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DURHAM — By the 2070s, if climate change continues at its current global warming pace, New Hampshire’s southernmost ski areas could see snowless winters that are so warm that they’ll be unable to even make snow for skiers and riders.
That would be heartbreaking to Elizabeth Burakowski, a skier who has a front-row seat on the possible effects climate change might have on New Hampshire’s ski industry.
She is a climate scientist and research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. She, along with Ted Eynon, a UNH graduate and owner of Meier Ski in Colorado, participated in a Zoom video conference forum earlier this month devoted to the ski industry in the age of climate change.
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“If we don’t act as a global community to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, a lower elevation, more southerly resort like Pats Peak will have a much shorter window to make snow by the 2070s, and possibly no window at all for some winters,” said Burakowski.
The reason that is heartbreaking to her is because she skied at Pats Peak in Henniker with her middle school ski club. “I love Pats Peak,” she added. “And want to do anything we can to ensure my kids and their kids can ski there, too.”
For Eynon, climate change means he needs to constantly assess his materials and manufacturing to make sure he lives up to his mission of making an eco-friendly ski, using not only sustainable materials but getting production to the point of being carbon neutral.
“We think it’s important for us to take meaningful steps and be thoughtful for an environment that we all love and enjoy,” said Eynon. “That is our mission – to continue to make great skis, great products that bring a lot of fun and put a smile on people’s faces, and doing so in a way that is more sustainable.”
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The UNH alumni events staff put on the virtual presentation entitled: “Shredding Lightly In the Age of Climate Change.” It can be viewed at media.unh.edu.
How winter has changed
Burakowski laid out a timeline showing the changes in climate — winter conditions in particular — began in the 1970s with a significant uptick in carbon dioxide emissions.
During the subsequent years, according to Burakowski, winter-like months are becoming shorter, with the earlier arrival of spring-like weather.
“We’re losing cold, so there are fewer days that are below freezing,” said Burakowski. “We’re seeing less frequently extreme and cold outbreaks — think of temperatures that are well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Those are becoming rare.”
“We’re also losing snow,” she added. “There are fewer days with snow cover in the Northeast and New England. We see about three weeks less winter snow in the Northeastern United States than they did 100 years ago. It’s almost a whole month.”
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Burakowski likes to cite Mark Twain’s view of climate and weather: “Climate is what we expect,” he said. “Weather is what we get.” It’s meant to distinguish that climate is not the same as weather.
For Burakowski, her view isn’t so much the weather we see day to day, which can be very much typical of winter. Hers is a long range look at climate.
“We can see what’s happening with climate from historical perspectives, and then we can also take a look at what’s happening in the future,” she said. “These are what we call climate projections. It’s not a crystal ball. It’s not a weather forecast. It’s an assumption of what can happen in the future, based on the laws of physics, and based on what human behavior does.”
What the future holds – in clear terms
She laid out scenarios — worst case, less worst case, best case — with regards to how people and policy makers respond to the threat of global climate change.
Best case, according to Burakowski, per the provisions of the Paris Agreement (which in 206 laid out a pathway of climate change mitigation and adaptation) is that we get to zero emissions by the year 2100 and cap global temperature rise to 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
“So we could preserve winter like we’re having winter right now,” she said.
The worst case scenario of limited policy and limited action would raise the temperature 7 degrees by 2100.
“This is if we keep burning fossil fuels,” she said. “This is if we don’t embrace energy efficiency and sustainability in our business practices. This means that global temperatures could be upwards of seven, almost eight degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they are today. And we haven’t seen warming like that in millions of years.”
Burakowski noted that, as a global community, this worse case is the path we are on right now.
“This is problematic. This means that snow is disappearing by March 19. Remember we started at a baseline of like mid-April, so it’s a whole month less of winter by 2100,” she said.
In a state like Pennsylvania, skiing will disappear because winter, as we currently regard it, will disappear. As for the upper reaches of the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Adirondack Mountains in New York, “they’ll be resilient, which is good,” she said, “but anywhere further south than that, they’re gonna have a hard time staying open.”
And that includes her beloved Pats Peak and other ski areas along that parallel and south of it, places that include McIntyre in Manchester, Crotched Mountain in Bennington, and perhaps others.
And that has a bearing on the economy in a state that relies heavily on year-round tourism and recreation.
“When you look at the economic activity due to the ski industry, we’re looking at $300 to $400 million in the state of New Hampshire,” she said.
Burakowski believes the winter sports community can rally behind the solutions to climate change. Ski communities such as Breckenridge and Aspen in Colorado and Truckee in California have committed to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. Five communities in New Hampshire, according to Burakowski, have made the same commitment: Concord, Hanover, Plainfield, Cornish and Keene.
“Everyone knows North Conway, right? Whoever is in North Conway ought to be saying to themselves: ‘Why aren’t we on this list? Why aren’t we committed to 100% renewable?’” she noted.
Ski business person doing his part
Eynon started Meier Skis in Denver in 2010. He graduated from UNH with a business degree in 1985.
His company’s goal, he said, is to produce “the world’s most eco-friendly and high performance ski.”
He acknowledges that manufacturing skis is not the most environmentally friendly industry. Skis have metal edges, and are composed of fiberglass, carbon fibers, or epoxy with polyethylene used for the base. Most skis use wood as their core.
“We try and do our part,” said Eynon. “Instead of just talking about it, we take some actual, meaningful steps that allow us to be a bit more sustainable. We can improve on that each and every year, and find new materials, new techniques, new packaging, new ways to do that.”
For the core of its skis, according to Eynon, Meier uses regionally sourced wood that includes aspen and wood known as “blue stain” – pine that becomes discolored by a common fungus that infects the sapwood of freshly sawn boards.
“We’ve harvested wood from the Rockies, although as we grow we’re having to find sources outside of the Rockies as well,” he said.
One of the ironies for the ski industry, according to Burakowski, is that the need now to make artificial snow is in itself a carbon producer.
“It’s a bit of a Catch-22 there. If you want to reduce your emissions, some of these resorts are putting solar panels up to offset their emissions, to offset the consumption of fossil fuels. Some of them are buying carbon credits, which isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than nothing,” said Burakowski. “And I think the technology has also just gotten so much more efficient: You can cover much more of a mountain, using much less energy, a fraction of the amount of water, and do it in a really fast amount of time.”
“Snowmaking, in general, isn’t really necessarily the worst of their problems. It is an adaptation strategy. It does produce fossil fuel emissions and contributes to the climate problem. Relative to other sectors though, like transportation, It’s tiny,” she added. “I wouldn’t say that they are causing global warming, per se; (they’re) contributing on a small level, but they can have an opportunity to do a lot more, and make sure that the resorts are using renewable energy.”
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