Warming Sends A Chill Through Ski Industry

Temperatures are rising faster in the winter than in the summer, a trend that will likely have a profound impact on the tourism sector. Host Scott Simon speaks with Auden Schendler, of the Aspen Skiing Company, about how climate change is influencing the winter sports.

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Ice and snow across much of the country have meant that hundreds of flights have been canceled and many more delayed this week. But what I'm about to say may sound strange - it is true - the ski industry is worried that climate change is making winters too warm. For more, we spoke with Auden Schendler, who is vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Co.

AUDEN SCHENDLER: The concern is that winter is warming disproportionately faster than the rest of the seasons. The whole planet is warming but winter's warming about two to four times faster than summer.

SIMON: And how does that translate to the ski business?

SCHENDLER: Well, the ski business is a weird, difficult industry. It's entirely weather-dependent, even though you have snowmaking. So, if you lose March, where you pretty much make all your money because you've been running in deficit, you'll go out of business. So, you can't afford to have your seasons squeezed all that much. And yet all the climatologists tell us that we're going to see a shorter season with less snow and confusingly more big blizzards, because, as you have more water in the atmosphere, you'll have more opportunity for the occasional knockout punch of a storm.

SIMON: Is this true in European ski areas too?

SCHENDLER: Europe is getting hammered much more than the United States, much more quickly because the resorts are at lower elevation. So, many Alpine resorts have closed down. That's happening in the U.S. to some extent but not as much.

SIMON: Help us understand how this might affect the kind of practical decisions of somebody who runs some kind of ski business might have to worry about - not just, let's say, Aspen, Vale or Gstaad, but Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other areas.

SCHENDLER: Well, one concern is what if you can't get open? Even with snowmaking, two years ago, Mammoth got no snow and couldn't open. And the problem there is not just that you get bad PR but people don't have jobs. They had to lay off a third of their employees. If you work at a restaurant in a ski town and the ski resort isn't open, your restaurant doesn't have business and has to lay people off. And if the resort isn't open, you don't have lift attendants and ski patrollers and so forth. So, in mountain towns, the whole economy is driven by the ski resort, and it extends to hotels and everything else.

SIMON: I'm sure you can appreciate, Mr. Schendler, that there are people who might be listening to us who think, wait a minute, Aspen gets, you know, Hollywood stars and big-name conferences all year round. They can survive with the shortened ski season.

SCHENDLER: Sure, sure. And the reality is that we can extend this to tourism. And what tourism is about, is that people go and see beautiful things in the world. And what the climatologists tell us and what we're seeing is that climate change destroys those things. Think of New Orleans, think of the Philippines, think of Summit County in Colorado that's been hammered by beetle kill in the forests. So, climate change is this enormous threat to a whole industry and that is what is most concerning.

SIMON: Auden Schendler is the vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company. Thanks so much.

SCHENDLER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

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