreation in general is threatened, especially as weather events get more extreme," Isaac said.

Since the early 1980s, annual maximum snow mass has decreased by as much as 41% in the mountainous west, according to the Recreation and Tourism Reportwithin the University of Idaho's Idaho Climate-Economy Impacts Assessment. The report also contends in the future, more rain and less snow will fall in the winter with warmer temperatures.

As a result, snow season is shortening — several weeks earlier at Bogus with natural snowfall alone.

“That average opening date which used to be before Thanksgiving is now in early December. and so there's clearly a trend that we're seeing nationally, we're seeing worldwide, where the winters are getting shorter,"Wilson said.

Fewer people visit ski resorts during low-snow years — around 4 to 36% less than high-snowfall years, depending on the state and region, according to a study conducted by the Natural Resource Defense Council. That study estimates revenue loss at $43.2 million during low-snowfall years in Idaho.

And it’s not just changing precipitation that could impact Idaho’s ski resorts, wildfire also poses a risk.

“The thing about climate change is that you don't even really need to look 30 years in the future. If you just look at the last few summers and the extreme wildfire events that we've seen in the mountain west," NSAA's Isaac said.

One example is close to home.

A 2020 wildfire caused significant infrastructure damage to Soldier Mountain.

“The cost of cleaning up after a natural disaster is astronomical," Isaac said.

An Air Quality and Wildfire Smoke reportby the University of Idaho suggests Rocky Mountain forests will likely experience more than a 175% increase in burned area by mid-century under a moderate emission scenario.

Hundreds of ski areas operate in the U.S., and all are susceptible to shifting environmental conditions — a troubling trend that is set to continue under future climate emission scenarios.

“You know, we just have to take it seriously. It's not something that's going to go away by itself," Wilson said. "I hope we figure a way out. I hope we really pay attention to this.”

To view additional reporting on how snowsports locally are adapting to changing winters, part 2 of this series, click here.