A new report says climate change has had a big impact on the winter tourism industry across the country and that the problem is only going to get worse.
The report, released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, shows that 38 states have lost about $1 billion and 27,000 jobs as a result of decreased snow fall. The report's authors say the outlook will get worse if state and federal lawmakers don't take action to address the causes of climate change.
"There's no doubt that climate change is real and it's impacting our industry," Chris Steinkamp, POW's executive director, said in a phone conference Thursday. Steinkamp's organization is trying to mobilize the winter sports community to fight climate change.
Steinkamp said his organization brought professional skiers and snowboarders to Washington last year to lobby Congress to act on legislation to curb climate change. He said athletes can paint a "clear picture" of how warmer weather is impacting winter sports.
"But the response from senators from both sides was, 'Great. Thank you. But can you tell us what the economic impact is in my state when it doesn't snow? I really need to know this before I can think about climate legislation,'" Steinkamp said.
So POW and NRDC joined forces to "place a value on winter," Steinkamp said. The resulting data shows that winter tourism - which includes skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling - is a $12.2 billion industry in 38 states. For the 2009-10 winter season, New York state's winter tourism industry supported 14,627 jobs and added some $846 million to the economy, according to the report.
The report shows that winter temperatures are projected to warm by 4 to 10 degrees Farenheit by the end of this century and that the length of the Northeast's "snow season" could be cut in half.
University of New Hampshire researcher Elizabeth Burakowski co-authored the report. She called snow the "currency" for the winter tourism industry, which includes ski resorts, manufacturers and restaurants.
"In many of the U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snow fall and cause shorter snow seasons," Burakowski said. "This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter sports industry that's deeply dependent on predictable and heavy snowfall."
Aspen Ski Company Vice President Auden Schendler said the report should serve as a call to arms for winter tourism industry leaders.
"This data suggests that there's a monetized risk, and the solution should be for the ski industry leaders and trade group leaders to get off their (rear ends) and move as if this were an existential threat to the business," he said.
Antonia Herzog, assistant director of NRDC's Climate and Clean Air Program, said federal regulations that could curb the factors that lead to warmer winters are already in place. She said the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority, under the Clean Air Act, to set carbon emission standards for major polluters. She added that the Obama administration has taken steps to cut motor vehicle emissions, and the EPA has proposed stronger pollution regulations for new power plants.
Herzog said the biggest hurdle is putting in place more emission controls for existing power plants.
"The president can do this," she said. "We don't actually need Congress and legislation immediately. The president has the authority to do this. And we all - especially, I would argue, the snow tourism industry - need to raise our voices together and call on President Obama to take action on climate change now."
One reporter on Thursday's conference call noted that many ski industry leaders have taken steps to adapt to changing weather patterns.
In the Lake Placid region, tourism leaders rebounded from a tough 2011-12 season by getting creative and attracting visitors with events and activities that weren't dependent on snow. This ski season, meanwhile, got off to one of its earliest starts in years.
Herzog said that doesn't mean nothing should be done to try to slow down climate change.
"And we do still have time to avoid the most severe impacts, and it is upon us to do so," she said. "Either we have no snow left, or at least we have some snow left and some of these resorts are there and continue to operate. Adaptation and preparedness do need to be done."
Responding to the report, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said Congress needs to "ensure that our tourism economy is supported by policies that reflect the facts rather than misinformed ideology.
"We must continue having serious, fact-based conversations about how to protect natural areas like the Adirondacks from environmental harm so they remain healthy today and for future generations to enjoy," he said in a prepared statement.
Ted Blazer is president and CEO of New York state's Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates winter sports venues in and around Lake Placid. He said ORDA is doing its part to help the environment by using more energy-efficient technology. Those efforts include energy-efficient snowmaking equipment and choosing to use less power wherever possible.
Jim McKenna of the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau, who is also a board member of the Adirondack Council environmental group, noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stepped out and acknowledged that climate change is happening. He said more people are recognizing that the winter tourism industry needs to adapt to changing weather patterns.
"It's a challenge," McKenna said. "And it's one we'll have to look at and recognize that we're going to have to change our business cycle."
McKenna said warmer winters in the Adirondacks mean even less winter weather for "feeder markets" - metropolitan areas that are home to potential visitors, like Montreal and New York City - to the Lake Placid region.
"So they don't think winter," he said. "That's another challenge for us."
McKenna noted that tourism leaders in the Adirondacks haven't been resting on their laurels. A delegation from Finland teamed up with the Wild Center in 2010 to present on the risks of climate change at the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.