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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Snowpack Preservation

Air Date: Week of

A growing number of businesses are breaking ranks with the oil and auto industries and saying they believe in global warming and they want the United States to do something about it. In California, the ski industry sees itself as the guardian of a declining snowpack and it's decided to speak up about it. Andrea Kissack of KQED reports.


CURWOOD: Scientists, including Professor Holdren, say the term "climate change" underplays the impact humans are having on the planet. "Climate disruption" would be a better term, he says, for the ways things are changing. And, perhaps nowhere is that more on people's minds than in California. The wide mood swings of the weather pattern known as El Niño delighted skiers this past winter as it brought 25 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But the snowy fees can easily swing to drought. And, some scientists predict overall rising temperatures could cut the state's snowfall in half over the next 50 years. This uncertainty and volatility has California's ski industry taking on the issue of global warming. From KQED in San Francisco, Andrea Kissack has our story.


KISSACK: On a sunny Saturday at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, skiers and snowboarders have enjoyed one of the best seasons in decades.


KISSACK: With a thick snowpack and every lift open, its hard to believe this mountain could ever look like the dry Nevada desert spread out to the East in the valley below.

STRAIN: There's a place that doesn't have the water or the snow pack that we do.

KISSACK: Andrew Strain is vice president of planning for Heavenly--the biggest ski resort in Tahoe. Wearing a silver and red striped jacket and goggles, Strain looks down 9,000 feet from the top of the Tamarack chair lift.

STRAIN: What a dry, scrubby landscape that is with low juniper, pinion pine and cheat grass. That's not the forest that we want here in Lake Tahoe. But that's what I think you are going to find if the snowpack is dramatically reduced because of global warming.

KISSACK: Snow dots the south shore of Lake Tahoe below and blankets the Sierra Nevada beyond. If scientists are right, in many places where Strain now sees snow, in a couple of decades, there would be rain.

GLEICK: We're changing the climate because of things we are doing, particularly, burning oil and gas and coal.

KISSACK: Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Oakland. He's an international expert on fresh water supply. Gleick says as industrial emissions warm the earth, it changes weather patterns.

GLEICK: This is something that I think skiers understand viscerally. On a warm day, we know that we better be skiing higher up on the mountain or we're going to run into the slush at the bottom of the mountain. That's what global warming is going to produce--more and more slush at the bottom of the mountains and the good snow is going to retreat toward the top.

KISSACK: Last year, UC Berkeley, Stanford and UC San Diego released a report on how climate change is affecting California. The study found if auto, industrial and agricultural emissions continue unchecked, California could lose more than 70 percent of its snowpack by the end of the century. In the next several decades, snow that generally falls at five or 6,000 feet could climb to more than 7,000 feet. This kind of worse case scenario worries Heavenly's Andrew Strain.

STRAIN: The length of the runs would be shortened; the length of the seasons would be shortened. You'd find more crowding as the same amount of skiers would crowd into a smaller area. You wouldn't be able to ski all the way down to 6,000 feet like we can today.

KISSACK: Less snow also means the plants and animals that live at higher elevations may be squeezed right off the top of the mountain as they're forced upward to follow the receding snow line. In the spring, according to The Pacific Institute, early snowmelt could cause flooding and leave less water for the months that are more vulnerable to drought. More than 30 nations have agreed to cut their industrial emissions under the International Kyoto Protocol. But the U.S. was one of just two industrial nations not to accept the treaty. Environmentalists have worked hard in the U.S. to get climate change taken seriously. They're hopeful about their new alliance with big development ski resorts.

COIFMAN: I think that there are people out there who would look at this as a partnership of strange bedfellows.

KISSACK: Jon Coifman, with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

COIFMAN: We looked at this as an opportunity--to focus on solutions to one set of environmental challenges where we know we have a crystal clear agenda in common was a real no-brainer.

KISSACK: The joint campaign, called "Keep Winter Cool," recruited top athletes to record public service announcements urging skiers to do their part, like carpooling to the slopes.

STREET (PSA): Hi, I'm Picabo Street. While it's a beautiful winter right now, scientists say that global warming means shorter seasons with less snow. That is definitely not cool. But, we can help solve global warming…[FADE UNDER]

KISSACK: California ski resorts are rolling out alternative energy solutions. Mammoth Mountain has added solar to power some of the chair lifts. Northstar at Tahoe is purchasing wind energy credits. Heavenly is adding cleaner mass transit to South Lake Tahoe and built a gondola from the center of town up the mountain to encourage skiers to leave their cars below. Seventy-one U.S. ski resorts are supporting the McCain- Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. The bill would cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. industry. It was defeated last year after heavy lobbying by auto, oil and coal. Andrew Strain says ski resorts need to stand up to those interests.

STRAIN: The ski industry has to lead and not follow, in the efforts to bring global warming to the forefront of public policy debate and discussion. We can't sit by and watch the discussion go by. We have to be involved and we have to be involved in a leadership role.

KISSACK: That role hasn't helped federal legislation to reduce global warming. But in California, ski resorts were influential in pushing lawmakers to adopt the toughest state auto emissions standards in the country, scheduled to go into effect in 2009. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea Kissack.

[MUSIC: Fontanelle "Reflex vs. Parallax" Fontanelle (Kranky)]



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