Mother Nature’s water storage tank — aka the snowpack — is a massive frozen reservoir that parses out water in the spring as snow melts. It is also, literally, the foundation of the snowsports recreation industry. Researchers are increasingly sounding the alarm that climate change is negatively impacting snowpack in Colorado and nationwide.
Two-time Olympic freestyle skier and a former wide receiver for the Buffs, Jeremy Bloom (A&S ex’06) was one of the first celebrities to be featured in a public service announcement (PSA) for Water ’22. Spearheaded by the nonprofit Water Education Colorado (and launched in partnership with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis), the year-long initiative is designed to educate Coloradans about water as an important natural resource.
“Water conservation in the context of climate change is central to the mission of Water ’22,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado. “Jeremy is a skier born and raised in Colorado; we knew he would get it right away.”
“I grew up learning to ski in Colorado and water-skiing on Boyd Lake,” Bloom said. “When the governor’s office approached me to be the face of Water ’22, I knew this was a really important thing to do.”
In the PSA, Bloom encourages Coloradans to do their part. “It’s shortening your shower, doing full loads of laundry and watering your lawn at night,” he said.
These simple actions can add up to saving 22 gallons of water a day — and a whopping 48 billion gallons across Colorado a year. Colorado is a headwater state that supplies water not only to the 6 million people who live here, but to tens of millions more people in the 18 states downstream.
“Water is fundamental to everything that makes life possible,” Poppleton said.
A declining snowpack affects the water supply for drinking, sanitation, agriculture and hydropower production. A shrinking snowpack also affects winter recreation.
In a 2017 study on climate change and winter recreation published in the journal Global Environmental Change, researchers — including Eric E. Small, CU professor of geological sciences — projected that by 2050, the ski season will be cut in half for most U.S. winter recreation destinations, resulting in an annual loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
“If people who care about skiing and snowboarding are committed to preserving our snowpack, that’s not only going to benefit the ski industry but ultimately help preserve the most fundamental source of our water supply — snow,” Poppleton said.
Snow-covered ski trails, from black diamond chutes to meandering green circles, are an immense natural water storage system.
Colorado is a headwater state that supplies water not only to the 6 million people who live here, but to tens of millions more people in the 18 states downstream.
“The snowpack acts as a reservoir; it banks water,” said W.T. “Tad” Pfeffer, professor of civil engineering at CU Boulder and a fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), whose area of specialty is glaciology. “If all that snow fell as rain, it would just run off into the rivers.”
Pfeffer points to the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, which predicts that Colorado and the West will be hotter and drier. That means more wildfires and less water.
“Intensified droughts and earlier runoff from diminished snowpack will increase water scarcity during the summer peak water demand period,” the report warned.
“For the ski industry, climate change is no longer an intangible future issue,” Pfeffer said.
Snowpack declines are already happening. From 1955 to 2022, the April snowpack in the Western U.S. declined by 23%, with declines at 93% of sites measured, according to a recent trend analysis by the EPA. The report described snowpack decreases as “large and consistent.”
“The snowpack is responding to climate warming in a relatively dramatic way,” said Noah Molotch (EnvSt’97), associate professor of geography and an INSTAAR fellow who specializes in snow hydrology. “We’re seeing more storms fall as rain instead of snow, and we’re seeing more melt occur in the middle of winter between storm cycles.”
In 2021, Molotch co-authored a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change that focused on snowmelt trends as a critical indicator of hydrological change. Researchers analyzed data from 1,065 remote snowpack monitoring stations in western North America. They found that the “snowmelt signal” is widespread across the West, including in Colorado. The research showed the annual melt that occurs before April 1 is increasing by 3.5% per decade.
“Climate sensitivity is greatest around the freezing point. When temperatures are hovering around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, we’ll see more snowmelt, particularly between storm periods,” Molotch said.
As the snowpack decreases due to climate change, ski resorts need to use more water for snowmaking.
“The water issue is a double whammy,” said Molotch, but he says access to water is not the primary stressor. “The big issue is that climate warming is causing a change in the snow conditions that resorts rely on. There are very sound first principles in science that would lead us to hypothesize that climate warming would diminish the quality of skiing.”
Snow has multiple climate sensitivities. As temperatures get warmer, the density of new snow becomes higher. It becomes less fluffy.
“Powder hounds beware, right?” he said. And those increasing levels of snowmelt identified in Molotch’s study mean the quality of the snow in the shoulder seasons is also in peril.
In Colorado, snow-related recreation contributes $1.2 billion to the state’s economy; at the national level, it’s a $4.7 billion economic driver, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. A shrinking snowpack means shorter seasons, which will impact a ski area’s revenue but also the livelihood of workers, from the dishwashers to the lift operators. A 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters (POW) — a nonprofit that works with CU scientists — found that changes to the winter season driven by climate change cost the ski resort industry approximately $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue over the last decade. The research also showed that a low snow year can cost the industry 17,400 jobs compared to an average season.
“I think we’ve all been seeing the seasons getting shorter. Now, we’re lucky if we have a couple good trails by Thanksgiving,” said Bloom, who lives in Boulder with his wife, Mariah Buzolin. They have a toddler, a baby on the way and a place in Keystone, so protecting water for future generations is top of mind.
As soon as they’re old enough, he’ll teach his kids to ski — and to conserve water.
Jeremy Bloom PSA:
Illustrations by Curt Merlo