April is Colorado’s last chance for big snow. That’s why Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of Arapahoe Basin, a popular ski area in Summit County, Colorado, lost sleep over a forecast of rain for the first Saturday of the month.
Bordering the steep and rocky Continental Divide, the peaks of Arapahoe Basin—called A-Basin for short—soar up to 13,000 feet, offering some of the highest skiable terrain in North America. It’s usually the first ski area to open in October, and the last to close in June.
With such an extended season, losing one powder day to an unusual bout of rain wouldn’t normally keep Henceroth up at night. But Colorado was coming off an abysmal year for snowfall, something Henceroth worries could be a preview of the future. Thanks to a warming planet, scientists predict the season for skiing could shrink by weeks or months, depending on elevation, by the year 2050.
A-Basin and other resorts are bracing for a big impact. So are the downstream communities that depend on Western snowpack to replenish their water supply.
The winter sports community, which employs tens of thousand of workers and adds more than $20 billion per year to the U.S. economy, isn’t just standing by. To preserve the outdoor recreation they love, resorts like A-Basin, activist groups comprised of professional winter athletes, and even some Olympians, are teaming up to convince skeptical politicians to care about climate change.
Their goal is, ultimately, to save winter.
When most two year olds are learning to walk, Jake Black and his brothers were learning to ski. That’s how it is when you’re born and raised in Keystone, Colorado, a mountain town of just over 1,000 that’s a short shuttle away from some of America’s best ski resorts. Black’s mom taught skiing for 38 years at Keystone. “That was my daycare,” Black joked.
When Black was seven, he switched to snowboarding and quickly started winning competitions in halfpipe and slopestyle. Soon, brands flocked to Black, offering lavish sponsorships and the newest gear while flying him all over the world to snowboard.
Black built his world and identity around being a snowboarder, traveling in the winters to compete while earning his bachelor’s in sustainability studies from Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. But the more he studied the studied the environment, the more he realized his identity was being threatened.
Now, at 29 years old, Black still competes professionally, mostly in what’s called “banked slalom,” a steep course littered with hairpin turns and sharp bends that cause even the best snowboarders to wipeout. When he’s not competing, he spends his time fighting to save the climate of his childhood.
“I moved to Aspen a year ago,” Black told Earther. “And last year was the first time in my entire life I’ve seen it rain every single month of the year.”
Seeing Colorado change compelled Black to join Protect Our Winters as an athlete in 2012. Founded in 2007 by Jeremy Jones, a legend in “big mountain” snowboarding, Protect Our Winters is a nonprofit that advocates for climate action, with the help of professional athletes like Jake.
Black’s currently Protect Our Winters’ school program manager, a job that entails hosting school assemblies, called “Hot Planet, Cool Athletes,” about climate change across the country. He believes students are open minded, and that it’s important to educate them about climate science before it becomes politicized by adults. But mainly, his assemblies focus on personal relationships to the environment.
“Students care about the outdoors, clean air, clean water, a stable economy and their parent’s jobs,” Black said. “Which are all protected if we take action to mitigate climate change now.”
Until recently, Protect Our Winters was focused heavily on outreach and education. Now, the organization is bringing the fight to lawmakers.
On a snowy April Saturday, A-Basin hosted a panel at the base of its mountain called “The Future of Skiing: The Science Behind Snow.” At the panel, Lindsay Bourgoine, manager of Protect our Winters’ policy campaigns, outlined the organization’s policy wishlist: carbon pricing, expanded solar energy, expanded public transit, and protecting public lands from oil and gas extraction.
Bourgoine recognizes this. “We can’t pass climate policies unless the people we elect view it as a top priority,” she said. “We’re diving into elections to work to elect climate friendly leaders” through the sister non-profit Protect Our Winters Action Fund.
Protect our Winters is also leveraging hard numbers to try and sway politicians who might not care about the intrinsic value of nature. At the A-Basin panel, environmental economist Marca Hagenstad presented data from the organization’s latest economic report, which found that from 2015 to 2016, skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers added an extra $20 billion to America’s economy. Between gear, lift tickets, restaurants and hotels, winter recreation is a force to be reckoned with.
“The fact of the matter is that climate change is and will continue to negatively impact our nation’s $887 billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy, and we have research that shows how the ski industry and surrounding mountain communities suffer in low snowfall years,” Bourgoine said.
Time will tell if Protect Our Winters’ advocacy can sway recalcitrant minds in Washington. At the very least, Bourgoine says, the organization has made “considerable progress” getting the winter sports community fired up about climate change, as evidenced by the recent phenomenon of Winter Olympians going to Capitol Hill to press lawmakers on the issue.
“We’re your canaries in the coal mine,” gold medal cross-country skier Jessie Diggins told Congress at a late-April climate panel in Washington that was organized by Protect Our Winters and Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “I see man-made snow everywhere we go—nobody can count on natural snow anymore. It’s a sign we really need to do something.”
The ripple effects of Colorado’s dwindling snowpack extend far beyond winter sports. Roughly 40 million people across the American West depend on that snow for water, Ben Livneh, an assistant professor at CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, told Earther. When snowpack begins to melt every spring in the Rockies, the runoff flows down the Colorado River basin, eventually making its way to farms and cities as far away as California.
But over the past century, the West has seen “dramatic” snowpack declines of up to 30 percent, according to a study published in March. During the first week of April, Colorado’s statewide snowpack was at 66 percent of normal. U.S. Department of Agriculture snow survey supervisor Brian Domonkos recently told the Denver Post that there will be people who go without water this summer.
Not even late season storms can bring enough snow to Colorado’s rocky and rugged San Juan Mountains, located on the border of New Mexico, to offset deficits, Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant snow survey supervisor at the National Resources Conservation Service in Colorado, told Earther. He, like most environmental scientists who spend their time probing snow, loves to ski, and he’s thought a lot about how a hotter future will impact his past-time.
“I would not be surprised to see those future projections come true, especially at lower elevation ski areas,” he said.
Ultimately, the winter sports community’s fight is part of a much larger battle playing out across the West, as communities grapple with many ways in which a hotter, drier future will lead to hardship—be it a loss of ski slopes as snowpack disappears, or crops as downstream farmers struggle to irrigate their fields.
Black knows there’s no silver bullet solution.
“But if we take action on climate now, we increase our national security, we become a more resilient country for energy infrastructure, we reduce health care expenses,” he said. “We can do all these things while saving snowboarding, so that communities can thrive.”
Update 5/11: This article has been updated to clarify that Protect Our Winters’ sister non-profit, Protect Our Winters Action Fund, is working on elections.
Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Wired, Vice, New York Magazine and Slate, among others.