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Aspen study: Global warming could end skiing

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— Environmental dangers aren't always readily apparent in a small, remote community nestled in a lush green valley surrounded by mountains.

But officials with the city of Aspen considered changing climate conditions important enough to conduct a $120,000 study to determine what repercussions -- if any -- projected global warming would have on the Roaring Fork Valley.

The results of the yearlong study conducted by scientists were released last week with a headline sure to capture state and national attention: "Aspen climate study finds serious risk to the future of skiing."

"The general trends you see in this report are something Steamboat and all ski resorts should take to heart," said Dan Richardson, global warming project manager for Aspen.

The city of Steamboat Springs was interested enough in the study to contributed $1,000 to it in fall 2005. The contribution was made after former City Council President Paul Strong heard Richardson's presentation at a Colorado Association of Ski Towns meeting in Crested Butte.

"I suggested to council that we contribute," said Strong, who still sits on the City Council. "For a small contribution, they will keep us informed."

Aspen kept its word, delivering its initial findings in a release Wednesday, complete with statistics about the impact a changing climate will have on such things as ski conditions, insect populations, fire danger and the availability of water.

"It's a very comprehensive study," Richardson said. "It's much more in-depth than anything the city has taken on before. To my knowledge, there has never been an environmental impact study, other than standard ones."

Richardson also said he thinks Aspen is the only community in the country that employs a global warming project manager. With his environmental background, Richardson was not surprised by several of the study's findings. Others, however, alarmed even him.

Study's findings

Aspen Skiing Company and the city of Aspen are environmentally conscious entities, but the study --alled the Canary Initiative because "Aspen sees itself and other communities dependent on consistent water cycles as a canary in the coal mine" -- was a city project that provides information to the Aspen ski area and other mountain resort communities and their ski areas. In addition to Steamboat Springs, the cities of Telluride and Breckenridge also contributed to the study.

The Canary Initiative found that local temperatures are climbing faster than the global average. The climate models used in the study indicate that even if global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, Aspen's climate is expected to warm by about 6 degrees by 2100, creating a climate similar to that of Los Alamos, N.M.

If global emissions continue rising, Aspen is projected to warm by 14 degrees, giving the Colorado destination resort a climate like that of Amarillo, Texas.

Amarillo is not a ski town.

"By 2050, I would question whether some (ski) resorts will still be around," Richardson said. "If they can't open for Thanksgiving and aren't open for spring break, that may close the doors right there."

In addition to affecting the ski industry, warmer temperatures year-round would increase fire danger and insect outbreaks. A warmer climate also could endanger flora and fauna such as wildflowers, pika and aspens. The study also reports global warming is likely to increase the spread of invasive plant species.

Perhaps more important, a decrease in snowfall brought on by warmer temperatures would impact the snowpack, which provides an estimated 80 percent of Colorado's water supply, Richardson said. If spring runoff decreases, the implications will be felt not only in the Roaring Fork Valley, but across the Western United States. Municipal water supplies and the ranching and agriculture industries stand to be most affected, as will the economies of communities that depend on those industries and skiing.

"We could have guessed we would see an increase in temperature," Richardson said about the study's findings. "The dramatic increase was a bit of a surprise. The runoff reduction was pretty alarming. The implications of that would be huge."

Weather watchers

Steamboat Springs is north of Aspen, but the town and the ski area are at lower elevations than Aspen. The weather patterns that carry moisture into both communities are different, as well, advised Jim White, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Steamboat is a little bit different in that it picks up these strong westerly flows of air," said White, a regular attendant at the annual Steamboat Weather Summit. "When the storms come down from Oregon, it can snow on (Steamboat) and not be snowing in the Aspen area. The patterns that bring snow are slightly different. Having said that, we fully expect those patterns to change as time goes by. Your father's jet stream won't be your jet stream."

Predicting the weather one week in advance is difficult. Predicting weather patterns 50 years in the future is impossible. Steamboat may have to accept changing ski conditions. On the other hand, changing weather patterns that could potentially hurt Aspen may help Steamboat.

Much like year-to-year snowfall totals, weather patterns vary, but White doesn't dispute an increase in average temperature.

Few scientists dispute that the earth is gradually warming and that the concentration of carbon dioxide levels is increasing, said Henry Savage, a Steamboat Springs man with a doctorate in chemical engineering.

However, Savage thinks the global warming argument overemphasizes the significance of carbon dioxide.

Savage reviewed the Canary Initiative's findings.

"Except for the alarmist stuff, I don't take a lot of exception to the study," he said. "Most of the kinds of things being recommended that are not alarmist in nature are supportable as good sense points of view. ... The predictions are alarmist. By the end of the century, (Aspen's climate) is likely to be like that of Amarillo? There is no way to support that scientifically. That is like a worst-case scenario."

Savage pointed to the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide concentrations brought about by the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s. That was followed by nearly three decades of global cooling.

Savage admitted, however, that preparing for a worst-case environmental scenario isn't necessarily wrong. Scientists and citizens should be more focused on adapting to changing conditions as opposed to trying to halt global warming.

"It's not something we likely are able to stop," Savage said. "I'm perfectly supportive of us doing the make-sense things that affect the trend positively, but I don't think we should ignore that we can't do anything about it."

Steamboat's initiatives

Whether or not the worst-case climate scenarios predicted in the Canary Initiative play out, city of Steamboat Springs and Steamboat Ski Area officials say they think using alternative energy sources now is the responsible thing to do.

The ski area installed the wind-powered Burgess Creek ski lift in 2004. The installation of the new Sunshine Express is in progress. The high-speed quad will run on wind and solar energy purchased from 3 Phases Energy Services through renewable energy certificates.

The solar energy was difficult to purchase because it's not readily available in the U.S., said Lyn Halliday, director of Guest Services and Environmental Affairs for the ski area.

"The Steamboat ski resort is doing its part to reduce emissions because there is still a lot of controversy on the global warming thing, but the Steamboat ski resort is supporting alternative energy sources," she said. "Certainly we can all agree that we have to reduce emissions."

The city of Steamboat Springs has received a grant for a hybrid bus, and the Steamboat Springs City Council approved the bus purchase July 18. The grant will pay for 60 percent of the bus, which likely will cost $490,000, leaving the city with a $196,000 bill. Traditional diesel buses cost $250,000. A hybrid bus runs on diesel fuel and electricity.

If gas prices skyrocket, the city could see a return on its investment. But if diesel prices never reach $5.13 a gallon, the city likely will not break even -- the hybrid bus has a life expectancy of 12 years.

"It's not that we are planning on saving money," said George Krawzoff, transportation services director for the city. "We think we will come close, but we are going to do the right thing."

In addition to being quieter and cleaner than a normal diesel bus, the hybrid bus will have lower floors, making it more accessible for those with disabilities.

The city of Vail has ordered a hybrid bus and expects it to be part of the fleet later this year, Krawzoff said.

Other "green" initiatives also are being enacted locally.

The Colorado Association of Ski Towns meeting that Strong and former City Manager Paul Hughes attended last fall brought about a series of changes locally.

The city formed a Green Team, headed by Gavin Malia, and Strong said the city is looking at putting environmental issues on the ballot in the form of green bonds. The use of solar energy at Howelsen Ice Arena and other city buildings has been discussed, he said.

Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord, who has lived in Steamboat for almost 30 years, is well versed in the city's interest in environmental affairs, including the Green Team, which is operating with a $20,000 budget in its first year.

"We want to start looking at what we are doing now and what we can do better -- recycling, how we build our buildings, how we maintain them, how we look at alternative fuel sources, researching bio-diesel and geothermal energy, (installing) more environmentally friendly light fixtures and what cleaning supplies we use," DuBord said.

The response has been positive from city staff, community organizations and residents.

Additionally, the city is discussing the planning design of the new community center at the Stock Bridge Transit Center, trying to follow criteria from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which includes such things as maximizing natural light, using recycled building materials, locating it near access to public transportation and using alternative energy sources.

"As part of the budget for the building, we are doing an analysis of perhaps using a geothermal source to heat the building," DuBord said. "We are really pleased to think the community center could qualify as gold certification. We are setting our goals kind of high. We also would think we would be the only LEED-certified building in all of Northwest Colorado. We are trying to make a statement to an environmental policy."

DuBord said she has heard of only four gold-certified LEED buildings in Colorado.

Setting an example

The lengthy initiatives cities such as Aspen and Steamboat Springs have taken to be more environmentally friendly sends a positive message, city officials say.

"Steamboat has always been a community that respected and revered it's natural environment," DuBord said. "You don't move here for career opportunities but, generally, people move here for the quality of life. We have scenic vistas and clean air."

Scientists hold a similar view.

"The climate system and the carbon systems have a lot of inertia," White said. "It's very difficult to stop warming once you've got it going. Think of it like an ocean liner or a big freight train. It's hard to get it moving, but once it is, it's hard to change direction. What we do today does indeed have an impact decades, if not centuries, down the road. ... I applaud this effort (in Aspen). I think it was wonderful."

The Steamboat Springs City Council will review the city's Sustainability Management Plan during its 5 p.m. meeting Aug. 15 at Centennial Hall. The Green Team created the plan. The definition of sustainability is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," deputy city manager Wendy DuBord said. "We hope this is something they will adopt that night so we can move forward."

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