Digging Deep on the Potential Impact of Climate Change : Book Review

3D Book with ShadowOriginally published in Ski Patrol magazine.

By just the title alone “Deep, the Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow,”  it’s clear that author Porter Fox, a features editor at Powder magazine, attempts to cover an incredible amount of readable footage in just 288 pages.

By comparison, legendary ski writer John Fry focused solely on chronicling the history and progression of the sport in his 388-page book “The Story of Modern Skiing.” Fry’s work remains the hallmark literature detailing what we know of skiing and snowboarding today.

In “Deep” Fox seeks to weave current climate change data and predictions into the fabric of ski history, and the culture of big mountain powder skiing. The narrative starts out slow, and Fox’s story of skiing begins with himself as he tells of his early days on skis, and introduces readers to some of the personalities he met along the way.

 I read about Fox’s book, long before I read the book itself. The publishing and promotion of “Deep” was partly funded thanks to $28,000 worth of donations made by some 400 backers via KickerStarter, an online platform that helps creators (authors, videographers, musicians, etc.) gain funding for their projects. In January, Fox and friends launched the “Deep Book Tour” that included stops at 25 cities and resorts across the country. The tour included appearances by pro athletes, film previews, gear giveaways, keynote presentations from representatives of Protect Our Winters, and book signings.

 In February 2014, The New York Times published “The End of Snow?” an opinion piece written by Fox highlighting some of the scientific findings contained in “Deep.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) holds up a copy of the New York Times article "The End of Snow" to his peers in congress.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) holds up a copy of the New York Times article “The End of Snow” to his peers in congress.

The website promoting the book shows photos of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Congressman Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) making an exhibit of the article to their peers on the floors of congress.

 So with all the hype, I was admittedly anxious to get to the meat of the matter. By Chapter 4 the book begins to unearth current climate change data and the predicted impacts to snowfall around the globe. Some of the scientists Fox interviews say the effects are already being realized to a substantial extent.

 Fox speaks of his motivation for writing the book: “After seeing all of the data and predictions of how much snow has already disappeared from the planet, and to how much is predicted to disappear in the next 75 years, I figure the story had to be told, and sooner rather than later.”

 In his travels, Fox spends more than a month in Europe visiting some of the iconic venues of skiing, including Chamonix and Le Grave in France, and Zermatt, Switzerland. It’s here where Fox illustrates his prowess as a writer and story teller. This part of the book features ski writing at its finest with historical perspectives of the various alpine venues, word sketches of local personalities and scientists, and of course enough drooling detail about the powder skiing to incite jealousy.

 SkoPowSlashPillows 2Throughout, the book includes scores of current climate change data and citations to a host of studies. The digital version includes more than a dozen embedded videos and recorded interviews. Today the global scientific community – with the exception of a very small percentage of dissenting researchers – agrees on what is (and will) likely occur due to climate change. Yet within that, there is a host of varying, and sometimes conflicting data and projections.

 One of the scientists interviewed is Daniel Scott, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Scott co-authored the report “Managing for Climate Change in the Alpine Sector” which projects that half of the ski areas in the Northeast will be snowless in the next 30 years. The outlook for resorts along the West Coast is equally dim. Yet thanks to snowmaking, ski areas in the Rockies will still be able to operate 100 or more days a season, according to Scott.

 As Fox boils it down, two degrees Celsius (the U.N.-mandated climate change limit) is the magic (or tragic) number. He writes with warming above two degrees Celsius “most analysts predict economic, financial, and even societal collapse in many parts of the world.” Yet Scott maintains a more optimistic outlook. Fox quotes him as stating the following:

 “From a skiing perspective, a 2 degrees Celsius increase is a very different world than if we approach plus-4 degrees Celsius or plus-5 degrees Celsius,” Scott says. “I look around me at a lot of smart people who are doing a heck of a lot of innovation, and I think across Canada, across the United States, across the world. I think if the conditions are put in place, whether it be policy or simply put a price on carbon and make a market for it, you’ll have a lot of bright businesspeople and scientists putting their heads together, and it will get solved. Someone said we need a Manhattan Project–type approach to renewable energy, and I think if the U.S. or some other big countries did that, definitely it will be solved by mid-century.”

 From the 30,000-foot view, it appears that the U.S. ski industry largely agrees on the actions needed to address climate change, but the issue becomes more political closer to the ground. Fox is critical of the National Ski Areas Association’s (NSAA) Sustainable Slopes program, saying the program and related initiatives like “Keep Winter Cool” have “done little to mitigate climate change.”

Vail Pass Backcountry. Photo by Troy Hawks

Vail Pass Backcountry. Photo by Troy Hawks

 The founding pillars of Sustainable Slopes are to reduce, educate, and advocate. You certainly cannot preach to others about climate change unless you’re taking action yourself (reduce). The program also recognizes that the ski industry enjoys a high-profile among the general public, so efforts have been focused on distilling the message to guests (educate). Finally, ski areas have supported and lobbied for a host of favorable climate change bills for more than a decade (advocate). Nowhere in the Sustainable Slopes literature does it suggest that by acting alone, ski areas can make even the slightest dent toward mitigating global climate change. Faulting a unified effort of 190 ski areas that has been ongoing since 2000 appears to be somewhat misguided.

Fox is also highly critical of an editorial opinion piece published in the Denver Post written by a high-profile ski resort CEO that includes the following statement: “Count me in the category of someone who is very worried about climate change.…You can count me out of the group that says we need to address climate change to save skiing.” Fox insinuates that the CEO’s overall concern is less than earnest. Yet it appears that he and the CEO agree more than they disagree, as earlier in the book Fox himself writes:

 Many find it laughable to call a lack of skiing a global crisis. In part, they are right. Skiing is a sport, a voluntary act practiced by those who can afford it…What has scientists, environmentalists and mountainfolk worried is not a lack of fresh tracks, though. It is a lack of snow itself—which is a vital component of the Earth’s water cycle and climate system…declining snow depth is the first domino in a long line that can set off a downward spiral of environmental catastrophes.”

Vail Pass Backcountry. Photo by Troy Hawks

Vail Pass Backcountry. Photo by Troy Hawks

To this point we would agree. It’s clear that the issue is much more than a threat to a sport that several billion people do not engage in, nor care about. Yet one might question the efficacy of conveying that sentiment with a book subtitle of “The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow.”

Given the enormous scope of climate change, there is plenty of opportunity to trifle, but industry in-fighting will certainly not solve the problem. People say that the ski industry spends too much of its energy “preaching to the choir.” Skiers and snowboarders will enjoy this book, and Fox should be commended for his work. He scoured through loads of research, conducted interviews in several countries, and put it all together in book form in just a year and a half. Yet, if we as skiers and snowboarders view ourselves as canaries in the coal mine, we probably all agree that it’s time to redirect our efforts much further outside of the mine.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Nice perspective Troy.

    Makes me more interested to read the book. I struggle with one half of me that thinks the ski industry is the largest hypocrite on earth for this subject. We speak (preach) about being green while being committed to one of the most wasteful pursuits on earth. Skiing relies on “mountains” of flights, driving, electricity, water, diesel, development of wilderness, etc. Could there be anything more counter intuitive? Hmmn.

    That said, perhaps worrying about all that is not worth the time since our ability to impact it as an individual or even an industry is so small. Almost like (as an industry) we should just enjoy the salad days before they come to an end in a generation or two either due to CC or rising fuel costs. Seems like current course anyway and it’s how the other half of me rationalizes my embrace of the sport.

    • says

      Great thoughts here Alex, it’s an interesting juxtaposition for sure.

      I myself belong to the hypocrite camp. I drive a full size 4WD pickup and log 20K+ miles a year, the bulk of which is spent chasing fresh snow or going further to explore news places to ski and fish. Who doesn’t long to explore the outdoor world to the best of their ability? It’s hard to imagine a mass social movement where people largely agree to contain more of their life and pastime pursuits within a 60-mile radius.

      What’s encouraging to me is that overall awareness has grown substantially, we are altering our habits (if even only slightly), the conversation is advancing, and there are still scientists out there that say that the problem can be mitigated. The folks who have stepped up to lead on this issue are easy to spot, but there are still other “leaders” in the ski industry whom prefer to assume the position of the ostrich. There’ always more that can be done…

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