For two years, California has suffered such a severe drought that its ski areas are threatened. As of March 11, the Tahoe Basin snowpack was at only 19% of average and one of the most popular ski areas in the region, Heavenly Resort, has seen only 73 inches of snow so far this season compared to their annual average of 360 inches.
In a recent Bloomberg article, “Fake Snow, Real Money: The High-Tech Fight to Save California Skiing,” author Evelyn Spence provides an insider’s look at Heavenly’s advanced snow-making system and the expensive fight to save skiing in California.
Lack of snow has all but ruined California’s $1.3 billion ski industry. During last season’s drought, skier visits were down 28 percent from 2010-2011.
Those resorts without snowmaking ability survive on a hand-to-mouth existence. Sierra-at-Tahoe only has 6 older snow guns, so the resort collects snow from decks and parking lots and hauls it up the slopes.
And for those areas with snowmaking systems, the warmer temperatures make it harder to make snow: “At 20 degrees, it’s easy and takes relatively low power and relatively little water,” says Jordy Hendrikx, director of Montana State University’s Snow and Avalanche Laboratory. “At 32, it takes huge amounts of both to make low-quality snow, and there isn’t a lot of it.”
Veteran ski industry exec Bill Jenson predicts that environmental changes and economic factors will cause at least 150 of the current 470 ski resorts in the United States to close. To combat the problem of snow, more and more ski areas are developing year-round activities.
The problem is far from unique to California or even North America – among the 19 cities that have hosted the winter Olympics—including Calgary, Chamonix, Nagano, and Oslo—the average February temperature is up to 46 degrees, critically higher than the 1920’s average of 32 degrees.