The Changing Climate of Powder Chasing

As scientists around the world continue recording the warming of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans, winter sports enthusiasts start getting nervous. What will winters look like in the future and how will that affect those powder days we all love? To get some answers, we talked to someone whose career is all about forecasting skiing conditions.

Who are you, where do you live, and what do you do?

My name is Joel Gratz. I was obsessed with skiing and weather from the age of four. I went to Penn State to study meteorology, then attended grad school at CU Boulder, and started a snow forecasting email list in 2007. A decade later, that email list has turned into OpenSnow, a website and mobile app on which I and other forecasters direct over 2 million skiers to the best snow.

Joel Gratz

What do you love most about your job AND skiing?

I consider myself extremely lucky to have a job that combines the two activities I love most – weather and skiing. The best part of my job is accurately predicting powder days, and then going to ski the powder with my wife and friends. There is nothing better than a deep powder day shared with friends and family!

Did snow forecasting in 2016-2017 present anything unusual than previous seasons?

The hardest part about this season was managing expectations. We had very little snow in October, November, and early December. People were frustrated. I was too. Then it snowed a LOT from late December through late January, but snowfall was more sporadic in February and it was warmer and dry for most of March. We all want a lot of snow all of the time, so the hardest thing I have to do is write a forecast every day that’s both accurate and positive, even when it’s not snowing.

How has climate change impacted your career as a forecaster?

Climate change has not directly impacted my day-to-day career so far because any changes to daily or weekly weather patterns are hard to measure at this point. However, the changing climate has made me more aware of looking at weather around the world (rather than just in Colorado) and understanding how factors across the globe might contribute to local changes here in Colorado.

Has OpenSnow’s growth been hindered by weak snowfall or warming? How do you pivot what you do based on global warming?

We have seen seasons with weak snowfall, but thankfully we sometimes get MORE traffic during those times because people are obsessed about finding every new flake of snow. Also, I can’t directly tie climate change to seasons with lower snowfall. All of that said, it makes sense for us to expand into non-snow sports, like forecasting for hiking, biking, and climbing because it would give us a year-round business AND it would insulate us from a potentially shortened ski season in upcoming decades due to warmer temperatures.

What do you recommend the average snow sports athlete know about climate and the impact it is having/will have on snowfall and ski conditions?

Here in Colorado, temperatures at most mountain weather stations have increased by 2-3⁰F during the past 20-40 years, and total precipitation (rain + snow) has not changed. If these trends continue (warmer temperatures, similar precipitation), we would expect potentially shorter seasons, more rain at lower elevations, and more drought.

Do you advocate for awareness or partner with any advocacy organizations to help snow athletes stay informed?

I hope to include climate information on OpenSnow in the future so skiers can easily see changes in temperature and precipitation at certain mountains. At this point, I enjoy focusing and educating people about our local climate and have not pushed too far into advocacy. I have not yet been able to reconcile my concern for the climate and environment with my constant travels in cars, planes, and helicopters to access powder. I do think that renewable energy sources are the future we should be pushing toward.

Are there any common myths about climate change you think people should be aware of?

We know enough science to feel confident that moving toward a carbon-free future likely makes sense. That said, science is about questioning and experimenting, so we should never say that we know everything there is to know. We need to keep learning with an open mind even as we make the best decisions we can with the information we currently have.

Do you think ski areas are at risk operationally in our lifetime?

Yes, especially lower-elevation ski areas, which are already within a few degrees of the rain/snow line.

So while the weather at US ski resorts isn’t insulated from global climate change, you probably won’t be seeing palm trees lining the slopes anytime soon. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t expect changes though. Rising snow levels will make it harder for lower elevation ski areas and likely increase their dependence on expensive snow making equipment. That won’t stop many of us from chasing powder though, and with the help of forecasters like Joel, we can still get our days in the deep!