By Mikkela Blanton
With insight on the effects of snowpack on local rural economies from David Mucklow, a winter ranger for the U.S. Forest Service and a wilderness/trails forestry technician, and Marian Krogh, a ski instructor in Aspen, physical therapist, and the lead advocate for Protect Our Winters in New Zealand. 

Perhaps most notable about Colorado’s November and December of 2021 is the number of unseasonably warm and sunny days. The high in Denver topped out at 62 degrees Fahrenheit just three days before Christmas. And while the lows have dipped well below freezing, there’s one thing that’s been conspicuously absent in the forecast: snow. 

Indeed, in stark contrast to the years that many remember as wet, chilly, and white—especially during the holidays—the late 2021 winter in the Front Range has been anything but. While most are enjoying the warm temperatures and sunshine despite red flag warnings in December that portend a summer of fires and smoke, those in rural communities who depend on snow may not be feeling as cheery. Indeed, in Colorado’s mountain towns where winter sports tourism is integral to a robust economy, sunny, dry conditions don’t bode well for business. 

On December 2, 2021, the Colorado Sun published an article announcing that “Denver hasn’t seen snow in 225 days.” Eight days later, the city finally got its first snowfall of the season, breaking an 87-year-old record for the latest first snowfall. But it’s not snow in the city we should be worrying about; according to climatologists, the meager snowpack and lack of precipitation in the high country is what’s concerning. 

“I grew up skiing and in a ski-tourism economy. I’ve worked for the local resort as a lift operator for two seasons,” David Mucklow, a winter ranger for the U.S. Forest Service and a wilderness/trails forestry technician, explained when asked about this year’s snowpack. “What has become more surprising or frequent is how much later we’ve been getting snowfall. We got practically none this November, and the resort frequently blows man-made snow on the lower mountain to open for the season. It has led to the reality that more man-made snow is required to run a resort, but even high temps have prevented them from doing enough of that to open on their timeline. The industry is facing the reality of a shorter winter season.”

The entire state of Colorado is dealing with drought, with severe or exceptional drought conditions in over a third of its lands. Snowpack in Colorado’s mountains is well below average, a trend that is becoming more and more common over the years. To be sure, today’s snowpack has declined by 41 percent in over one-tenth of the Mountain West; data gathered in April 2016 found that the amount of snowpack had declined by between 20 and 60  percent at most monitoring sites in Colorado; and the average annual flow of the Colorado River has diminished by nearly 20 percent compared to last century, a direct effect of disappearing snowpack. This year, snowpack is at about half of what it should be in Colorado at this point in the season. 

Low snowpack is bad news for the state for multiple reasons: less snow means lower streams and less usable water for Colorado consumers, an increased risk of wildfires, the growth of high-altitude trees at higher elevations which can lead to ecosystem fragmentation, and a shorter season for skiing and other forms of winter tourism. The latter could have a dire impact on Colorado ski towns that have been built up around this form of winter recreation. 

Speaking from personal experience is Marian Krogh, who has spent the last 10 years in Aspen as a ski instructor. “It’s been a winter of extremes,” Marian explained, “There was close to no snow and even nighttime temperatures were too warm to make snow until mid-December. It was looking pretty grim and guests were reaching out to me, considering canceling their winter break ski trip because they’d heard there was no snow. Then it started snowing a lot and has almost continuously been snowing this past week. It’s becoming more and more common that in November and early December there’s minimal snow, and it’s constantly a worry that there won’t be snow for the holidays. ” 

Colorado has 25 ski resorts, many of which are world-renowned. As such, it’s no surprise that the ski industry is a major player in the state’s economy, contributing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in rural areas. The ski industry generates approximately $4.8 billion in economic activity annually and supports about 46,000 jobs in Colorado. Aspen Skiing Co. alone depends on about 4,000 seasonal workers per year. 

“I’ve had a lot of jobs. Most of them seasonal,” Mucklow told me. “Working seasonal jobs has long been appealing to me due to the changing nature of the work, the flexibility that comes with moving in and out of jobs that you can only do in winter or fall or summer, inevitably some time off between them to relax or adventure. In our time, it also comes with frequently underpaid positions, very difficult and expensive housing situations, and the financial stress of that time off in the shoulder seasons that can be a lot longer if the weather is not cooperating. And the reality of climate change is that the weather is more frequently not cooperating when it comes to snowpack in the American West.”

This year, labor shortages and uncertainty about snowfall have made it hard to hire those workers. While it’s not uncommon for resorts to rely on snowmakers early in the season, temperatures in 2021 have been exceptionally warm, limiting snow-making capabilities. As such, some resorts were forced to delay opening dates, and most resorts have also had to close off certain routes and terrain. Without operating at 100 percent capacity and uncertainty around when the next big snow will come—and then the next, and the next—combined with other threats to business operations (the COVID-19 pandemic, structural damage and erosion at resorts due to floods and fires, and a labor shortage), ski resorts throughout Colorado have struggled with confidently hiring and employing the hundreds of seasonal and year-round workers that call rural towns home, at least during the winter. 

“My job is to help provide winter recreation opportunities on our National Forest. Less snow and more users makes my work more hectic, but losing snow and snowsports would mean my job would go away. As a seasonal position it’s not guaranteed to be funded,” explained Mucklow . 

Krogh shares the concern about the impact of snowpack on seasonal workers, and not just those who work during the winter. While the lack of snow and cold temperatures makes Marian’s work unreliable and can result in missed lessons and last-minute cancellations, Krogh expressed concerns for friends and others in the community who work as raft guides in the summer—low snowpack means less water flowing into the rivers in the summer. 

If things don’t improve, the lack of a local workforce could have devastating effects for businesses and the local economy, threatening the way of life of these communities. As the viability of the ski industry continues to be challenged, with some experts hypothesizing that there may be no ski season in 50 years, so too is the viability of rural economies, businesses, and workers who depend on the ski industry. 

When asked about the impact of climate change and snowpack on the local economy and culture, Mucklow replied: 

“Climate change affects all parts of the tourist economy. Restaurant and service industry workers, frequently a second or seasonal job in ski towns, rely on snow to bring people to town. Important too, that no one wants to eat patio brunch in a terrible haze of wildfire smoke, or watch a hillside burn from the patio of their hotel suite. The harsh reality for these tourist economies is that they are one sided, much the same way that coal mining towns are. If the major economic driver is lost—the mine shuts down, the snow gets less and less each year—the jobs go away, the tax revenue goes away, the quality of life goes down for everyone. While snow loss may be more gradual than an abrupt mine closure, it’s a fact we’ve witnessed season after season.” 

As climate change continues to impact snowpack and the ski industry, further economic losses are anticipated. As such, it’s in the best interests of everyone, particularly ski resorts and the communities where they’re located, to begin addressing climate change and adopting adaptation strategies now. One silver lining, pointed out by Krogh, is that a low snowpack and unreliable season openings and ski conditions may help to bring awareness to climate change. “Not being able to ski as much is what initially made me aware of, and concerned about, climate change,” Krogh  said. What’s more, the industry is in a position to continue raising awareness about climate change and taking action to address the issue head-on. “We can and should be doing more. There’s a lot of power in the ski industry. As instructors, communicating with our guests about the need for climate action is a huge opportunity,” Krogh emphasized. 

“Getting to grow up skiing and winter recreating has brought absolute joy to my life. It is freeing and beautiful and has enriched my life to live in snowy places. I think all people deserve equitable access to winter and snow and snowsports,” expressed Mucklow. “Which also means we need to do much, much more on climate policy to keep winters snowy, and prevent climate catastrophe across all ecosystems.”