The Truth About Snow
An interview with the world’s top skiing climatologist, Daniel Scott
When it comes to the future of snow—and more importantly, the future of skiing—Daniel Scott is the man with the answers. Or, at least, the man with the possibilities. Will the Northeast have snow in 30 years? No. Will Colorado? Yes. Scott holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario—the first research facility in the world to comprehensively investigate the relationship between climate change and skiing, starting in the 1980s. Many of the computer models used in Europe today come from the university. Scott built his own model 10 years ago and has been using it ever since to predict what will happen to skiing in the next century.
When it comes to reading the future, Scott does not pull his punches. He co-authored a report that spelled the coming end of half of the ski resorts in the Northeast in the next 30 years. He also contradicted studies saying Colorado would suffer the same fate—saying that most climate models are done from a hydrology point of view, and leave out snowmaking in their predictions. The point being, Scott’s studies are scientific, without a conservative or progressive bent. And in a world flooded with misinformation, this is the kind of resource skiers need.
POWDER: Does this winter’s record snow in Colorado and New England disprove the theory that snow is disappearing in the Northern Hemisphere?
Scott: First, snow is not disappearing in the sense that we won’t have any, which is how some readers might interpret that. The higher-than-normal snowfall in the Midwest and New England this winter is illustrative of “weather/climate variability” and not more. If this type of winter occurred regularly over the next 10 to 20 years, only then does it become a climate trend.
What is the future of a white Christmas? Is the fall shoulder season warming as fast as the spring one?
Spring warming is more broadly pronounced globally, but regional differences exist, so it’s not uniform. This sort of discussion has to be more geographically specific to be accurate. White Christmas trends can be seen in the climate data of many locations, if you compare the 1960s and 70s versus the last 10 years. It’s best to get the station data for a couple of illustrative cities to highlight/contrast and demonstrate this point. I did this for a TV interview where I showed how many days below negative 10 degrees Celsius and below -20C we had in Toronto during the ’60s and ’70s versus the 2000s. Below -10 went from average of 55 to 32 days and -20 went from average of eight to nine to less than two days. That is climate change, this winter is “weather.”
Is it possible that the Polar Vortex that has been freezing much of the nation is related to climate change?
I have seen a press article (not scientific article) where a climate scientist speculated that the longer period of open water in the Arctic could be linked to altered jet stream and allow the usually contained polar air to “escape” to eastern Canada and the U.S. The research on that is in its very early days, however, and there have been other record-breaking, reduced Arctic ice seasons with no such repeated outbreak of polar air in North America, so the causal mechanism is uncertain. Very early days on any such climate change attribution.
Will snowmaking save skiing forever? Or is it more of a stopgap strategy to keep the industry alive longer?
Snowmaking is an integral adaptation strategy for skiing in virtually all ski regions around the world and will be increasingly important over the next decades. That said, snowmaking has limits (both physical and economic) and those limits will be tested at some ski areas and ski regions during record warm winters over the coming decades, and then in some locations regularly enough that some business models will not be sustainable by mid-century.
What do you tell climate change skeptics who say that all of the snow in the heart of winter this year is proof that climate change is a hoax?
Those that cannot even distinguish between basic concepts of “weather” and “climate” have little business commenting on climate change. According to NOAA, this winter is a near record cold winter in parts of the Midwest, but elsewhere in the U.S., Miami had its third warmest winter ever, while Phoenix and Las Vegas were very close to their warmest winters on record. Around the world, Australia was setting heat wave records in January (see Australian Open being played in temps as high as +43C) and most of the Alps have had a near record warm winter with spring-like conditions since January.
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