PARK CITY — Devon Alvarez is a year-round Park City adventurist who thrives on mountain powder and works as a gear specialist at Jans Mountain Outfitters.
He can't imagine a Park City winter with barren and brown slopes and ski runs devoid of snow.
"It would be really sad without snow. The enjoyment of a true four-season place like Park City and Utah — not to have snow would be a sad day."
But a pair of reports released Thursday underscore the threats to winter tourist economies in states like Utah because of climate change. And one of the reports notes that 2012 was the most extreme weather year on record and on pace to be hottest in U.S. history.
A report by the Natural Resource Defense Council and Protect Our Winters said Utah suffers a 14 percent decline in ski visits in years of low snowfall when compared to ample snow seasons. That drop equates to a loss of ski resort revenue of $87 million and a decrease of 1,000 jobs.
For Brent Giles, director of sustainability for POWDR Corp., which owns Park City Mountain Resort and other resorts across the country, the impacts are a no-brainer.
"I can tell you that it is common sense. If you operate in a ski area, or you have a state that is dependent on winter sports, you will do much better if you have snow. It is not rocket science here, regardless of what the numbers are."
Elizabeth Burakowski, a researcher with the University of New Hampshire and a co-author of the report, said climate change is threatening the nation's $12.2 billion winter tourism industry, with decreased snowfall, warmer temperatures and more storms that bring rain.
"Snow is the currency in the 38 states that benefit from this industry and that currency is undermined by climate change," she said.
A question of jobs
An estimated 12,964 jobs spring from winter tourism in Utah, injecting $425 million into the economy with wages and providing an overall economic benefit pegged at $744 million, according to the report.
Giles, who has worked at the resort for 34 years, said he has witnessed the changes in snowfall.
"The industry operates that way. In 1976 it was extremely dry, and you can only have enough people to operate when it is open."
Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Ski Co., said the time is overdue for the winter tourism industry and especially the trade associations to leverage their economic muscle to push political change, lobbying Congress, the media and the public for carbon emission reductions in power plants.
"There is a 21 million-person base of enthusiasts in the winter sports world to drive the critical policy change so we can ski for the next 100 years."
Instead, Schendler said, the response by the ski industry has largely been "defensive," including denials that it is not even responsible for its own carbon emissions.
"The thought is that the ski industry is doing just fine, which is a puzzling response from a business. … There is an enormous upside to preserving a sport that is incredibly meaningful to millions of people."
Giles understands Schendler's frustration:
"We started talking about climate change in 1970, and here we are still talking about it. The time for awareness is past. What I say is that if you want to be more aware of what is going on, open your eyes."
Giles' company has done its own climate change reports, Save Our Snow, most recently as 2009. One report predicted that if climate change plays out like some scientists say it will with a retreating snowpack, the economic impacts by 2050 would be a $392 million dagger in the area economy.
To help do its part, POWDR resorts has invested $6 million on environmental initiatives and is a founding member of the National Ski Area Association's Climate Challenge, in which members detail their carbon footprint and list targets for reduction.
"I think we are one of the exceptions for industry doing this," he said. "I think much more could be done. At the end of the day, it is owners of these corporations who are like-minded, who have these kind of morals, who get behind it and support it."
This prospect of diminishing snowpacks in winter-dependent economies was detailed on the same day the World Wildlife Fund and ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) highlighted 2012 as the year of record, extreme weather.
Drawing on an overview of the year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this new report noted:
• The costliest weather disaster of 2012 was the drought, which could reduce the country's gross domestic product (GDP) by as much as 1 percent, or by roughly $150 billion.
• Impacts from the drought will spill over into 2013, which will start with far more serious drought conditions than at the beginning of 2012.
• As of Dec. 4, more than 62 percent of the United States was in drought, twice the area in drought a year ago.
That drought played out with severe effects in Utah, sapping its ample reservoir storage held over from the year before, with capacity now at just 61 percent, or 23 percent lower than what it was in 2011.
Those details, also released Thursday by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, speak to stream flows that remain below or much below average at significant number of areas throughout Utah.
The good news for the Wasatch Front is that despite the lack of valley snow on the ground this month, the basins are at average for the amount of precipitation received this water year, which began Oct. 1.
November was drier than usual, but the real test will come in January, when scientists with the National Weather Service and the NRCS start crafting a water supply outlook for the state.
For Giles, beyond the ski runs, the snowboards, the resort condos and money that pumps into the state, there is something larger, more basic at stake.
"It's not just the ski and winter industry — it's where are we going to get a drink of water in the year 2100 and that is a hell of a lot scarier. It is so much bigger than that. And it's global."
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