Greatest Snow On Earth... But For How Long? | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

February 05, 2020 News » Cover Story

Greatest Snow On Earth... But For How Long? 

How climate change is affecting our state motto—and a billion dollar winter recreation industry.

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  • Maryna Cheviuk

Caroline Gleich is a professional ski mountaineer and environmental activist based in Park City. If you're into outdoor adventure, chances are you've heard her name before.

"It's hard to beat the snow quality here," Gleich admits. "It's some of the best in the world."

Ski mountaineers like Gleich ascend often-treacherous mountain terrain, then descend through gnarly runs that would appear to mean certain death for the rest of us. But she insists her career is more than simply being an adrenaline junkie. "I'm actually kind of a nerd. I love snow science and learning about mountain ranges," Gleich says. "So it's not like I just do it for the thrill. I like the intellectual challenge as well."

With a large Instagram following and as an ambassador for a number of outdoor companies—including Patagonia and Clif Bar—Gleich has inspired many with her daring and adventurous ski runs. She was the first woman to successfully complete all of the lines in the "chuting gallery"—a series of vertiginous descents along the Wasatch Range. This feat takes many skiers a lifetime to complete; Gleich is in her 30s.

Aside from her daring exploits in alpine terrain, Gleich is outspoken in sounding the climate change alarm. In particular, how climate change is affecting winter sports like skiing. She works with Protect Our Winters (POW), a nonprofit advocacy group of athletes, scientists and business leaders that give voice to these concerns. Along with other well-known athletes, she also testified before the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on Climate Change late last year. "Increasing temperatures are melting away both my sport and my livelihood," she declared, and encouraged lawmakers to take dramatic steps to combat climate change.

Gleich's claim deserves a closer look. After all, we're currently in the midst of Utah's ski season—and a stellar one at that. Resorts opened on time and snowfall has been phenomenal. Snowbird, for instance, was reportedly at 60% of its average snowfall for the year within 45 days of opening. Last year was no exception. In fact, it was one of the snowiest on record, with a high of more than 5.1 million skier days (a measurement of the number of visits to the slopes by skiers). General skiers' biggest concerns aren't about snowfall—but rather about overcrowded resorts, parking and canyon traffic.

Given these current conditions, should we be worried about the ski industry?

Caroline Gleich
  • Caroline Gleich

Signs of the Times
In 1985, Utah began imprinting the well-known "Greatest Snow on Earth" slogan on license plates. According to Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, a book by Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, origins of this bold proclamation go back to 1960 when an edition of The Salt Lake Tribune's Home Magazine used the headline over an article singing the praises of Utah's snow, declaring how superior and dry it is compared to other regions. The editor coined the phrase, with a little help from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth"), which had just come through town. In fact, Utah's trademark survived a court challenge from the famous traveling circus in the 1990s. By now, the slogan's so ubiquitous, that a variation played a role in the recent "condomgate" controversy. A number of prophylactic packages from the state Department of Health featured a skier graphic boasting the "Greatest Sex on Earth."

It's common that Utah asserts its snow is "the greatest" because it's so light and dry. However, this isn't quite accurate. Famed avalanche expert and skier Ed LaChappelle explains that it is not about how dry snow is, but rather having "snow with enough 'body' to provide good flotation for the running ski." Fortunately, a number of factors (including lake effect snow) ensure that Utah snow is neither too wet nor too dry—the happy medium that's ideal for skiing.

In addition, numerous world-class resorts are within an hour from Salt Lake City International Airport, making it easy for the state to tout its snowy superiority—albeit challenged from time to time by Colorado.

Whether you agree with the slogan or not, it doesn't mean much if the resorts don't get enough snow needed to open. Unfortunately, it's been problematic in recent years. In 2018, Mike Maughan, general manager of Alta Ski Area, lamented that the resort—known for receiving more snow than some of its counterparts—missed its target opening date for the 2017-18 season by two weeks.

"That's challenging if you're in the industry and you're all geared up and have hired five or 600 people and ... you can't open," Maughan told City Weekly at the time. "If we don't meet the target date ... we have to retain and keep people here so when we are able to open, we have sufficient [man]power to run the resort."

If snow arrives too early or too late, it means lost revenue. But Maughan said that in recent years, certain weather "givens" no longer can be relied upon.

"We still had some late starts periodically through history. That's what led to snow making coming onto the scene," Maughan said. "It used to be, though, that Thanksgiving weekend was a much bigger ski holiday than it is today."

Thanksgiving will likely continue to be an unreliable opening weekend for resorts, due to the challenges posed by an increasingly shrinking season. While snow making has been in place for a while, in recent years, it's gone from being a supplementary tool to being essential.

"Everybody's now embraced [snow making] over the years," Maughan said. "It went from being used in resorts at lower elevation to being a staple and standard in all the industry. Everybody makes snow to some degree now in order to get a good base and be able to open."

Snow making, however, has its limitations. For one thing, prefab snow's quality doesn't exactly meet the "Greatest Snow on Earth" standard—it tends to have a much higher water content, making it denser and quicker to pack down into ice. Also, it simply won't last if temperatures are too high.

"The quality of snow from a machine can't match Mother Nature," Maughan said. "But people would rather be skiing than not skiing, and so man-made snow has become very acceptable, and people expect [it] on the slopes in the early season to some degree now."

Jim Steenburgh
  • Jim Steenburgh

Climate Change and Skiing
Still, we've been fortunate to experience really great snowfall these past couple years. So great, in fact, it might cause us to forget how terrible some other ski seasons have been. The 2014-15 season, one in which my own purchase of a season pass was regrettable, is on record as the warmest winter in Utah. The 2017-18 season also ranks among the warmest and driest on record, and was bad enough to compel Gov. Gary Herbert to exhort Utahns to pray for snow. Needless to say, skiing conditions during these times were not ideal.

While the snow has been falling reliably, "ski anxiety"—fretting skiers and snowboarders hoping snow comes—was high in November. There was good reason to be anxious last year. Utah's typical average temperature for mid-November is around 54 degrees, but it rose to the 60s. This understandably had skiers worried.

While some see recent warm winters as a fluke, experts believe that a pattern of above- and below-average years will continue due to changes in the polar jet stream, resulting in longer lasting high pressure systems taking hold. The jet stream, a river of air about 25,000 feet above the earth, has historically and reliably sent storms across Utah during winter. In recent years, however, the melting of polar ice caps has increasingly caused the jet stream to shift its pattern, making it more elongated. When this happens, drier and warmer conditions occur, as well as more weather volatility. It also leads to air stagnation (think inversions and poor air quality). Fortunately, high pressure hasn't been the dominant weather feature over the West for the past couple years, and the jet stream has been delivering the goods.

While the shift in weather patterns is the most obvious consequence, other ramifications unique to the Wasatch Front are worth considering. The uncertain future of the Great Salt Lake, and its so-called "lake effect," could augur changes in snow quantity and quality.

In any case, everyone seems to agree that warmer winters will eventually become the new norm, causing activists and professional athletes, who are seeing the changes first-hand, to speak up. Not everyone, however, is happy to hear it.

Gleich, for one, is known for taking a lot of flack. In a YouTube video feature about Gleich put out by REI, a voicemail message at first sounds like an inquisitive fan, but quickly goes the other way when the caller asks her how he, too, can be a "silver spoon spoiled bitch."

"I get a lot of criticism and attacks online about climate, but it's just really important to talk about and not let that derail you," Gleich says, adding that some attacks might be part of campaigns to intimidate and silence activists. "I think that's a way of getting people to think about [climate change] as an individual problem," she adds, saying the fossil fuel industry "deflects attention and conversation."

"The individual level is important, too. But not taking a flight or switching to a bamboo toothbrush isn't going to stop climate change," Gleich adds. "In order to really combat climate change, it's going to take big action by the government, on a big-scale level."

While not denying climate change, others strike a more pragmatic and optimistic tone in their assessments of Utah's ski season. Steenburgh explains that Utah resorts are somewhat better positioned to handle the coming challenges.

"Utah's relatively high-elevation ski resorts are actually less vulnerable to the initial warming than other regions that are lower and warmer," Steenburgh says via email. "This will mean that Utah will continue to have relatively good ski conditions compared to many other regions."

Other scientists such as Seth Arens, a researcher at Western Water Assessment, look at climate data and echo a similar message. Arens says some projections actually indicate a modest increase in precipitation for resorts higher in elevation, such as those up the Cottonwood canyons.

Assuming you're not a resort at lower elevation, this sounds like good news. For the foreseeable future, at least. But what about the long term?

Brian McInerney is a hydrologist for the National Weather Service. He has become, in his words, a "climate change guy" and is often sought out to comment on the issue, and answer general questions about climate patterns in Utah. As an avid skier, McInerney notes a shift in the quality and reliability of the ski season through first-hand experience as well as looking at the data. The winter seasons, he says, have been getting measurably wetter since 1980.

"The snowpack in the Western U.S.—and, really, across the world—is slowly evolving during the meteorological winter from a snow-driven hydrology to a rain-driven hydrology," he tells

City Weekly over the phone.

McInerney cites a number of other observations and projections that indicate an increasingly contracting and less snow-driven ski season. For instance, he mentions recent research indicating that by the end of the century, Park City's climate will be akin to Salt Lake's—which means Salt Lake will inch closer to Phoenix's.

To put it simply, barring dramatic changes on a grand scale, he says, the projections spell eventual doom for the ski industry.

"We won't have the ski industry probably around the 2060-70 time frame because they won't be able to have snow in the base area," McInerney says. "Around 2070-80, we'll only have snow at the highest peaks. By about 2090-2100, the entire Wasatch will be void of snow, with the exception of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons."

I have to admit that I find McInerney's directness refreshing. Scientists tend to be conservative in their assessments, an accusation leveled at organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As their grim 2018 report shows, even they are starting to sound more urgent. It says dramatic actions needs to occur by 2030, including powering community grids through renewable energies such as wind and solar.

Mike Maughan
  • Mike Maughan

Merely suggesting an "end of days" of the state's ski season might come as an affront to those currently engaged in some of the best skiing of their lives. After all, for many of us, skiing or snowboarding is an integral part of who we are. It's part of the appeal of living in—and certainly of visiting—the state.

And yet, decisions made by ski resorts in recent years—motivated by research and first-hand experience with the shortening season—show they are preparing for the warming trend and figuring out how their business strategies will need to change in order to survive.

Ski Utah, the marketing arm for all ski resorts in the state, is optimistic about the future. They point to numerous ways the resorts are adapting.

"Climate change ... is definitely a hot topic with Ski Utah as well as all of the Utah resorts," Anelise Bergin, director of communications at Ski Utah, says, noting that many resorts now employ sustainability directors to oversee these issues. "I also see them diversifying their offerings to make sure that if there isn't snow on the ground, first thing, they have plenty of other things to do."

A good example is Woodward in Park City, Utah's newest ski resort and action sports hub. Offering a diverse range of activities besides skiing—including tubing, gymnastics, parkour, skateboarding and more—Woodward is set to operate 365 days a year. It's much smaller than most other Utah resorts, appealing to terrain park users as well as those hitting the slopes for the first time. However, its smaller size reduces maintenance and snow making costs during lean snow years. On top of that, winter sports are not their sole source of income.

In short, the industry doesn't have its head in the sand.

"Yeah, they're definitely aware of it," McInerney says, referring to the ski industry's awarenes of the negative outlook climate projections give for them. "The problem is when you think of the higher levels—the state government, the federal government—[they] aren't doing anything about it."

Hoping to spur increased investment in renewable technology across the U.S., ski resorts and towns are, in fact, taking up the cause. Many ski resorts have taken a proactive role in reducing carbon emissions and switching to cleaner energy, such as solar or hydropower.

"There's a bunch of ski areas here that recognize climate change is occurring, and we're trying to do our part to reduce factors that may be contributing to that," Maughan says. "Here at Alta, we've installed solar, and we're also using a micro-hydro. So we're looking at ways to use cleaner energy, recognizing that the change in climate is impacting the length of the season."

Recognizing the impending effects of climate change and longing to be Olympics camera-ready, Park City is pursuing ambitious plans to have a community-wide, net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

McInerney says that, while laudable, the ski resorts' efforts are unfortunately hardly enough to ward off the effects of decades of massive fossil fuel usage across the U.S. and the world.

"It's a little point on the map," McInerney says, referring to Park City. "When you look at the physics of what's going on, not only are we at the highest CO2 levels in roughly 4 million years, but this stuff stays in the atmosphere for 1,000 years. So it's not going anywhere anytime soon, unless we can come up with a technology that scrubs CO2 from the atmosphere."

McInerney says to make a significant impact, changes would need to be on a similar scale to America's mobilization for World War II. Not seeing the political will to drive these dramatic changes, however, he isn't overly optimistic.

"We may be too late," McInerney says, explaining that carbon emissions need to be drastically cut in short order to avoid hitting a tipping point in which the full consequences of climate change become irreversible. "We have until we get to 4 degrees Fahrenheit [of warming] before we hit the tipping point, and, if we hit it, then we've got climate change and the genie's out of the bottle. Right now, we're at 1.8 degrees, so it's a pretty sour outlook."

Brian McInerney
  • Brian McInerney

Beyond Skiing
Skiing is often regarded as luxury, and as evidenced in a 2018 entry on, "one of the whitest large-scale recreational sports." It might make sense for activists to make noise about climate change, but, as Australia and the Amazon burn, why should we care whether people with enough disposable income to ski down a hill will be able to in the future?

Unfortunately, the urgency of the situation doesn't appear to be overstated, and the data on climate change continues to bring worse and worse news—seemingly every day.

As sad as the thought of our world-famous ski season slipping away from us is, it will likely be the least of our concerns as climate change continues. Issues with droughts, water management, floods, food supply, refugees and wildfires, among other things, will occupy more and more of our attention.

Seeing what's at stake after having studied the climate for years, McInerney says he doesn't want to be guilty of being silent about what's coming.

"I don't want my grandkids looking at me, saying, 'You had a chance to do something about this. Why did you just stay quiet?' he says. "I've gotten people yelling at me; I've had all sorts of blowback when you just present this information. It's just science—let's have a conversation."

Gleich also says she isn't giving up the fight anytime soon.

"It can be kind of hard to keep speaking up, but I'm definitely going to keep working at it and do everything I can," she concludes.

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