Gehrke: Utah needs to act if it wants to keep the Greatest Snow on Earth

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Here’s a little secret: I’m kind of an Olympics geek.

When the Closing Ceremony ends next week, there will be a hole that all those hours of short-track speedskating and curling and biathlon and slopestyle once filled.

It’s been fascinating to watch the downhill, as skiers tear across the iced slopes, or the cross-country skiers slogging through miles of snow, then the camera pulls back a little and you can see the mud and brush just a few yards off the course.

Ninety-eight percent of the snow for the competitions in Pyeongchang is made by machine and it’s easy to wonder, especially as Salt Lake City leaders prepare for another Olympic bid in 2026 or 2030, if that’s the future for us, too.

Granted, Pyeongchang, even in its best years, doesn’t get anywhere near the same kind of snow that dumps on Utah with regularity. But if you hadn’t noticed, this hasn’t exactly been a normal year for us, either.

In fact, until resorts got dumped on with a couple of feet of powder Monday, they were slushing through one of the most dismal snow years ever.

To be clear, I’m not trying to turn one bad winter into a climate crisis.

But the larger trend is clear: The planet, including Utah, is warming. Over the past century, Utah’s average temperature has risen by about 2 degrees. We are more prone to heat waves and the snow is melting earlier.

One recent study said that, by 2050, half of the cities that have been home to the Olympics will be too warm to host the Games again. Utah is fortunate to be one of those that could probably still pull it off.

Jim Steenburgh, a climate scientist at the University of Utah who literally wrote the book on Utah’s snow — “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth” — told me recently that, because the Olympics are held midwinter, it’s likely the state could make the Games work in 2030, relying on man-made snow, if necessary.

As my colleague Emma Penrod recently reported, Utah is fortunate in that many of the ski resorts are at a higher elevation than in some parts of the country, which means even though the snowfall has diminished — down about 9 percent over the past 50 years — they are somewhat more resilient, although certainly not immune to the changes.

Resorts at lower elevations, like Park City, Canyons and Deer Valley, could see more rain and 10 percent less snow with even another 1.8-degree rise in temperature.

And the impacts, of course, won’t just be felt by the ski industry. Utah already has experienced drier summers and longer, more intense forest-fire seasons. We live in the second-driest state and can anticipate more frequent droughts, thanks to a warming climate.

The warning signs are all there, yet the Utah Legislature doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge they exist.

Last week, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, proposed a resolution that simply said temperatures are rising and there is “some scientific consensus” that it may be human-caused. It also expressed that state policies should be based on the best science. The House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee killed it.

An even more tempered resolution by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, urging the use of science to address a changing climate and reduce emissions, did pass the committee and is awaiting a vote in the House.

On the flip side, you have people like Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who is fighting for a $2 million down payment to file a lawsuit against California to stop that state from trying to reduce carbon emissions and force it to buy power generated from Utah coal — an idea ginned up, as records showed last week, by coal companies eager to have taxpayers pay for the court fight instead of doing it themselves.

That $2 million would be better spent on Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal of creating new opportunities and sustainable jobs in rural parts of the state. It could be spent to accelerate the transition of power plants to cleaner fuels. And it could be spent to incentivize solar and electric vehicles and public transit.

The 2002 Olympics announced Utah’s emergence on the worldwide stage as a winter sports magnet. Hosting the Games again would be a huge coup and is worth pursuing.

But if we want to sustain this industry that generated 4.5 million skier days last season and $1.4 billion in economic impact, we need leaders who won’t just bury their heads in the snow, because without recognizing the threat and trying to deal with it, we don’t know how much longer that Greatest Snow on Earth is going to last.