Alison Gannett is a World Champion Extreme Freeskier, founder of The Save Our Snow Foundation and an award-winning global cooling consultant who has spent her life dedicated to solutions for climate change.
While I’ve been working to save our snow from climate change for over 20 years, superstorm Sandy was still a huge wake up call for me. One of the biggest problems for us global warming geeks is that “it” was always happening to someone else, usually thousands of miles away in a third world country. My skiing travels certainly made it more real for me as glaciers and snowfields I had skied just a few years ago disappeared forever in just five years or so. But the impact of Sandy hit close to home, so to speak.
For years, arguments have passed back and forth regarding what “safe” amounts of carbon dioxide emissions that we could emit might be. A recommended 80 percent reduction by 2050 was often seen as the only sensible way to keep extreme weather at bay, save our snow, and keep low-lying countries above water. Yet this was often regarded as too extreme and unreasonable to reach. While at Copenhagen in 2009, I watched the U.S. delegates actually argue for a one percent reduction over 1990 levels, while most of the rest of the world argued about 80 percent not being sufficient. McKibben’s recent speaking tour, along with a demonstration of actual higher-than-projected-emissions, are now showing us on path for a 7-14 degree temperature increase. Considering a two degree increase is most likely to put many countries under water and most ski and snowboard resorts out of snow, we now need to really skip the baby steps and focus on real and meaningful reductions.
This all doesn’t have to mean doom and gloom and crawling into a cave – I’ve happily reduced my energy use and carbon footprint in half in the last several years – all while saving money and increasing my quality of life. We are able to do this, but it means that we have to get real with reductions and stop being so damn nice about it. Forget recycling and driving your Prius; What is your carbon footprint and can you cut it to three tons from 40? This is going to involve some hard choices for all of us. In 2001: I gave up heliskiing; in 2005: my snowmobile; and in 2010: my ski pass. Each one involved tears and temptation, yet in the end I believe I am happier and healthier.
All of this leads me to another report I read this week, this time from Protect Our Winters (POW) and the National Resources Defense Council. It’s called the Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. So often, folks tell me that we can’t afford to implement changes in our lives due to the economy, yet (as this report shows) it is the very economy that will suffer the greatest in a world with super wacky weather such as droughts, floods or a combination thereof: super storms. Yet until now, no one has ever attempted to put a financial figure on the losses that the winter sports communities might incur, or the amount of jobs that might be lost. While skiing and snowmobiling contribute $12.2 billion dollars and 600,000 jobs to our national economy, the numbers from the state of Colorado alone are staggering; a $154 million in revenue could be lost due to the impacts of climate change.
“In order to protect winter – and the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend upon a snow-filled season – we must act now to support policies that protect our climate, and in turn, our slopes,” wrote study authors Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson of the University of New Hampshire.
As a World Freeskiing Champion, the founder of the Save Our Snow Foundation, and award-winning global cooling consultant, I’m often asked about my viewpoints on climate change in regard to snow droughts, like we are experiencing this year.
I found that people couldn’t relate to “climate change” and that the term “global warming” left people confused, so I switched to “global weirding.” That term more accurately describes what is happening — while the planet is warming, the actual result is extreme weather. Global temperature increases result in really strange local weather — record low temperatures, record heat waves, more windy weather, record droughts, and yes, even record snowstorms. As the air warms, it can hold more moisture, so in the short-term we can have larger snowfalls. In the long term, more of those storms will fall as rain.
Today in Colorado, we are seeing record dust storms that are assisting in extremely early snowmelt — up to 40 days earlier than historic records. I don’t think anyone has to be a rocket scientist to see that the weather is a bit weirder than usual. The extremes are just so much more pronounced. It’s January, and I’m going for a bike ride. How strange is that? In Pakistan, I saw glaciers advancing in 2005 due to increased snowfall, and then watched them retreat up to 50 percent by 2007. On one ski expedition it was raining at 17,500 feet — something I have never seen in my lifetime. In Bolivia, I skied the highest ski area in the world at 18,000-plus feet, but that glacier disappeared forever in 2009.
Folks ask me about a critical tipping point. In my opinion, we have already passed a critical point in the concentrations of carbon dioxide on our planet. But I’m an optimist and I believe we have the ability to change.