by:  PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Two snowboarders ride the Mount Hood Express chair at Mount Hood Meadows. Climate change will bring shorter ski seasons. Enjoy Mount Hood skiing and snowboarding while you can — your children and grandchildren may not get the same chance.

Oregon’s winter tourism industry is imperiled by climate change and diminishing snowfall patterns, according to a recent study.

It could be that within 50 years, only the upper ski areas of Mt. Hood will be available for snow sports, says Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. “If you look at some of the time-series photos of the glaciers on Mount Hood in the last 50 years, you can see where the glaciers are melting away,” Duncan says.

In the past decade, 38 states have suffered a cumulative $1 billion loss and 37,000 fewer jobs as a result of diminishing snowfall, according to a Dec. 6 report by advocacy groups Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The study was conducted by University of New Hampshire researchers Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson. They wanted to help policy makers understand the ski and snowmobile industry’s economic importance and the potential economic impacts of climate change.

Skiing and snowboarding had a $482 million economic impact in Oregon in 2010-11— accounting for 6,772 jobs — according to a new report by the University of Oregon.

But the ramifications of decreasing snow go well beyond lost winter recreation and tourism opportunities. Snow packs act as a giant reservoir for waters and lakes. Reduced mountain snow packs, Duncan says, would make rivers less hospitable for salmon, reduce hydroelectric power production, crimp farmers’ access to irrigation and bring more wildfires.

For now, though, Oregon’s ski resorts are managing to keep their heads above the snow and keep their customers happy.

“I think that with the full impact of climate change, we won’t feel it for quite some time because it’s so gradual,” says Dave Tragethon, executive director of communications at Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort.

“We’re not feeling that effect here on Mount Hood,” says Hans Wipper, spokesman for Mount Hood Ski Bowl. “We were open 145 days last season, which was our second-longest in the history of the ski area. We actually had a record number of skier visits.”

Ski resorts “are much more looking at the most recent snowfall as opposed to the long-term trend,” Tragethon says.

More erratic weather

Some people forget that climate change is more than just global warming.

The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere acts as a glass that converts the sun’s radiant energy into thermal energy on earth, Duncan says. The thermal energy cannot escape and leads to more storm activity, warmer temperatures and an increase or decrease of precipitation.

That precipitation can lead to either wetter-than-usual winters, which occurred last year on the west side of the Cascades, or dryer-than-usual winters, which occurred on the east side, Duncan says.

“There’s no such thing as a typical year,” Tragethon says. “When you average 430 inches of snow annually and you’re up here in the Northwest so close to the moisture of the Pacific Ocean, we’re going to get precipitation. It’s just a matter of when cold temperatures line up with that precipitation.”

But snow is the currency for Oregon and other states’ winter tourism, and the industry’s future relies heavily upon long winter seasons.

The new report notes that Oregon experienced the impacts of climate change during the winter season of December 2011 to February 2012 — the fourth- warmest winter recorded here since 1896.

The report concludes that if the threat from climate change isn’t acknowledged and addressed, winter tourism will continue to face drastic difficulties. Temperatures may increase an additional four to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Additional snowfall decreases will occur and there will be shorter snow seasons.

By 2050, snowpack is predicted to decrease by 40 percent to 70 percent in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains in response to warmer winters.

Some years the snow may stay longer than typical seasons, Duncan predicts. But in the long run, we should brace for the snowpack to come later and leave earlier every year.

Skiers and snowboarders aren’t the only ones affected by the change. Restaurants, lodging, bars and gas stations in ski areas will suffer, the study foretells. The snowmobiling industry also will be hurt, as it relies exclusively on natural snow.

Beyond the slopes

The Oregon Climate Change Research Institute released an Oregon climate assessment report in December of 2010 with similar findings. According to the report, Oregon’s climate is already changing, primarily a response to carbon emissions caused by human activities. Primary causes in Oregon are energy use and transportation.

Although Oregon’s total carbon emissions are only 1 percent of America’s national emissions and 0.2 percent of global emissions, they are double the average emissions of the European community and three times the global average, according to the Oregon climate assessment report.

The impact of climate change in Oregon is more dependent on global carbon emissions. So policy and lifestyle changes must be made at the local, state, national and global scale to minimize the local impacts.

So far, new policies are coming too slow to stop the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, Duncan says. “The science is in one place and the politics are way behind it,” he says.

“The good news is there are a lot of things we can do and will do. We just have to decide we’re going to do it. So far as a state, as a country and as a planet, we haven’t decided that.”

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