Global Warming Scare Hits Ski Country

"The Greatest Snow on Earth" is emblazoned across Utah license plates. Park City, Utah, was the alpine venue during the Winter Olympic Games in 2002. A World Cup freestyle skiing competition was held this week in neighboring Deer Valley. The arctic scenes in the movie, "National Treasure" were filmed here. As they are fond of saying in this old mining town, "when the silver mines closed, we discovered white gold."

So this week, when the results of a $60,000 climatology study were released, more than 1,000 residents of this town of 8,500 crowded into an auditorium to hear the news.

"Temperatures are projected to rise 6 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century," announced Mark Williams, a University of Colorado scientist who specializes in temperature and precipitation modeling.

"For the high emission scenario, there's just no snow on Park City's mountains," said fellow scientist Brian Lazar, who explained that "high emission" meant that the world would continue to accelerate its use of carbon based fuels that create greenhouse emissions.

Armed with graphics and statistical models, the scientists delivered the sobering message to the nervous crowd.

"I've been very scared for some time," said one resident, addressing the experts. "I'm scared primarily for my grandchildren, great-grandchildren," he said.

Global Warming Could Cut the Green in the Ski Industry

His concern may be well-founded. Williams and Lazar, who relied on seven different projections formulated by a United Nations team of experts, predicted dire consequences for the winter sports industry unless energy consumption is curbed.

Even under the best scenario the so-called "green" scenario, which anticipates dramatic cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ski season at the turn of the century could extend only from Christmas to President's Day, eliminating the profitable shoulder season in the ski and snowboard industry.

Williams said carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases thicken the atmosphere and make the planet's surface hotter.

"The mountains of the American West are the first to heat up," he said. "You are the canary in the coal mine" he added, referring to the old mining practice of placing a bird in a cage in a mine shaft to alert miners to poisonous gases."

"One thing to keep in mind is, when we emit carbon dioxide, it stays in the atmosphere for 50 years. Regardless of what we do today, there's a 50-year lag time," Williams added. "That has a huge effect on the ski conditions. We'd be going from Park City champagne powder -- light, dry snow -- to Sierra cement -- heavy, wet snow.

Leading the Fight Against Global Warming

The study was underwritten by POWDR Corporation, which operates Park City Mountain Resort. When asked why he funded research that predicts the end of his business, CEO John Cumming told ABC News if he believed it was hopeless, he would sell his resorts in Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California. However, he is not selling, and has become a leader in the fight against global warming.

"We have visitors from around the world that come here and hopefully see that we've opted for doing something different that will have a different outcome and maybe they will choose to do the same thing," he says.

Installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, turning off lights and unplugging electronic devices when not in use, driving with cruise control, enrolling in paperless billing and buying energy generated by windmills are a few steps that Cumming advocates. His resort has improved the efficiency of snow making equipment and reduced emissions from vehicles used in the upkeep of the resort.

It's not just skiing and snowboarding that are threatened. Without snow, the entire mountain economy, including the booming housing market, would suffer. Last year, more than $2 billion worth of real estate was sold in the Park City area.

"Snow is our industry, our economy," said Dena Fleming, a leading real estate broker. "It has us all concerned as skiing is our number one industry."

But Fleming quickly put the best face on it by touting the city's sunny, green summer season. "The summertime is why we all stayed here," she quickly added.

Cumming agrees…sort of. "People more and more are flocking to the mountains in the summer time, maybe it's to escape the heat, maybe that's an opportunity for us in the future," he said. "I sure don't want to find out."

Myles Rademan, the city's public relations guru, answers the question everyone here has: What can a small town really do to reverse global warming?

"I think we're in a unique position because of the kinds of people who come here," he said. "These are decisionmakers, people who are captains of industry, captains of the media. They will start talking about these issues."

'Save Our Snow'

In fact, the Sundance Film Festival opens next week in Park City.

At KPCW, the local radio station, station manager Blair Feulner leads the local media campaign. "Save Our Snow" bellows a pre-recorded announcement. Feulner, along with Cumming, are the force behind the city's anti-global warming campaign.

"If we don't do something to clean up our act, it's pretty scary," he said. "The western United States, the ski areas, are warming at twice to three times the low lying areas, so in the last five years we've gone up a couple of degrees Fahrenheit. Us guys in the snow business are going to be in serious hurt in not a lot of years."

So far, this has been a good, if not spectacular winter. The three local resorts, Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons, currently boast a four foot base and more snow is on the way.

So, what do skiers think when asked about global warming and predictions that the mountains could someday resemble the Salt Lake City valley below?

"You could go after global warming and crack down on energy use, but you won't have Park City as it was," says attorney Donald Little. "It'll be back like it was in the mining days. And once the mining ran out, this was a ghost town and if you want to make this a ghost town you can do that, but I think you have to be practical and pragmatic about the approach. Global warming needs to be handled on a larger scale."

Brent Giles, Park City Resort director of operations, had the last word at the town hall meeting.

"If in 2100, we can't ski, that's the least of our problems," he said.