By Allen Best
Total Sierra snow little changed
LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – An exhaustive study of snowfall records kept by railroads, utilities and others who have operated in the Sierra Nevada of California has revealed no long-term change since 1878.
The study was done by John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a native of Fresno, Calif.
“California has huge year-to-year variations, and that’s expected to continue,” Christy told Science Daily in a story published in early March. “California is having a drought so far this winter, while last year the state had much heavier than normal snowfall. But over the long term, there just isn’t a trend up or down.”
Christy is among the most prominent of climatologists skeptical of the theory of global warming.
In a February story in the San Francisco Chronicle, climatologist Mike Dettinger suggests that Christy’s study proves very little.
“There is a popular conception that the snowpack has declined everywhere, but that is not what the science says,” Dettinger said. “What we’re saying broadly is that across western North America there have been declines in spring snowpack.”
Snowpack has declined over three-quarters of the western United States, an area that includes Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico, he said. Scientists from the Scripps Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have concluded that 60 percent of that downward trend is due to greenhouse gases.
Skier days dip
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Winter came late, is leaving early, and with just a few exceptions, was never all that much to crow about at Steamboat. How does that leave the ski company there?
“I think we dodged the bullet,” said Chris Diamond, chief executive of the Steamboat resort, at an event covered by the Steamboat Pilot & Today. He told a business group last week that he expects Steamboat to be down 3 to 4 percent in destination skier visits by the time the season ends.
Others have had it much worse. He said some ski areas in California and the eastern United States will be down 30 to 50 percent in skier days. Last year, U.S. ski areas recorded 61 million skier days. This year, total U.S. skier days will probably dip below 50 million.
With an economy showing increasing signs of confidence, this could have been a record year. Going into November, the only metric that looked bad for Steamboat were the airline reservations.
“I think that was a function of the cost, a minimum of 20 percent (increases year after year),” Diamond said. “The guest was holding off on that piece of the purchase until the last minute.”
Investments in snowmaking made over the last 30 years allowed Steamboat to do reasonably well at Christmas, even if some snow was only 10 feet wide on some trails. Early on, executives decided there would be no cap on the snowmaking budget.
But Diamond also warned of a lag effect.
“I think it’s been a long, long time since destination guests came to Steamboat or any of the major Colorado resorts and had a truly disappointing Christmas,” Diamond said. “If that ever happens, all bets are off. As soon as that disappointing trip occurs, you pay a huge price down the road.”
Aspen reports fewer heart attacks
ASPEN, Colo. – Even as Aspen and its suburbs have been trending distinctly older demographically, the number of heart attacks treated at Aspen Valley Hospital has dropped by about a third.
The Aspen Times talked with Dr. Gordon Gerson, a cardiologist at the hospital. He attributed the decline to bans on smoking and the broader use of cholesterol-reducing statin drugs. The ban on smoking in public places has reduced exposure to second-hand smoke, he said, and second-hand smoke is a contributor to poor health.
As for levels of fitness, that probably remains unchanged in the last decade. Aspen always has taken sweat seriously. But there’s more gray, or at least dyed, hair: the number of seniors has increased from about 1,000 to nearly 2,000 within the last decade.
Crested Butte layoffs
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Crested Butte Mountain Resort is struggling. It’s not alone in the ski industry, of course, but it had pains even before the no-snow December caused troubles.
Now, the ski company has laid off some long-time employees, including full-time, year-round workers, and mandated a two-week unpaid leave for every employee at the end of ski season, reports the Crested Butte News.
Ethan Mueller, the resort’s chief executive, said the company was hoping for a quick turnaround of the economy – but it hasn’t happened. “Frankly, one problem is that we took too long on making the hard decisions.” He compared the actions to taking off a Band-Aid a little bit at a time.
“Now we are right-sizing to fit our reality and moving forward. That’s hard, and unfortunately, we probably aren’t done.”
Crested Butte has been struggling for years. On good roads, it is four hours from Denver, and hence attracts relatively few day-trippers or weekenders. It has some very good terrain, which is one reason the X Games were first held there. But for intermediate skiers, who are the bread and butter of all destination resorts – there’s not much to hold your interest beyond a few days. Ski executives have said that the repeat business is low, compared to places like Snowmass and Beaver Creek, which means high advertising costs.
The resort was one of the first in the industry to invest heavily in a direct flight program, but with gas prices rising and airlines trying to align their finances, that subsidized program has yielded problems. When the recession hit, skiers stayed home, and Crested Butte had to pay the airlines enormous sums in revenue guarantees.
Then, because the reserves were exhausted, the direct flight program was curtailed. This winter, for example, the number of seats from Houston is down 65 percent. That will reduce the revenue guarantee by $425,000. But fewer seats means 385 fewer destination guests – who spend an average of $1,300 while on vacation in Crested Butte. It’s a downward spiral.
Altogether, Crested Butte expects to see a 10 percent decline in skier days this season, to about 330,000. That compares to a high of 550,000 skier days during the heyday of the early 1990s. Owners of Crested Butte have consistently said they need to grow the skier days to 550,000 to 600,000 a season.