How will global warming affect outdoor recreation?
By Graham Averill
You want a bleak picture of the world ravaged by global warming? Forget “An Inconvenient Truth.” Watch “Soylent Green,” the ‘70s sci-fi thriller starring Charlton Heston that depicts a 2022 New York City ravaged by global warming. Al Gore may have melting ice caps, but Charlton Heston has us eating people in the form of green protein bars.
“Soylent Green” may be fiction, but people eating each other and watching a lot of TV seems like a frighteningly realistic possibility of a planet ravaged by climate change. When the world gets hotter and our ecosystem dies because the atmosphere is so inhospitable, most Americans will just stay inside more. We’ll watch a lot of reality programs. Our baseball games will all be played inside domes. We’ll eat genetically engineered food and life will go on in our climate-controlled, air-purified futuristic bubbles. Most of the population will continue on with business as usual. Golf will go digital, video gamers won’t even notice a difference, but what about the rest of us? What about the less sedentary contingent of the American public that need to get outside and play? How will climate change affect the world of outdoor recreation? What’s going to happen to our favorite hikes when the average temperature is 112? Will there still be rivers to kayak? Will we all be skiing in artificial domes in 50 years? Forget population control and green power bars made of people, what does the future of outdoor sports look like in a world ravaged by climate change?
As it turns out, the future for outdoor adventure is almost as bleak as “Soylent Green.” From surfers to snowboarders, we can all expect some changes to our favorite outdoor pastimes in the very near future. Some of those changes have already begun.
“We’re just now starting to see the beginning affects of global warming in certain places like the Arctic and out West,” says Virginia Kramer with the Sierra Club. “You can look at the declining snow pack out West and the wildfires and the drying of the wetlands to get a picture of what it’s going to be like for the rest of the country in the future.”
Nineteen of the 20 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 1980. The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990. In mid-June, the largest forest fire in Georgia’s history was still burning in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Of 401,000 acres within the refuge, close to 329,000 acres had burned – and these are “swamp” lands.
Perhaps more dramatic is what’s been happening in the mountains of the West. In Montana, Glacier National Park has only 27 glaciers today. In 1850, they had 150.
In California, scientists say high-elevation ecosystems such as the Sierra show some of the clearest signals of climate change. Glaciers in the range have shrunk up to 78 percent.
Winter temperatures in the Tahoe Basin have risen about 2-3 degrees from historical norms, and the lake itself has been warming at all depths. Up and down the range, peak spring snowmelt now occurs on average two to three weeks sooner than it did before 1950. This spring, of course, it was about 4-6 weeks sooner and there wasn’t much to melt in the first place.
Scientists project California and the West will continue to warm faster than the East. By the end of the century, computer climate models predict California could be as much as 8 degrees warmer. Even the most conservative projections estimate a 3- to 4-degree warming.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, there is absolutely no debate whether or not human activity is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“The most authoritative voice on the matter, the International Panel on Climate Change, has come out and said we’re already seeing the affects of global warming,” says Julie Bovey with the National Resource Defense Coalition. “Weather is cyclical and some things can be attributed to smaller fluctuations in weather patterns, but when you start seeing a pattern of changes earlier and earlier,
you can attribute that to a larger issue.”
The current weather patterns have gotten many people worried about the viability of outdoor sports 50 years from now, particularly in the snowsports world. Bovey is working with the National Ski Area Association on the “Keep Winter Cool” campaign, which raises awareness of global warming threats while also encouraging ski resorts to change their own energy practices on the hill.
“The ski industry has a unique understanding of how global warming will affect us,” Bovey says. “Sports like skiing and snowboarding are in real jeopardy.”
Consider the snowsports industry the “canary in the coal mine” for how global warming will affect outdoor sports. Snowsports are hit the earliest and the hardest. A U.N. Environmental Program report released last winter shows many low-altitude ski resorts in Canada and Europe are already facing serious economic challenges. A number of professional races were cancelled or moved during the 2006-2007 season due to a lack of snow. One resort hosting a race resorted to flying the snow in by helicopter. Meanwhile, the glaciers that pros train on throughout the year are getting smaller and smaller. And these could be the last “good” ski seasons ever.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimates that global temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 10 degrees by 2100. The difference of a few degrees can have a huge impact on the snow season.
This may be truer in the Sierra than any place else because its relatively mild winter temperatures already put it on the precipitation bubble between rain and snow. If average Sierra temperatures rise another 5 or 6 degrees, as some studies predict, the snowpack could be reduced by 89 percent. In fact, just a 3 degree rise could cause the snow line to rise about 1,500 feet. Imagine what that would do to California ski resorts where it already often rains at the base?
“Forget about backcountry snowsports in the future,” Bovey says. “Even the places that rely on making snow will have trouble. You can’t make snow if it’s not cold enough.”
By and large, the ski industry is paying attention, though some are taking a more proactive approach than others. Seventy ski resorts are involved with the “Keep Winter Cool” campaign, with involvement ranging from distributing information about climate change to broadcasting infomercials to transforming their infrastructure to a clean energy model. Aspen is perhaps the most aggressive of the resorts, filling its snowcats with biodiesel, running motion- sensor soda machines and offsetting it’s entire electrical use with wind credits.
In California/Nevada, nine resorts are part of the Keep Winter Cool campaign. Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl and Heavenly are among them and also offset 100 percent of their electricity use by buying wind power credits. Northstar-at- Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain also have extensive renewable energy programs.
“We’re not going to defeat global warming, but we can mitigate it,” Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle last October, before one of the driest winters on record left a snowpack behind that averaged 29 percent of normal.
In Hot Water
Climate change is not strictly a winter recreationists’ concern. American Whitewater is part of the Stop Global Warming online march on Washington and is currently looking at how climate change will impact the free flowing rivers that kayakers love.
“We’re just getting our head around this stuff right now,” says Mark Singleton, executive director of American Whitewater. “People need to understand this issue, particularly kayakers, because we use these rivers and recognize their value. As a group, we need to be acutely aware of the affects of global warming.”
For American rivers, the outlook is almost as bleak as the future of snowsports. Most boaters are already seeing changes in their beloved sport. The boating season out West has been severely affected by the loss of snowpack in recent years and progressively earlier melt offs.
“Snowpack usually starts melting in May or June, but with the increase in temperatures, you get a reduction of snowpack and a complete disruption of the melting patterns,” Singleton says. “What we saw this year is the peak spring runoff in the West starting
a month earlier than it usually does and the river levels declining faster than usual. There’s a real significant shift. We’re getting more base flows through the winter, an earlier runoff, and much drier summers.”
If increased temperature predictions come true, California boaters are unlikely to find enough reserve juice left in the snowpack to pump up their favorite rivers come spring. And by summer, there’ll be nothing left except for a few dam-controlled runs – although the numbers of those might increase because we may be forced to build more dams to trap more water to quench the thirst of a growing population through the long, dry months. Die-hard boaters may be turned into storm chasers during the winter. Others might be relegated to man-made whitewater parks
that recycle water using massive pumps.
Perhaps the only upside for boaters will be the warmer water. But it’s doubtful the fish, or fishermen, would agree.
Unsafe to Breathe
The good news is that the mountains themselves will still be there in one form or another. That’s not going to change. You’re just not going to want to hike, bike, or run on them. Michigan State University recently published a paper titled, “The Implications of Climate Change on Outdoor Recreation,” which essentially took existing climate change models and applied that research to trends in tourism. The study suggests there will be a shift in outdoor tourism because of the increasing heat and how those rising temperatures affect comfort levels. Tourists will move away from the Southeast and Southwest as temperatures rise, and into other regions of the country, but even that shift will be temporary. “The summer season in the mid-Atlantic, in New England, and eventually even on the Pacific Coast, will gradually become too hot for comfort,” according to the paper. “By the 2050’s, Anchorage may, from a climate perspective, be a more pleasant place to spend the month of August.”
But that’s just comfort level. Give us a full Camelbak and a wicking t-shirt and we’ll hike through the Sahara in August, right? It turns out the real trouble with global warming and the land sports we love has to do with the health impacts. Currently, 120 million people live in areas where air is unhealthy and 30 percent of childhood asthma is due to environmental exposures, according to the EPA, which tracks unhealthy air days every county in the country. According to the EPA, the hazardous effects of air pollution are compounded for active people—hikers and bikers and runners. You.
Just the fact that you enjoy being outside more puts you at greater risk. People who spend most of their time indoors aren’t going to be as affected as much by worsening air quality.
Health problems associated with air pollution are particularly troublesome. Smog levels will only increase as the temperature rises. Heat contributes to the formation of ozone, which causes an inflammation of the lung tissue and reduced lung capacity. The results may be increased lung cancer mortality and widespread development of asthma, all of which will be compounded as global warming increases.
The health risk is just one reason to keep you off the trails in the near future. You also have to consider the rapidly changing landscape trying to adapt to the higher temperatures.
A recent report from the EPA paints a discouraging picture of the future of our forests. “As species migrate in response to climate variability, the forests may no longer be able to support the flora and fauna that now reside there.”
Essentially, as climate change affects ecosystems, invasive species move in, smothering the native plants that once thrived. According to “Habitats at Risk,” a study performed by the World Wildlife Fund, “global warming will filter out species that are not highly mobile and favor a less diverse, more weedy vegetation and ecosystems that are dominated by pioneer species, invasive species, and others with high dispersal capabilities.”
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, national parks are at the greatest risk because they are usually “island ecosystems” that are often chosen because they represent the last of their particular ecosystem. Already, invasive species reportedly crowd 2.6 million
acres within the national park system. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is labeled the haziest park in the country, with registered ozone levels high enough to damage human and plant life.
“You can already see the change in certain species because of the rising temperatures,” says Bovey with the National Resource Defence Coalition. “The maple trees in Vermont are struggling. You’re seeing southern species of plants moving northward. Already, the flora and fauna
that make up our landscape is changing.”
When you look at the facts sandwiched together, “Soylent Green” looks less like a ‘70s sci-fi flick, and more like a documentary ahead of its time. The future is indeed bleak and depressing, but no one should be more aware of the effects of global warming than outdoor recreationists, Not only do we have the most to lose, but we’re often on the front lines of the damage, seeing the often overlooked tragedies of environmental neglect first hand.
“Part of the role outdoor people play is they keep track of the season,” Bovey says. “They are a cultural clock, and that clock is being thrown off by global warming.”