“Climate change isn’t coming. It’s already here; we’re at the front end now.”
BY TODD WILKINSON
You rummage through a trunk in the attic and happen upon a dusty old photo album. Flipping through its pages, you discover a series of candid poses featuring your great grandparents back in that distant winter of ‘17.
Decades before you were born, these hale frosty-faced relatives, evincing grins from their snowy past, stand in vaulted white ramparts, the curves of their landscape recognizable to you—and yet they seem so foreign. But there your ancestors are: bundled contentedly against the elements, riding packed trams to the legendary powderamas of yore; ascending to destinations like Rendezvous Bowl in Jackson Hole, the black diamond runs of Grand Targhee, to the crest of Lone Mountain, and mugging for cellphone cameras along the ridge at Bridger Bowl.
Savoring what old-timers called “downhill skiing’s golden age” in the Northern Rockies, they hit the piste in late November and didn’t quit until mid-April.
Now in your own time, it’s Presidents Day weekend 2067, a period that once represented the busiest stretch of the ski season in winters half a century ago. You find that notion unbelievable. On this mid-February afternoon, it’s drizzling as it was during the Christmas holidays and into January; the thermometer reads a balmy 60 degrees. Intrigued by the thought of what once was, you set out to find the elusive snow line.
As you wheel in a driverless car through Greater Bozeman, population 350,000, you encounter subdivisions in the Gallatin Valley stretching for 40 miles—farmland that gave way to sprawl a generation before as agriculture became unworkable in unrelenting heatwaves. Summers with only a few days of temperatures above 100 degrees in your forebears’ era now broil in triple digits for a month or more.
Few could’ve predicted that when shortages of freshwater and extreme heat events caused social unrest in the desert Southwest, from Vegas to Tucson, and when rising seas struck the coasts, more than a million “environmental refugees” would pour into Greater Yellowstone. Yet it happened.
Along the four-lane highway leading down the Gallatin Canyon to Big Sky, you find every bend of the Gallatin River crowded with masses of anglers waiting their turns to cast, each knowing the current will be dipping fast as another short fishing season soon comes to a close. The Gallatin—formerly one of Montana’s crown jewels—once formed the cinematic backdrop to an old, old film, A River Runs Through It. On May 1 every year, the state shutters rivers to angling and rafting because of low flows and an attempt to reduce human stress on what remains of dwindling trout fisheries. But it’s like that on every stream in the region—the Madison, Snake, Yellowstone and Big Horn.
Such a vision, what some might consider dystopia, isn’t a jeremiad coming from the mouth of a radical environmentalist. Rather, it’s a prediction made by someone who works for perhaps the best-known outdoor snowsport corporation in the world, the Aspen Skiing Company. What Auden Schendler describes as Greater Yellowstone’s futureshock can be applied to mountain towns throughout the Rockies.
“Climate change isn’t coming,” he explains. “It’s already here; we’re at the front end now. But we can alter the future for those who will be looking back from 2067. The only question is: Will they be praising us for taking action or cursing us for what we didn’t do?”
“The way to [address the problem] costs almost nothing, but carries risk and exposure: it’s to use our voice and influence to speak out and force elected officials to move.”
An ardent recreationist and a family man with bills to pay, Schendler has been called a “conscientious objector” and a gadfly. He notes that as 2016 set another global record as the warmest in modern times, more than a million square miles of snowpack— an area equal in size to three Texases—that would ordinarily exist in spring has disappeared since 1970. The same as epic areas of sea ice cover in the Arctic north has shrunken back and the ice caps of Greenland are in accelerating melt.
In 2014, I listened to Schendler address the 2014 Jackson Hole SHIFT Festival on outdoor recreation, saying things about climate change the rest of his industry wouldn’t touch. I was shocked not only by his clear articulation of the science but that he still had a job. He told me his boss had his back covered.
Besides serving as vice president of environment and sustainability for Aspen Snowmass, Schendler has served as board president of Protect Our Winters, a no-holds-barred nonprofit that has more than 130,000 supporters around the globe. Their primary target is first getting the ski industry and outdoor gear manufacturers to wake up, mobilize hundreds of millions of outdoor sports enthusiasts around the world, then turn up the heat on Congress, governors, state houses and even local chambers of commerce.
Schendler doesn’t cloak his frustration with the ski industry. In 2016, he was asked to give a talk at the Outdoor Industry Association rendezvous in Denver. As he prepared his remarks, organizers wanted him to tone it down—to focus not on swift attitude adjustments companies must make to slow climate change, but how business can still grow and thrive in a warming world. “I told them, ‘No. I won’t do it. I don’t sugar coat,’” Schendler said. “That head-in-sand perspective is pervasive and it feeds into the perception that climate change is only a silly preoccupation of a radical fringe instead of being the greatest challenge for civilization of our time.”
What Schendler is advancing involves an operational question that goes far beyond the bounds of existing balance sheets pertaining to investments in snowmaking, lift capacity, real estate, and building mountain bike trails to service growing numbers of warm-weather visitors. It’s analogous to NASA, he says, identifying that an asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth. Unlike that scenario, climate change, he notes, is already happening and the solution is clear: reduce the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere.
Apart from rationalizing inaction on climate change, based on the argument that it comes with huge costs, Schendler says politicians, corporations and citizens avoid addressing “the moral piece” of responsibility to future generations. “It’s really about how we want to live our lives, and what obligations we have as parents and citizens, even as job providers, to take big-picture steps to address the problem,” he says, then invokes something profound. “The way to do that costs almost nothing, but carries risk and exposure: it’s to use our voice and influence to speak out and force elected officials to move.”
Schendler says the National Ski Areas Association, representing 313 alpine resorts accounting for 90 percent of skier/snowboarder visits nationwide, has a program to reduce carbon emissions. Climate change will render many of those resorts no longer viable. Notably, he added, Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee in Wyoming were on the list of 2015 “climate challengers” taking modest action toward the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality. But Montana’s Big Sky and Bridger Bowl were not. Schendler has brought along his boss, Mike Kaplan, CEO at Aspen, and Otto Wieringa, general manager at Utah’s Alta. A huge irony, Schendler notes, is that companies demonstrating social responsibility can use it to attract smarter, more committed employees. “People, especially those with children, want to work for companies doing the right thing,” he told me.
At the urging of Wieringa and Black Diamond Equipment CEO emeritus Peter Metcalf, 14 resorts in Utah sent a letter to Governor Gary Herbert pointing out that 70 percent of Salt Lake City’s drinking water comes from snowpack and 80 percent of the state’s freshwater goes to farmers and ranchers. They also noted that by 2050, Utah’s population is expected to double to 6 million. “Do I find it a little ridiculous to be pondering whether we’ll have a ski season 50 years from now given what other more serious priorities will be?” Metcalf asks. “Completely. But whatever it takes. If businesses with the most engaged passionate audiences don’t step forward, there’s no hope.”
Outdoor recreation in the U.S. is worth nearly $650 billion annually in consumer spending and responsible for creating 6.1 million direct jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. In Montana alone, outdoor recreation generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending, $1.5 billion of which flows as employee wages to 64,400 jobs. It is responsible for more than $400 million annually in local and state taxes, which fund schools and other essential services.
Warning bells have been sounding. In 2006, climatologist James Hansen, now retired from his high-profile job with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said carbon-intensive business-as-usual would be a “guarantee of global and regional disasters.”
A growing group of business people and prominent outdoor folk, from Metcalf to Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Todd Spaletto of North Face share Schendler’s and Hansen’s contentions. Corroborated by an irrefutable body of scientific evidence, they say human-caused climate change isn’t an abstraction; harbingers can be found everywhere. It’s only a matter of connecting the dots.
“Greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change.”
Last August, as I was driving to interview coal-industry officials in Gillette, Wyoming—hub of the Powder River Basin—to write a story about the link between the burning of dirty fossil fuels in power plants and greenhouse gasses, more evidence was visible.
Giant plumes of woodsmoke poured into the sky from forest fires burning in Yellowstone National Park, while along U.S. Interstate 90 the Yellowstone River had been abruptly closed to fishing and boating for 180 miles. The catalyst for the shutdown of outdoor recreation: an outbreak of a lethal kidney-destroying disease in thousands of whitefish linked to warm water and low flows in the Yellowstone.
Dan Vermillion, a Livingston, Montana-based purveyor of global fly-fishing trips and member of the Montana Fish, Wildlilfe and Parks Commission, said scientists whom he consulted blamed it on climate change. From his office in the Yellowstone River town, Vermillion described the closure as a sobering wake-up call for the recreation industry, especially fly fishing, which is a potent engine for the regional economy.
“We’re seeing events happen with a frequency we’ve never experienced before,” he said. “The closure on the Yellowstone was a costly biggie but in fact we’ve been witnessing a rising number of user restrictions occurring on other rivers for half a decade.” When the Yellowstone River was shut down for three weeks, Vermillion said that business at a fly shop he once owned in Livingston dropped 95 percent in three days. Later, the same parasitic pathogen that killed the whitefish, proliferative kidney disease, turned up in seven other major trout rivers in and near Greater Yellowstone, renowned globally for its blue-ribbon streams.
Some 40 percent of people who came to Montana in 2016 for fishing did so in Park County, where the Yellowstone River flows out of its eponymous national park. By 2067 as much as 70 percent of prime cold-water mountain habitat for trout could be gone. A recent study carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey showed that trout populations in seven major river basins are already exhibiting signs of stress.
When Vermillion was a boy growing up in Billings, Montana, August was the prime month for fishing. “Now I don’t book in August because of the uncertainty over water. In my world every place we do business—Mongolia, Brazil, the Bahamas, Alaska, British Columbia and Montana—has seen dramatic changes in what used to be considered ‘normal water.’ Fishing seasons were designed around when we had the most stable water conditions but it’s all getting out of whack. You create a negative perception and then people stop coming and pretty soon you have a domino effect caused by changing climate.”
A seemingly small change in average temperature can have big effects, ecologist Mike Tercek noted in a recent special climate change edition of the journal Yellowstone Science. “Scientists predict that we will experience 3 to 8 degrees of warming in the next 100 years. In other words, the planet will experience about as much warming in the next 100 years as it did in the 8,000 years at the end of the last ice age, but this time it will be 30 to 80 times faster,” he wrote.
Scientists in 2016 published a peer-reviewed assessment in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stating that since 1979, climate change is to blame for half of the drying forests in the West, expanding wildfire areas by 16,000 square miles. In addition, research spelled out in a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report said that for every couple of degrees the Fahrenheit rises, wildfire areas will quadruple in the West.
Professor Andrew Hansen, who oversees the Biodiversity Lab at Montana State University, was among four lead authors of a new book in 2016, Climate Change in Wildlands, which offers a comprehensive overview of documented impacts and likely consequences for wild ecosystems. He recently elaborated on what it means for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
According to Hansen, the number of days below zero F in Bozeman averaged 20 during the 1950s, yet 14 in the last decade and is trending toward fewer and fewer. And the decline in snowpack has reduced river flows by about 25 percent in the Yellowstone River since then. Due to the current low flows and warmer water temperatures, summer fishing restrictions are now the norm in rivers.
“I think the term climate change is more accurate than global warming,” Vermillion says. “Overall, things are warming and over decades that trend will prevail but in the meantime non-typical weather will be more profound, including oddly earlier and later snowstorms.”
Consider October 2016: Nearly 60 inches of white stuff blanketed Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, one of the snowiest in decades. But Professor Steve Running of the University of Montana, who was among a team that shared in winning a Nobel Prize for the science of climate change, says the overall trend is toward a drier interior West in which any potentially higher precipitation levels would be offset by rising temperatures.
Jesse Logan, a retired Forest Service entomologist and national authority on mountain beetle outbreaks, describes the unprecedented scale of insect attacks occurring on western forests. Some 80 percent of whitebark pine trees in Greater Yellowstone are gone from blister rust and epic infestations of mountain pine beetles fueled by warming temperatures that allow them more easily reproduce. Seeds in whitepark pine cones have been an important food source for grizzly bears prior to denning and the collapse of whitebark pine is causing bears to range more widely, increased conflicts with humans and could be resulting in smaller cub litter sizes and rates of reproduction in female bruins, independent wildlife biologist and former bear researcher David Mattson claims.
“It will require decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through conservation and development of carbon-free power sources.”
The evidence is clear, Logan notes. It’s caused by rising average temperatures. But he also points to something even more insidious: snowpack is melting during winter itself. Snowpack has functioned like massive natural reservoirs. Glaciers millennia old are fast winnowing away in Glacier National Park and could be gone in a quarter century. Sooner or later, Logan says, this affects how much recharge is occurring for natural underground aquifers, which are being pumped faster than they’re being replenished in some valleys with rising human population. “Water is what drives everything in the arid West, from ecology to recreation and, in many ways, our economy,” he says.
The reality is that it’s Mother Nature’s great natural water reservoirs and it’s been the foundation for how the inner West functions ecologically and economically: it’s skiing, fishing and hunting, rafting, fire prevention, irrigated alfalfa for cattle, livestock production, crop harvests, forest health, survival for wildlife and the unquestioned foundation of the multi-billion-dollar agriculture and tourism industries. And it’s the lifeblood of major metro areas like Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Literally, the impact of climate trickles down from snowpack in profound ways—mountain summits to the shops on Main Street in the New West. “We blindly assume that snowpack will always be there,” Schendler said.
The altered West of 2067 that he described will be the result of steady incremental changes: rising average temperatures, milding winters, heat outpacing precipitation and “unusual weather” that disrupts the order of things.
Snow levels are retreating up mountains and for ski areas in the Rockies to remain economically viable, they will have to move lifts and snowmaking above their current base operations. Even then, they will struggle as climate change devastates skiing found at lower elevations such as in New England; skiing conditions in the Sierra and Wasatch will in decades to come no longer be reliable.
The greatest enabler of the ski industry’s rise hasn’t just been putting capacity into terrain, but climate—having predictable, reliable weather as the basis of a for-profit model. But that’s changing. Schendler says other areas of the country have been the training grounds for skiers coming to the Rockies—from New England to the Midwest and California where millions of people have been introduced to skiing. But without winters they will no longer be feeder venues, meaning revenue for Rocky Mountain resorts will tumble.
“We are already watching the decline of coastal, drive-market ski resorts. And this is where future Western skiers cut their teeth,” Schendler says, noting that recruitment of younger skiers is not keeping up with the aging ski population.
“This is a crisis of our own creation that will not go away on its own,” wrote a panel of authors who completed a report on climate change, titled Unnatural Disaster, for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It will require decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through conservation and development of carbon-free power sources. There is growing scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change.”
The question is: how do we do it? Apart from phasing out old coal-fired power plants, regulating methane emissions and shifting to more renewable fuels, humans must change their attitudes, experts say. “We are bearing witness to a catastrophe,” Metcalf warns. “In light of the profound, uncomfortable, and challenging truths and policy implications we have to come to grips with, incrementalism will not suffice. It’s a delusion being reinforced by a well-funded fossil fuel industry to distort the science. What we need demands leadership, guts and a forward-looking attitude that goes deeper than what’s convenient for us in the immediate now.”
“The farce of those advancing the argument ‘we’ll just adapt’ is that you can’t adapt to a four or five degree rise because it’s a pathway to a 9-, 10- or 11-degree rise…”
After I returned from Gillette, Wyoming, Yvon Chouinard, co-founder of the clothing manufacturer Patagonia, was passing through Bozeman. He doubts that affluent Americans are willing to inconvenience themselves with necessary lifestyle modifications to confront climate change. He said humans narcissistically deflect and point fingers but we never reflect on our impacts or hold ourselves accountable. Those who consume the most resources ought to be vilified, not held up as role models. “We’re self-centered consumers not citizens concerned about a greater good,” Chouinard said. “We’re electing people who are actually voting against our survival. It’s just like being an alcoholic and being in denial that you’re an alcoholic. And until we face up to that, nothing’s going to happen.” He has made elevating awareness of climate change a major focus of Patagonia’s marketing.
The ski industry, by striving to be carbon neutral, can reduce its fossil fuel footprint, Schendler says. But equally as valuable is the message it sends to society, namely that recreationists need to stop behaving apathetically. Skiing isn’t cheap to maintain. Adherents who own second homes in the vicinity of mountain towns live luxurious, influential lives. They can cut down on their own energy use, set an example for others, and call on political leaders they know to take action. Before any shift can occur, especially one that results in carbon reduction occurring on a large scale, the collective mindset must stop its denial.
One profound irony of dwelling today in a “post-fact” era, in which the credibility of science is under siege by fossil fuel industries trying to discredit it, is that science has been a north star for the ski industry. The very same scientific experts responsible for weather predictions, which have given the ski industry a framework for constructing successful business models, say the evidence of climate change is overwhelming.
The National Academy of Sciences, the gold standard in science, has refuted arguments advanced by climate change deniers. NAS was on the leading edge of confirming that smoking tobacco causes cancer, and it helped inform public policy used to combat acid rain (caused by burning sulfur-bearing coal) and depletion of the ozone layer (owed to using chlorofluorocarbons which were banned).
The battles to bring about change are often hard won, Schendler notes, pointing to the tobacco industry’s ploys to discredit scientists even while people were getting sick and dying from smoking, causing billions of dollars in medical costs, lost job productivity and human misery every year.
“Instead of addressing tobacco’s carcinogenic effects in the ‘60s when we knew about them, the industry obfuscated the problem, knowingly, for years, so they could bank more profit before the curtain came down on tobacco,” Schendler says. “They have very effectively injected doubt into the conversation. Speaking truthfully when it comes to the corporate sector, especially companies that affect the opinions of millions of people, is really important.”
The paradox of knowing what lies ahead is this: Even if we wake up and become aware, how can we confront a problem and change the course of its effects? That’s where Schendler speaks of trajectories. Do you invest the resources or just plan to adapt? The latter, he says, condemns future generations to a world of environmental, economic and social turmoil.
“The farce of those advancing the argument ‘we’ll just adapt’ is that you can’t adapt to a four or five degree rise because it’s a pathway to a 9-, 10- or 11-degree rise,” Schendler says. “All bets are off if you believe that adaptation can be easily managed in order to assure some kind of orderly transition.”
Saying this, Schendler is actually optimistic that systemic changes, if driven from the top of America’s public policy makers in Washington and by the business community, can prevent the worst from happening. Switching from coal to a bigger mix of renewables will not be economically devastating. He points to expert opinions that electricity will cost more but as renewables scale and take advantage of greater efficiency born by technological investment, costs will come down.
“I’ve learned that you can’t be shrill and come off as a hand-wringing crazy,” Schendler says. He explains that despite noble talk about “the future” residing in the center of America’s civil vocabulary, thinking ahead is actually too much of an abstraction for most people to handle.
“On the other hand,” he notes, “if you understate reality, then it will result, at best, in half measures that don’t come close to the actions that are necessary.”
“This is a crisis of our own creation that will not go away on its own.”
Your self-driving vehicle arrives in Big Sky to vast vacant stretches of broken asphalt that held thousands of cars daily into the early ‘30s.
In a rain jacket, you catch a chairlift up Lone Mountain and still are on barren ground a mile and a half in elevation. Eventually, you reach the slush zone where artificial snowmaking has been deployed in a decade-long losing battle against perpetual thaw.
Finally, above 9,000 feet, you find winter—a rocky stretch of wild natural snow. Here on the summit, the base is 20 hardpacked inches (1/50th of what existed in 2017). Still, you let out a whoop. Awaiting you, unfolding in every direction, are encircling mountains spiked with the stark totems of burned-over evergreens, remnants of forests erased by epic wildfires following extended droughts and epidemic insect outbreaks.
Schendler refuses to accept this bleak vision. He notes the selfless attitude of “The Greatest Generation” during World War II. And he points out that when Earth’s essential protective ozone layer was vanishing two generations ago, policymakers took action based on the science, and phased out the chemicals imperiling our survival at the time. “They took brave action because they refused to accept the prospect of doomsday,” he says.
The worst kind of moral sin, he adds, is for elders who consciously knew better, who knew they needed to sacrifice in order to give their children the best world possible, to walk away from their personal responsibility.
Fifty years from now, five months of winter—and the human economies and outdoor traditions built on it—could be melted back significantly; summers, meanwhile, will be radically different. Oh yeah, that allusion to great grandparents in ‘17? Those people, Schendler notes, are us.
Todd Wilkinson is a Bozeman-based writer whose work has appeared in a wide range of publications from National Geographic to The Washington Post. He is author of several books, including the recent award-winning Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear in the World (mangelsen.com/grizzly), featuring 150 extraordinary images by renowned Jackson Hole photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen.