Ski journalist Porter Fox knows what you’re thinking: Sure, climate change is a concern. But do we really need to be worried about how it’s impacting the people who can afford hefty lift tickets in Vail and the Alps? As Fox saw firsthand, even those on the mountains don’t seem freaked out. “If you’re a skier and there hasn’t been snow for two weeks, you start thinking about climate change,” Fox says. “Then you get three feet of powder and say, ‘There’s no such thing as climate change.’ It’s not very conducive to convincing people it’s happening.”
Making that case is the point of Fox’s ‘Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow,’ the first book to comprehensively address the effect of climate change on snowfall and the ski industry. Inspired by ‘The Wave,’ Susan Casey’s bestseller about the impact of changing weather patterns on the oceans and surfing, Fox pulled the latest snowfall research. A lifelong skier who grew up in Maine and often hit New York’s Sugarloaf Mountain, Fox was stunned to read one study that suggested half of the Northeast’s ski resorts could be shuttered by 2039 due to lack of sufficient snowfall. “I’d been working for ‘Powder’ magazine since 1999, and I had no idea,” he says. “Nobody I knew personally in the skiing world had any idea how quickly snow was [disappearing]. I realized I was going to see it in my lifetime.”
Fox’s research took him to Europe, which is even closer to crisis than we are. On the Gurschen glacier in Switzerland, ski-patrol guides employ a 30,000-square-foot sheet of plastic to cover the glacier in an attempt to keep it from melting. Fox learned that, in time, American ski venues would also have dramatically shortened seasons and a greater threat of avalanches, due to the effect of more rainfall on snow. The results will be a boon for makers of artificial snow but a death knell for the sport itself.
One challenge for Fox was sifting through mountains of data, much of it speculation and some even contradictory. While a 2012 U.S. study projected the federal government could lose as much as $1.7 billion in annual tax revenue with less snow, he also encountered bogus reports written by climate-change dissenters, claiming climate change had stopped. “I had a full-time fact checker, but you can read the same study three years apart and the data is different,” he says. “Some papers can feel alarmist. You have to be very careful and strike a line in the middle.”
Fox uncovered one undeniable concern: Many ski resorts – and the people who live and work near them – are hardly leaping into action. He believes these businesses have been slow to react, partly because they’re more focused on day-to-day survival – the number of people who ski has barely changed since 1979. “The denial is quite widespread,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company. “Or, worse, [skiers know] it’s happening, but the reaction is, ‘Well, we’ll change our lightbulbs.’ “
The larger point of ‘Deep’ is that as snow recedes, problems beyond the tourism business will, of course, mount. Higher temperatures in the American West, for instance, mean more mountain pine beetles, which have already ravaged 23 million acres of forest since 2000. “A lot of people say fighting climate change to save skiing is ridiculous, and to a certain extent, they’re right,” says Fox. “Skiing is a luxury. But skiers just happen to be the ones who spend a lot of time in the snow and see it first. And they should be responsible for calling from the bell tower what’s happening.”