By Darla R. Hitchcock
The Impact on Local Economies
The next time you and your friends want to load up the car with your snowboards and head up to Tahoe to take advantage of those student deals ($15 Fridays at Boreal, for instance), there’s something you might want to bear in mind: There may not be enough snow to ride down the mountain.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 2015 went down as the warmest year on record. Throughout the debate on global climate change, the question comes up again and again: “What’s the big deal about one or two degrees?” One or two degrees is a big deal when seen from the viewpoint of its effect on weather-based, local economies, such as those in the Lake Tahoe Region.
The economy of the Tahoe area is based on tourism, with between 61 percent and 66.4 percent of the total employment related to out-of-town visitors. To say that Tahoe is also dependent on weather would be an understatement. The winter economy revolves around snow and snow sports, with the area home to no fewer than 12 ski resorts.
According to the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), a one to two degree difference might affect things in major ways: the average daily temperature for January for the period between 1971 and 2000 was 30.3 degrees. Two degrees of warming would mean that it would be too warm for snow. In fact, the air temperature has increased in the Tahoe area by 4 degrees since 1910, the number of days that the air has dropped below freezing has decreased by 25, and the percentage of snow in the precipitation has declined from 51 percent to 36 percent. Additionally, snowmelt now occurs an average of 16.3 days earlier than it did in 1961.
We have less snow and a shorter winter, which, in the Tahoe economy, means less time to make a living.
The economy in ski country is based predominantly on the winter, with snow sports accounting for 88 percent of visits, according to the Lake Tahoe Visitors Association. Climate modeling by TERC shows that winters are due to get shorter still: if trends continue, snowfall as a percentage of precipitation could decrease to 10 percent by the end of this century. The area that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1962 will cease to be a winter sports haven. What will the region do? How will it retain a thriving, vital economy? There’s always the summer, right? Camping, hiking, biking, and hanging out on the lake will become the thrust of the tourist economy, right?
Yes and no. The region can put more emphasis on summer sports and visitors, with the forest and the lake. However, global warming will affect that as well: as temperatures warm, trees such as the Jeffrey pine, which are more adapted to warmer, dryer weather, will take over forests that used to be comprised of more arboreal conifers, such as cedar and spruce. Unfortunately, these pines are susceptible to the bark beetle, so whole swaths of the forest will die off.
Continued periods of drought will increase the prevalence of other dry, dead vegetation, which means that fires, already an issue in the area, will increase as well. With fires comes bare land, and lessening of Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity, as the runoff from rain transports dirt and soot into the lake.
Fewer trees and a less-sparkling lake means fewer reasons to make Tahoe the destination for that summer trip. Not to mention that you may want to avoid breathing the smoke of all those fires.
How can we lessen these threats to the Tahoe Basin? We can do what everyone is already supposed to be doing: drive hybrid cars, use renewable resources, and put solar on our roofs. But, some scientists think that we have already reached the tipping-point as far as climate change goes, that anything we do going forward may just be a Band-Aid.
As far as the economy goes? Humans are an inventive and resourceful species, so we’ll either move to more northern latitudes, where the Boreal forests are intact and the skiing—for now—is still good. Or, we’ll figure out how to stay in Tahoe and make it work. After all, the place will still be beautiful. Even without the trees, and the snow, and the lack of lake clarity, there will always be the rocks, those great, grand, granite escarpments, calling to us with their beauty.
As a resourceful species, we’ll figure out how to make the economy rebound, how to thrive. We’ll figure out how to stay. Unless, of course we end up going the way of the dinosaurs!