Aspen and the End of Snow
Credit: Photograph by Erik Johansson

This idea of Aspen as a model for the world – a shining city at the bottom of a hill – was introduced to the public in 2005 when the city proposed a series of ambitious environmental resolutions called the Canary Initiative. "The goal," wrote Aspen's mayor in 2007, when the Initiative's first regulation was enacted, "is to aggressively reduce Aspen's carbon footprint to protect our community's future, and to contribute to global reduction of global warming pollution." One of its chief resolutions was to eliminate coal-fired power as an energy source by 2015. Under Ireland, the share of the city's energy that came from renewable sources rose to 75 percent, with contributions from solar, hydroelectric, and wind power. By spring 2014, with the city's purchase of power from a new hydroelectric plant, that number will rise to more than 89 percent. By comparison, the neighboring utility, Holy Cross Energy, which serves most of the homes in the hills above town, draws 12 percent of its power from renewable sources. Since the Canary Initiative, water conservation – a crucial priority for a city that relies mainly on snowpack runoff for its water supply – has been fortified by the renovation of the town's water treatment facilities and a $5 million retrofitting of the city's pipes. And thanks to the high-tech bus system, which is free to ride within 15 miles of Aspen and serves 4.5 million passengers a year, Aspen has the same volume of automobile traffic as it did 20 years ago.

"Leadership by example is not only the best way," says Ireland. "It's the only way. You have a stage here, a bully pulpit. If this were Carbondale" – a city 30 miles up the valley – "people like Bill Clinton wouldn't be asking me to lunch."

But the sense of enlightened sacrifice, of noblesse oblige, can be traced further back than the Canary Initiative, all the way to the spring of 1945, when Walter Paepcke, a cardboard-box magnate from Chicago, came to town. There were no paved roads or stoplights then, and the population had dwindled to 700, but Paepcke found a dilapidated grand hotel, the charred remains of an opera house, brick-and-sandstone country stores, and Victorian mansions – the legacy of a silver mine that during the 1880s was one of the richest in the world, with a 40-mile-wide mother vein. In 1892 alone, the equivalent, in today's dollars, of $2.6 billion worth of silver was removed from Aspen's mountains. The following year, the Sherman Act was repealed; silver was demonetized, and the metal's value crashed. Nearly all 15,000 residents fled, leaving behind many of the city's treasures. Most valuable of these was a hydroelectric plant, built in 1893, on the edge of Castle Creek, in part to provide electricity to the mining tunnels. From a small reservoir 300 feet above town, water descended a flume – like a waterslide made out of wooden planks – and fed five 270-horsepower turbines. Aspen was one of the first cities west of the Mississippi to be fully electrified – earlier, even, than Denver. Incandescent lamps soon appeared in every home and office, and on the streets. The plant supplied all the city's power until 1958.

Paepcke, a Yale graduate who incorporated modern art into his company's advertising campaigns and sought to enrich himself by taking the Great Books seminar at the University of Chicago, dreamed of re-creating Aspen in his own image. After founding the Aspen Skiing Company in 1946, he grew more ambitious. "He saw it first as a ghost town worth preserving as such," said Robert Maynard Hutchins, who served as president of the University of Chicago. "He then began to think of it as an American Salzburg." In 1949 Paepcke invited artists, scholars, businessmen, musicians, and politicians to Aspen for a festival in honor of Goethe's 200th birthday. The Goethe Bicentennial served as a model for the Aspen Institute, which Paepcke founded in 1950, as well as the Aspen Music Festival and School and the International Design Conference. It wasn't so much a city that was emerging but a grand humanistic experiment – what came to be known as the Aspen Idea, defined by a "harmony between mind, body, and spirit." By 1953, two bookstores had opened in downtown Aspen, along with boutiques selling Venini glass, Pucci dresses, Gucci leather, and drawings by Andy Warhol. Paepcke had turned "a shattered town into a kind of national treasure of arts and ideas," wrote journalist Peggy Clifford in her 1980 memoir, 'To Aspen and Back.' "It was not an act of philanthropy. It was an act of passion – and hubris."

"Aspen has always attracted people who think they can do whatever they want to do," wrote Hunter S. Thompson, who first visited this "experimental behavioral tank" in 1960 and later settled 15 miles away. "Of course," he added, "you can't create a valley for the rich and then expect to live in peace with them. The rich are monsters."

I thought of Thompson one afternoon while I waited for the free public bus to take me back to my hotel. The evidence of Aspen's enlightened environmental awareness was visible all around me: recycling bins; a stand offering complimentary biodegradable doggie bags; a water fountain and plastic-bottle refilling station with signs urging passersby to drink Aspen tap; advertisements for RFTA, the nation's first rural rapid transit system, and its fleet of clean diesel buses; a rack of WE-cycle bicycles, positioned near a parking area for Car to Go, Aspen's car-share program. Maria Shriver walked by with two friends. She looked happy. Everybody in Aspen looked happy. The Aspen Idea was thriving. It was the week of the Aspen Institute's annual Ideas Festival, and the private jets lowering overhead contained many of the world's most prominent intellectuals, businessmen, and politicians. There were talks with titles such as "Fear and Hope: Climate Change and Policy Solutions" and "What Is the Right Energy Mix?" By all appearances, Walter Paepcke's dream has been achieved.

There is only one problem. No matter how successfully the town curbs its carbon emissions or protects its pristine natural environment, Aspen, as we know it, is doomed.

"The winter lasts forever," wrote James Salter in a 1981 ode to the town where he has spent his winters since 1969. "Skiing begins in late November and continues until mid-April."

Not anymore. About 15 years ago, Chris Davenport, the world-champion skier, was hiking to Maroon Bells, Aspen's most iconic landmark. Near the end of that hike, as you reach an altitude of 14,000 feet, Aspen's second-most-iconic landmark comes into view: the massive snowfield that gives Snowmass Mountain its name. Snowmass, long considered the largest permanent snowfield in Colorado, descends the mountain's eastern slope like a billowy white apron. It is a popular local tradition to hike the slope in July or August, have a picnic near the summit, and occasionally ski down. But when Davenport, 200 feet from the summit of North Maroon Peak, looked for the familiar view, he became confused. Snowmass was missing. Had it moved? No, it dawned on him, the mountain was still there. Only the snow was missing.

"I speak the language of the mountain," Davenport tells me. "She doesn't hide anything. When she speaks, it's not subtle."

There are a number of ominous signs beyond the shrinking ski season, none of them subtle. Kit Hamby, district manager of Snowmass Water & Sanitation District, has never seen water levels so low on Snowmass Creek, which provides water to nearby Snowmass Village. Like all local streams, the creek is fed by snowpack. "The averages are going down."

Jeff Pogliano, a 30-year Aspen resident who sells real estate at Sotheby's downtown, has been surprised at the unpredictability of the weather in the past 15 years, though he insists he is "not a climatologist." He is especially concerned about the increase in frequency and vehemence of forest fires across Colorado. "The conversation is always whether or not we'll have Fourth of July fireworks," he says. Later that week, blaming the extreme drought that had ravaged the state, the Pitkin County sheriff canceled the fireworks for the second consecutive year.

"Winters are shorter, no question," says Ireland, who has lived in Aspen for 34 years. "This community has to start thinking about what we're going to do post-snow."

Aspen's temperatures have increased by approximately three degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years – a finding consistent with the fact that the American West has warmed more quickly than global averages. A study commissioned by the Canary Initiative projected that in a medium-emissions scenario, temperatures will rise an additional 3.2 to 4.5 degrees by 2030. In high-emissions scenarios, there will be no more skiing in Aspen by 2100, possibly well before then, and Aspen's climate will resemble that of Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo by that point should resemble Venus.

Aspen will have problems more dire than hotter weather, however. Even in the worst-case scenarios, Aspen and the other mountain towns in the American West will still be more habitable than cities in the plains. When Denver turns into desiccated, sunbaked desert, Aspen and the towns in the Rocky Mountains will seem balmy by comparison. But Aspen is not immune to the great curse of the American West: It, too, has a water problem. Its streams and creeks, which provide some of its energy and all its drinking water, are fed largely by snowmelt. Snowpack melts gradually, working as a natural pipette, supplying the streams with a steady trickle of water.

It is not known whether the amount of annual precipitation will be changed by warmer temperatures. But even if precipitation remains constant, it won't be distributed in the same way. "In midwinter," says Kevin Trenberth, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Climate Analysis Section, "warmer conditions actually mean more snow, because the atmosphere holds more moisture at a rate of about 4 percent per degree Fahrenheit warming." The winter will be shorter, however, and the snowpack will melt more quickly. Without a snowpack, water levels in the streams will drop precariously as summer progresses. During rains, stream levels will spike, but they will fall immediately afterward and risk drying up entirely. The longer summers will lead to more severe wildfires and droughts, while there will be more floods in the early spring and autumn.

The streams are the mountains' arteries, responsible for supporting not only the fish and aquatic species that live in the river but the animals and plants that drink from it. Among the animals that rely on the streams for their drinking water are human beings.