Close this search box.

Dude Where’s My Snow? The Impact of Low Snow Years on Western States

The beleaguered ski bum organizes their gear in the garage for the tenth time, checks OpenSnow, and huffs, “the snow this year is terrible.” Mountain communities prepare their sacrifices for Ullr and wash their cars, anything for a few inches this season.

Outside Magazine proclaimed that this is “literally” (aka: data confirmed) the worst winter in the West in sixty years, quoting Joel Gratz, who lists numbers anywhere from a 10-20 percent decrease in overall snowpack. Thirty year locals wander around like Old Testament prophets harkening the apocalypse with their cracking voices, “back in my day…”

States without prominent mountain ranges and snowpacks may not understand the severity of this issue. We aren’t concerned about the snow simply because we want to play in it (though we most definitely do). Snowpack, in states like Colorado, is crucial for our water supply and mitigating wildfire season. Snow is at the heart of the health of Western states. And it’s time for a check in.

Dude, Where’s My Snow?

Simply put: we’re losing snow. And it’s not just the hunch of a visitor who looks around and proclaims, “huh… but that run was open this time last year?”

Many of the Western mountain communities are on the front lines of climate change initiatives, like Aspen and Park City, and it may be because they feel the precursory effects as they warm faster than lower elevations. A study in Nature Climate Change by researchers from NOAA’s Earth System Research laboratory found that, over the past twenty years, temperatures above 13,000 feet warmed 75 percent faster than those below 6,500 feet. While the report notes that the warming trends for specific regions and data above 11,000 feet are difficult to gather and project, the trends are still concerning.

According to Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council in a 2012 report, in the case of no intervention, winter temperatures may warm anywhere from 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, causing Western snow depths to decrease 25-100 percent in certain areas.

Winter will have slowly slipped away into an endless shoulder season. In Colorado, the scenario would be a 5-7 degree increase and 25-75 percent decrease with winter precipitation largely falling as rain and warmer nighttime temperatures decreasing the efficacy of snowmaking.

Why does this matter? Because without snow, our economies take a nosedive, water supplies are jeopardized, wildfires grow larger, and our weekends get a lot less fun.

Economic Impacts

When there’s low snow years, visitation decreases, placing a blow on the economics of mountain towns and Western States. The start of the 17/18 season for Vail Resorts is showing an 11 percent decrease in skier visits. The slowed opening has some employees relying on community dinners and other opportunities as they wait for their work dates to coincide with the next large storm system.

Listed in the same POW/NRDC study, winter tourism is a $12 billion industry and gives added income to 38 states whether through lodging, sales tax, or increased spending at local businesses. In 2009/10, the industry supported nearly 210,000 jobs and brought in $3.1 billion in state and federal taxes. But a nationwide low-snowfall year brings in 15.2 million fewer visits and $810 million less value added to the economy as opposed to high years.

These numbers impact the health of our ski towns and the livelihoods of the people who work for an industry that has a broad scope of employment. Protecting our snowpack is a vital economic issue to the 38 states that support the winter tourism industry and recreational snow sports and a nation that greatly benefits from the revenue these activities collect.

If you follow the jobs and the money, they lead right back to the health of our snowpack and the need to ensure its longevity.

Water Supply

When the resorts close and the skiing up high becomes corn, the water supply of many Western states prepares for the coming snowmelt. The Department of the Interior’s Water Science School estimates as much as 75 percent of Western state’s water supply comes from snowmelt. Mountain snowfields are the wintertime reservoirs of the water supply and a lessening snowpack means lessening resources. In some cases, like the South Platte River, most of the streamflow is due to snowmelt making its way down.

This streamflow also contributes to the economic engine of the outdoor industry. “When it comes to the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado it’s a four legged stool that’s focused on public lands, water, climate, and access,” comments Luis Benitez, Director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “When you step back and realize just how much water impacts our industry as a headwaters state, from winter mountain sports to summer river sports (fishing, hiking, SUP, kayaking, rafting) you realize the scale of the economy that is impacted by this resource’s abundance or scarcity.”

While the Hoosier Pass Snotel lists 88 percent of regular snowpack, other areas of Colorado have not fared as well. The Denver Post reports the Gunnison River Basin snowpack at 35 percent as of January. Late spring storms will make up much of the deficit but certainly not all, and officials are keeping a close eye on water utilities across the state. Denver has a plan in place for various water shortages and managing water use.

To reduce any hysteria or fuel for the “raw water” craze, it’s important to note that many counties and towns have significant water reserves in the case of a sustained drought. One bad year is balanced out by one good year and Mother Nature shifts the scales. But this system relies on weather pattern shifts across the year, not a systematic reduction of snowpack

Wildfire Management

“Whiskey’s for drinking, water is fighting,” goes the old saying.

With a shorter snow season and less snowmelt, a longer season for wildfires emerges.

In its 2018 budget, the U.S. Forest Service has a dedicated fund of $2.5 billion for wildland fire management. In the next fiscal year, the budget will add another $259 million for preparedness funding. Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, has noted that fire suppression has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent. The fire season has grown longer and the fires have grown significantly in scope and scale. Fighting the massive fires of 2017 topped $2 billion in funds. The fires in Northern California alone have caused $65 billion in property damages. Often, multiple fires across the state are competing for a set amount of resources for fire management like slurry planes and personnel. For officials, this means making tough decisions on the value of properties threatened and the location/scope of each fire.

A study by the USDA and Forest Service projects that an annual 1 degree celsius increase would increase the median burned area per year by almost 600 percent in some forests. This warming also increases the chances of insect infestation, like the pine beetle kill that spread through the high alpine forests of Colorado, creating more fuel for wildfires to consume.

With less snowmelt, earlier and shorter run off periods, and hotter, drier summers, the messaging from mountain communities and officials is not if a wildfire will occur but when, and how large.


But, we’re not quite there. Some will object that this is incredibly preliminary, that we’re not running out of water, and another round of snow is going to save this season. They may point to the snow totals in Jackson or Montana and the 2016/17 Tahoe season as anecdotal counters.

And they’re right: we’re not there, yet.

We have substantial water in storage and, while writing this, a large storm system is moving its way through some of these Western states. The intention isn’t to be apocalyptic. If our snowpack bucked the trend and magically compounded year after year, I’d have a perma-smile plastered across my face.

This isn’t to say that one bad snow year will significantly harm Western states but that it’s a trend that we can’t ignore. If studies project 70 percent less snow in the Alps by 2100, without any substantial environmental progress, do we expect to fare much better? Inevitably, the weather pattern will shift and the snow will come. Until, it doesn’t. What would it mean to live in a snow-less Colorado? We don’t have to find out. The same Alps report shows that if the Paris Climate Agreement is followed (limiting warming to 2 degrees celsius) there will only be a potential 30 percent reduction.

But we can’t just pray for snow. We have to adopt policy for snow. We have to politic for snow. We have to elect officials who understand the outdoor industry, climate change, and the economics of towns dependent on resources like snow and water. We have to make systematic and structural changes to begin to reverse the trends, as evidenced by Project Drawdown. It’s taking all this stoke for snow and turning it into people who will lobby to protect it.

And this will require a whole new method of “selling” snow — not for its recreational purposes and pleasure but for our livelihoods, our economic prosperity, and, on a most basic level, our water and land.


Share this post:

Discover more in the Rockies: