Climate scientists say Utah stands to see a lot less snow in the coming decades as global temperatures continue to rise, but a new study offers hope to Olympic fans with dreams of Salt Lake City hosting the Winter Games again.
Utah’s capital, an Olympic host in 2002, is one of fewer than a dozen former Olympic venues likely to have weather conditions needed to stage the international winter sports event again in the future, according to the study published this month in the journal Current Issues in Tourism.
Canadian and Austrian scientists analyzed snow depth and temperature at 19 prior host cities that had suitable climates for the Winter Games’ outdoor competitions between 1981 and 2010. They found that about half or fewer would be suitable by 2050, depending on greenhouse gas emission levels between now and then.
Authors said their findings reveal “that climate change has important implications for the future geography of [Olympic Winter Games] host cities/regions as well as broader implications for participation in winter sport.”
As Utah officials now seek to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2030, the potential impact of climate change remains a delicate issue for the state’s winter-sports industry. After decades of marketing the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” the state’s ski industry has been reluctant to address the prospect of getting less of it.
Industry officials and nearly all of Utah’s top ski resorts, including its former Olympic venues, declined to comment for this story or did not respond to the requests for interviews on the topic. But Mario Molina, executive director of the Colorado-based climate and winter-sports industry advocacy group Protect Our Winters, said the issue is demanding their attention.
“The industry is waking up,” Molina said. “More and more people are realizing that not only is the snow sports industry going to be one of the most impacted by climate change, but it has the potential to be one of the most powerful voices” in the fight against the planet’s warming.
‘Whims of weather gods’
Climate scientists say that whether Utah’s ski slopes are likely to get enough snow to host the Olympics in 12 years will depend on three key factors: temperature, moisture and weather patterns. Already unpredictable, all three are getting even more temperamental with climate change.
“What happens in any one year is really up to the whims of the weather gods,” said Jim Steenburgh, a ski enthusiast and a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.
Thanks to snowmaking capabilities, the single most important factor in deciding if a ski venue is ready for a winter sports event isn’t the amount of snow on the ground; it’s the temperature of the air above it. Most of Utah’s resorts are capable of making their own snow so long as it’s cold enough, said Steenburgh, author of the book “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth.”
And while temperatures are rising in Utah and the rest of the world, Steenburgh said, they’re rising gradually. The U. professor said he doubted that the increase would be large enough by 2030 for Utah to see a significant difference in terms of its snowmaking abilities.
“So I think we’re going to be able to put on the Games,” he said.
Utah has already started to see higher temperatures as a result of global warming, said Robert Gillies, director of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University. This past November, for example, was the hottest Utah has ever experienced, according to the National Weather Service.
However, not all temperatures are rising at the same rate, Gillies said. Daily high temperatures are going up, but not as fast as average daily low temperatures.
Utah “doesn’t get as cold” as it used to, Gillies said, “and that’s a classic sign of global warming.”
Further into the future, the chances any particular spot in Utah is cold enough for snow-making diminish more significantly, Steenburgh said — in large part because climate scientists believe the temperature rise is going to accelerate as time goes on.
“Everything depends on how far out; if we were talking about 2070, I would be quite concerned,” Steenburgh said.
Wetter or drier?
While climate scientists agree that temperatures in Utah and across the world will continue to climb, the impact on any specific region can be much less clear — including whether the Beehive State will get wetter or drier with warming.
Current models suggest climate change will create a kind of weather boundary across the western U.S., said Brad Udall, who researches the impact of global warming on water supplies at Colorado State University. Areas north of the line will get wetter, while those to the south will get drier.
But scientists haven’t figured out precisely where to draw the line — or whether it will be north or south of Utah, Udall said. “Frankly, the line is moving,” he said. “As soon as you think you understand it, it will then move northward.”
Adding to the uncertainty, Utah’s water is subject to wide-ranging cycles, Gillies said. Historically, the state has endured about six years of dry weather, followed by six years of wet conditions.
The good news, Gillies said, is that Utah appears to have entered a new wet cycle in 2017. So 2030 should mark the beginning of the next wet cycle, meaning the winter that year should look a lot like what Utahns are experiencing right now.
One problem: Utah’s weather is not doing what it has in the past, and the current winter has been less than spectacular for moisture.
Last winter “wiped out the western U.S. drought in two months,” said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service — while this year’s cold season has left much of the West largely devoid of moisture. That highlights another major wildcard in Utah’s snow future: an atmospheric phenomenon referred to as the jet stream.
‘Wavier’ jet stream vs. pure luck
In a typical winter, the jet stream flows over Utah like a river and draws big winter storms with it. But this winter, McInerney said, the jet stream has bent itself into a big wave, pushing its flow of storms northward and delivering most of Utah’s snow to the East Coast instead.
A similar weather pattern caused the drought that persisted in Utah from 2012-2016, McInerney said.
“So, when you look at that, is that something that is just a one-time thing and we’ll go back to normal?” McInerney asked. “The answer is no. We’ve been trending toward more of these weather events since 1980.”
Though the cause of this recurring phenomenon is not yet clear, a growing body of science suggests it may be tied to climate change.
According to that theory, the jet stream gets “wavier” and more erratic when the difference between the temperature in the Arctic and at the Earth’s equator gets smaller, Udall explained. And the Arctic is warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the planet because of the loss of sea ice and snow cover, he said.
Udall said the new science on the jet stream “is very intriguing and explains some of the things we’ve seen in recent years.”
It also could explain this year’s conditions. The Colorado River basin, which encompasses parts of Utah as well as Colorado, Nevada, California and other states, now has about half as much snow as it usually has this time of year. According to Udall, conditions are only slightly better than they were in 1981, the driest year ever recorded on one of the West’s most important rivers.
But Steenburgh, the snow expert at the U., is among the climate scientists who aren’t sold on the new wavy jet stream theory.
“I personally think that it will come around, that Utah has kind of had some bad luck over the last few years,” he said. “I think we’re going to see some snowy winters in our mountains again in the coming decade or two.”
Mountains, it turns out, may be Utah’s primary advantage in this future snow lottery.
Whether or not Utah gets drier with warming, Gillies said, the state is almost certainly going to receive more moisture in the form of rain. This is especially true in the valleys, he said, which are already starting to see this effect.
But the state’s mountains are high enough, Gillies said, that most of them will still draw a sizable amount of snow.
The magic number, he said, is about 6,500 feet above sea level. Below this mark, most areas worldwide are going to see a lot more rain and a lot less snow as temperatures rise, Gillies said. But above that elevation, he said, the loss of snow is expected to be significantly smaller.
That has Utah sitting pretty as a future Winter Olympics host: The majority of its premier ski resorts, including most of the Olympic venues, are above 6,000 feet, Gillies said.
Salt Lake City itself might not have snow on the ground in 2030, Steenburgh added, but the “important thing is the venues. They’ll be able to keep cover no problem.” And even if climate change continues to accelerate in the future, he said, it is hard to imagine that mountains as tall as Utah’s wouldn’t be snowcapped in winter.
“I think we’re still going to have skiing in Utah in 2070,” Steenburgh said. “This will be one of the last places in the world for skiing to end.”
But Utah’s ski season might also look different by then. Even elevations above 6,500 feet have seen a roughly 9 percent decline in snowfall over the past 50 years, Gillies said. So, the winter sports season could be shorter, as warmer summers make for longer autumns and snow starts melting earlier in the spring.
This past February, McInerney said, Utah melted nearly all of the snow below 7,000 feet in two weeks.
Such patterns are prompting Molina, with Protect Our Winters, and other winter-sports advocates to press the nation’s elected leaders to address climate change more directly. Salt Lake City may be better positioned to maintain winter sports than other cities, he said, but it won’t escape unscathed.
“This is a global problem,” Molina said. “Whatever happens anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, will eventually determine what happens in any particular locality.”
Correction: The climate and winter-sports industry advocacy group Protect Our Winters is now based in Boulder, Colo. Due to an editing error, a prior version of this story misstated where the group is located.