Shifting snowfall patterns hurt economies that rely on winter visitors

By Aaron Corvin and Eric Florip

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photoA recent report found that climate change could deliver a big hit to states that benefit from the winter tourism industry, including Washington and Oregon. In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, seen here in January, showshoeing is among the most popular winter activities.

(/The Columbian)

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Anyone involved in the winter tourism industry knows what uncertainty feels like.

Snow is currency, and climate change could deliver a damaging blow to businesses that depend on wintry weather, according to a recent study.

"Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States," by two University of New Hampshire researchers, spells out the potentially dire consequences of warmer temperatures and less snow. It could also cause radically divergent weather patterns — unusual extremes that Washington and Oregon have seen to some degree this winter.

In the Northwest, some agencies are already taking steps to prepare for a new reality of a changing climate. Others have been reluctant to respond — or even speak publicly about the issue at all.

But many observers say the economic implications of climate change are real, even if they haven't entirely come into focus.

"It affects everyone, whether they know it or not," said Julie Koeberle, a hydrologist in Oregon with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The study shows winter tourism significantly contributes to the nation's economy, with more than 23 million people participating in winter sports in 2009-10, adding $12.2 billion in economic value to the U.S. economy.

However, without efforts to curb the catastrophic impacts of global climate change, the industry will experience severe harm, the study found. That's because winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, researchers said, "with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall, and (a) shorter snow season."

And the effects on winter tourism of lower-snowfall years are clear, according to the study, which, using data from 2000 to 2010, compares the average difference in skier visits for lower-snowfall years compared to higher-snowfall years. Among the study's findings:

• The downhill skiing resort industry is estimated to have lost $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue between low and high snowfall years over the last decade.

• The resulting employment impact is a loss of between 13,000 and 27,000 jobs.

• The largest changes in the estimated number of skier visits between high and low snowfall years occurred in states including Washington (down 28 percent) and Oregon (down 31 percent). The economic loss in low-snowfall years ranged from $38 million to $117 million.

Generally speaking, annual snowpack in the Northwest appears to be on a declining trend, Koeberle said. But it can be tricky to pinpoint those dynamics with so much natural variability year to year, she said.

This year, snowpack in much of the Cascades was at or above normal in February, according to the NRCS. But weather patterns this year have been anything but consistent. Snow has come in bunches, dumped by the foot during a handful of powerful storms.

In late January, a regular snow survey on Mount Hood was delayed — due to snow.

"We're seeing long dry spells followed by record-breaking storms followed by another dry spell," Koeberle said. "It's definitely sending off a signal to people that something's going on."

Bad snow years can have an impact well beyond recreation, Koeberle said. Resulting water shortages also affect decisions in the agricultural world, she added, as certain crops require much more water than others.

Of course, less snow doesn't necessarily mean less precipitation. But if more of it falls as rain, not snow, it's more difficult to create reliable stream forecasts that hydropower managers, fishing interests and others rely on, she said.

In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, winter recreation often means snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. But forest officials simply don't have concrete numbers on how those activities — and the conditions supporting them -- have shifted in recent years, said Dave Olson, a restoration and stewardship officer.

"Until we see the trend data, it's hard to know how it's changing locally," Olson said. "We just don't have a lot of information."

That doesn't mean climate change isn't on the radar of the U.S. Forest Service. Gifford Pinchot officials last year drafted a climate change action plan designed to shape their response. As a blueprint, it used a 10-point "scorecard" developed by federal officials.

The result may change the way officials manage the forest, Olson said. Staffers already started using larger culverts or stream crossings on forest roads to minimize damage from flooding, he said, though that move wasn't specifically prompted by climate change.

Hesitation to speak

State and local tourism industry officials declined to comment on the study's findings, which The Columbian sent to them for their review. In an email, Tallie Matson, marketing and communications assistant for the Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Office, said the office "has not done enough research on this topic to provide you with a quote about climate change impact on the tourism industry." Matson referred inquiries to Louise Stanton-Masten, executive director of the Washington Tourism Alliance, the state's main tourism advocacy group.

Stanton-Masten also declined to comment.

Scott Bailey, Southwest Washington regional labor economist for the Washington Employment Security Department, said climate change, connected to decades of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, remains invisible to many. But that's changing as severe weather, including big storms and severe droughts, can "rise up and just smack us one."

The Pacific Northwest, Bailey said, will start to notice impacts to the wine industry as grapes, which are "very sensitive to temperature change," no longer grow as well all of a sudden. He said the region's canopy of Douglas fir trees also will be hurt by climate change. "All of a sudden, they don't grow below 3,000 feet," he said. "Things like that will be cropping up over the coming decades."

In the meantime, policy makers still have a lot to learn, Koeberle said.

"I think people are thinking about it," she said. "It's just going to take a while to get a handle on it."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.

Aaron Corvin: 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.