Porter Fox Goes Deep

If you’re mourning the shortage of Sierra snow, you might do well to stock up on Kleenex. Ski journalist and author Porter Fox says you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Fox, a long-time editor of Powder magazine, makes the new reality quite clear in his recently released book, Deep: The Story of Skiing and The Future of Snow, and presents enough evidence to disabuse anyone of the notion that the vagaries of winter are simply normal seasonal flux. He launched into his reporting for the book believing the same, but came away from its writing convinced otherwise.

“We’re going from being in a state of blissful ignorance and thinking, oh, yeah, it’s good years and bad years and the snow will always come, to being told you’ve got about 30 years left before your hometown resort shuts down,” Fox told me in a recent conversation (presented in its entirety below).


If Fox’s message isn’t exactly revelatory for those closely following the science these many years, Deep is significant because no one with such deep ties to the skiing community has so clearly articulated climate science in book form. Deep will appeal to skiers of all abilities and ages.

Fox begins in the Pacific Northwest and traverses the 48 contiguous states as he talks to experts and partakes of the slopes themselves, and then hops over the Atlantic to survey climate change in the Alps. Part science, part memoir, part hardcore journalism, Deep tells the truth, in large part because Fox has interviewed the folks in the know: Stanford University’s Noah Diffenbaugh, the scientists at Boulder, Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, Christoph Marty of the Swiss Federal Commission for Snow and Avalanche Research, and many more.

Fox’s story isn’t just about the future of snow sports, of course; the leviathan lurking within Deep is that as goes our snowpack, so goes our freshwater, creating a chronic shortage already being felt by the billions who rely on snowmelt for drinking water.

Porter Fox and friends in Italy / David Reddick photo

Deep, then, is no mere cautionary tale; it’s a requiem of sorts, since the climate has already changed. That the ski industry has slid and will experience further decline within the next 30 years, according to Fox, is a foregone conclusion. The actions we take today will safeguard the snowpack of 100 years from now. Lest you become overwhelmed with climate-related angst, however, there are still moves you can and should make to preserve snow for the enjoyment and thirst of future generations. Read on to learn how.

Here’s the interview about the writing of Deep.

Obviously you’re deeply involved in skiing both as a journalist and as a skier. I’m curious -– did you already have a hypothesis about what you were going to find before you started your research for the book?  How did you come into the project, mindset-wise?

It’s interesting.  I didn’t have a hypothesis at all.  I was actually almost pretty much unaware of what was going on in the mountains in regard to climate change, and I got a phone call from a couple of skier buddies of mine from when I lived up in Jackson Hole, and they were sort of like, “Hey, we want you to write a book about climate change and skiing.”  And they knew that I worked at Powder since 1999 and they thought that I was the guy to do the job.  I didn’t really know what they were talking about at first.  So I dug around and looked at some of the statistics at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, NASA and whatnot, and I was just totally shocked at what I found.  I mean, I’d been writing about skiing for 20 years and I didn’t know how fast snow had already started disappearing from the Northern Hemisphere.  So it was a pretty open slate when I came into it, and trying to remain unbiased throughout except for the statistics and scientific findings that people had come up with over the last 20 or 30 years.  They’re very compelling.  They’re very well backed up, and it really paints kind of a grim picture for the mountains in the future if we don’t do something soon.

I mean, you’ve been skiing a long time.  I think you said something like 40 years, and surely you’ve seen changes in the snowpack yourself.  Or were you blithely skiing along and finding the best powder stashes throughout the world? [laughs] Or what observations did you make?

Well, it’s a great question because I think a lot of skiers have seen the slow disappearance of snow.  But in our mind, in a skier’s mentality, there’s always good years and there’s always bad years. Since I was a kid, growing up in northern Maine, there were banner years where we would actually get to ski powder.  I mean, those looked like a miracle.  And then there would be years on end when we were skiing on manmade snow.  There was no reason for that back then, as far as we knew.  There was just kind of luck of the draw.  It was good snow and bad snow.  And then when I lived in Jackson, I worked for the Jackson Hole News, and I actually wrote a column for the sports section. I was tired of hearing everybody complain about oh, there’s no snow this year.  Or there will be snow next year.  Whatever.  And I wrote that, hey, no matter what happens the snow always comes.  There’s no need to worry about it.  There’s nothing you can do about it, so just be patient.  And that kind of proves my ignorance at the time. For a lot of skiers, it was like, yeah, snow is going to come.  But that might not be the case by the end of the century.

In the Sierra, there are great years and there are thin years.  Always have been. But what the mountain guides and a lot of people have noticed is that the new normal is kind of a funky, highly variegated snowpack — not the spring corn carpet that once prevailed throughout the range.

Skiing le cirque / David Reddick photo

I think there’s a lot of coastal resorts that are noticing that, and that’s just because they’re closer to the ocean, they’re more temperate, and they will be affected first.  All of the Sierra resorts, up into the Cascades, up into the Whistler area, and of course on the east coast all throughout New England and up into Quebec even.  They’re talking about half of those 103 ski resorts in the northeastern US going out of business in the next 30 years because they don’t have enough snow to be open for Christmas and to have a viable season.  So I think more than anything, the most shocking part of this is the timeline.

Is what?

The timeline. We’re going from being in a state of blissful ignorance and thinking, oh, yeah, it’s good years and bad years and the snow will always come, to being like yeah, you’ve got about 30 years left before your hometown resort shuts down. Big environmental changes don’t happen like that typically.  It’s always over decades, centuries and whatnot, which climate change is gauged by.  But it’s happening very quickly right now in terms of the snow.

That’s what is so shocking to people.  They’re not able to swallow the fact that within their lifetimes they may not have their favorite ski resort to visit…

Exactly, yeah.  And definitely within their children’s lifetimes.  I mean, skiing is a real generational sport. My grandparents taught my mom.  My mom taught me.  That is just how it is, and it’s always been like that.  A real family-oriented sport, and when people think, “My kids might not be able to ski,” you can see something come over their faces. It’s a whole different realization of the problem.

So as you started to grok the truth, what was your reaction? What was the emotional hit like for you?

It was very depressing at first, in the first I’d say four months of research.  I was – it was very gloomy.  I just couldn’t believe it.  And even more – I mean, this is much bigger than skiing.  Skiing is a luxury sport that kind of upper class people practice in their leisure time.  Although my experience in Wyoming was actually meeting a lot of working class skiers, which was very inspiring.  But still, it’s bigger than that, and what I realized those first four months is that it really is happening.  It’s happening very quickly, and it’s going to radically change our mountains, and that’s where I’ve lived a lot of my life and was just – I was just really sad.  And but then I had a conversation with – actually it was one of the authors of the study about half of the ski resorts in the northeast closing down, and at the end of our interview he said – the guy’s name is Daniel Scott, and he said– “You know, it doesn’t have to be like this.”  And I hadn’t read anything about mitigation up to that point, or I hadn’t read anything that really mapped a path to slowing climate change down.  But when he said that, I was like, “Really?  Well, tell me about that.”  And he gave me a bunch of sources and painted a picture of how mitigation could play out and keep warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the UN mandated safety threshold.  From then on, I was actually kind of inspired and thought, okay, there’s actually something we can do.  We don’t just have to sit by and watch this transpire.  There’s something we can do as skiers and mountain folk and people who are living in those areas that are being affected first.  They could actually be the vanguard of this movement, and maybe even this book can help make that happen. But then it was kind of inspiring.

And what, if anything, do you believe people can do to make a difference at this point?

At this point, I mean, the first thing that they could do is go to protectourwinters.org and become a member and read the literature on it.  Just educate themselves.  They can read the book, obviously.  That would be great.  But Protect Our Winters is a terrific nonprofit that’s really doing more to save snow, I think, than any other organization in the country.  Maybe even in the world at this point.  They’re very targeted towards that and they’re very tied in in Washington.  They visit the Capitol very often and talk to senators, and I was just on a phone call with them a couple weeks ago, with the EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, and they’re making things happen.  And what they explained to me is that this is beyond the point of people needing to start recycling.  They need to be aware, an awareness, but it’s beyond that.  At this point there needs to be major changes made in the next 20 to 30 years to keep our mountains the way that we see them now, and that requires legislation and that requires getting in touch through congresspeople, the President, with business leaders, anybody that has more influence than you do, and really pushing them to speak out.  To say, “Hey, enough is enough.  We need to start acting on this.”

So talk to me a little bit about changes that you’ve made or have considered making, given your revelations here.

IMG_2406-6.mediumIt’s interesting.  I really did make some changes after I started researching, and I’ve always – I grew up in an environmentally aware household, and I went to college in Vermont and lived in Jackson Hole. I was always involved to some extent in spreading awareness and conserving the environment and whatnot.  But after that first few months of research, I kind of realized, again, that timeline, and was so shocked by it.  I did a lot of stuff.  We did the simple things like changing out our light bulbs for more efficient lighting.  I’ve started burning B99 biodiesel in my car, which is basically 99% vegetable oil. And is significantly better for the environment than just burning straight diesel.  And I ride my bike, you know, as often as I can instead of driving.  My wife and I both do.  But honestly probably the biggest thing that I did, or the biggest lever that I could find to kind of push for legislation and whatnot was just to write this book. And get it out there. And really let people know what that timeline is, what the facts are, and push them to do something as well.

What kind of car do you drive?

I’ve got my old 1987 Mercedes station wagon.

Why did I think you were going to say that?

300TD. One of the best grease cars out there.

Do you live in Brooklyn?  Is that right?

I do, yeah.

A book targeted at skiers by one of their own that hits them where they live is an interesting vehicle for creating, you know, at least mindset change.  So what are you finding as people read this book? 

You know, it’s been really great.  I’ve been surprised.  People are very open-minded.  They’re reading it through to the end.  They have some questions about where to go from here and things like that.  But I’m very surprised.  Everyone from ski manufacturers to ski resort CEOs to regular Joes on the street, they’re really interested in the topic, and I think all the media about extreme weather and climate change, the IPCC report.  Things like that laid the path to this so that most everyone was aware that something’s going on, and now this is a very specific, very honed in discussion of what’s going on in various regional areas.  So it’s really gone great.  I feel lucky to have a place like Powder Magazine and Protect Our Winters and partners like that that have helped us get it out there.

You followed watersheds from ski areas downstream. Talk about what you learned about water in general.

I learned a lot about water [laughs] that I really didn’t know before.  I mean, specifically about the importance of the ocean currents, of oscillations, of how the ocean absorbs a lot of the heat that’s being trapped in the planet.  How that plays out around the world.  It’s just really crazy effects like more snow in Siberia means cold winters in New England.  You know? It’s so strange.  Or like a lack of sea ice in the Bering Sea is making winters in Europe colder and pushing storms down on it. Things like that and how water is distributed was incredible.  Learning that a billion people around the world depend on snow and ice melt for their freshwater supply was a real shocker.  I just had no idea.

Is that all?

Well, that’s obviously a rough number.  It’s a pretty even number. [laughs]

One billion?  Yeah, I would think more.

They say a billion.  A billion people.  But also, then, learning about this domino effect.  What happens when there’s not enough snow in the mountains in the spring and how that can weaken the root system of a pine forest to make it more sustainable to mountain pine beetles, which then ends up with dead trees with no needles on them.  So there’s less shade to protect the snow.  So then the snow melts faster.  I mean, it’s such a crazy series of events that happen.  Results in drought, wildfires a lot of things that you might not associate with a dry winter. So that was all very enlightening.

I think it was [Stanford climate researcher] Noah Diffenbaugh who talked about how the California reservoir system is predicated on a May, June snowpack runoff.  With rain on snow earlier in the season, you know, February, March, that whole runoff cycle is skewed.

Absolutely. I didn’t realize the importance of snow as a natural water storage system either.  I mean, it was just shocking to realize how many people from farmers in the Midwest to California farmers to vineyards, and how many people really depend on a solid snow pack in the spring. We were talking to vintners in the Hood River Valley. And they were talking, yeah. They’re talking about, whether growing is even viable. There’s a giant mass of ice in the background as we’re talking. But it’s not what it used to be [the snowpack]. And they’re already having to adapt.

People tend to react to what they see, and in a big winter it’s difficult to convince people that there’s actually kind of this systemic change happening.  We tend to focus on the short term, right?  How do you get through the mental chatter, as in, “Oh, we’re fine.  You know, we had a huge winter.”  You’re saying things are going to change and you’re alarmed at how fast things are changing.  So how do you tweak peoples’ consciousness?

It’s very hard to do, and I didn’t really want to get into that.  I more wanted to as a journalist, just present the facts.  Let people make up their minds for themselves.  But you know, if somebody is doubting, if somebody is kind of like, “oh, no way, this is the natural cycle,” or whatever, all the resources are online.  They can do the reading for themselves.  Unfortunately there’s a lot of flack online as well.  It’s very easy to put something up online and act like an expert.  But if you check your resources and you go through unbiased sources or just at least read a lot so you’re getting both sides of the story, it’s so evident what is happening.  This is not a scientific debate anymore.  There was a time in the scientific community when they were debating over, well, is climate change happening?  How is it happening?  Is it really us?  What are the effects going to be?  When are we going to see them?  And much of that is no longer a debate.  It’s just fact. And they’re moving on beyond that, trying to even scale the timing down closer so we know exactly when and exactly where.

Do you think there’s anything we can do to reverse what’s going to happen within the next 30 years?  Or is it a fait accompli?

That’s kind of a foregone conclusion at this point.  What we should be doing is trying to stop what might happen in 100 years or more. Climate change has a certain momentum — you can’t just stop it.  There are natural feedbacks that kick in.  There’s much larger systems at work that we have no control over.  That’s why most people that I spoke with suggested that we had two or three decades to make significant major changes or it could very easily spin out of control.  So you know, again, it’s sort of convincing people that it’s real and that now is the time to act.  The reason I went to Europe and wrote the second half of the book over there was simply because they’re seeing it first. The Alps are warming around three times faster than the global average, and you step out onto the and there’s a glacier that’s lost a mile and a half in length. It is drastic.  I mean, it is an unbelievable thing to look at, and psychologically, people really need to see to believe, and when you see that, when you see low elevation resorts like Megeve, one of the most historic resorts in the Alps, you see it with brown grass growing under the lifts.  That’s pretty compelling.  Pretty hard to disbelieve.

I’ve actually seen footage of snow being transported by helicopter from Austria to Italy.

Oh, yeah.  They used a helicopter to bring snow in for the Whistler Olympics.  In Sochi last year, they stored tons of snow under insulated blankets last year to use this year, because they had to cancel Olympic qualifying events in Sochi last year. There just wasn’t enough snow for it. And there’s probably not going to be this year, either.  They’re probably going to end up using that. You know, that’s one of those things where you can doubt the scientists, you can doubt the computer models.  You can’t doubt what has already happened.  That’s fact.  That’s in the history books now. And you look at that, and again, it’s pretty compelling.

What did you learn about snowmaking as a possible hedge?

Snowmaking is a tricky subject. I mean, 88% of the resorts in the US are using snowmaking now, and it’s basically a stopgap measure.  Only because resorts are getting less snow.  They need to cover those lower elevation runs near the bottom of the resort.


But it’s also the most energy intense operation on the mountain, and when you’re looking at electricity prices going up and water availability going down in the next 50 to 75 years, it’s silly to think that snowmaking is going to be your solution for climate change. Aside from the fact that at a lot of places, it will just be too warm to make snow.

I came to the same conclusion when I wrote about the future of Tahoe-area resorts.

I mean, they have technology to make snow in something like up to 38 degrees or 40 degrees or something like that. So it’s more of a stopgap measure.  I’m not for it or against it.  I think people are doing their best to just figure out how to get by.  But it’s certainly not a long-term solution to climate change and snow.

But to your knowledge, Protect Our Winters hasn’t come out with a statement about snowmaking?

I’ve not read anything like that by them and I haven’t really read anything except for some environmental groups that are against it.  We’re probably just not at that point yet.  I think that, again, a lot of people are just waking up to what’s going on. I’m sure at some point that will be addressed.

You mentioned Daniel Scott, the climatologist back east who talked about how snowmaking really could save skiing…

Yeah. He’s one of the few…maybe the only climatologist who’s introduced a polecats-slider2snowmaking module to his computer model, and that essentially – the computer simulates when conditions are correct.  It adds snow to the snowpack by snow guns.  And with his calculations, he found a lot of the resorts in the Rockies would probably do all right with what’s predicted for climate change if they had 100% snowmaking coverage.  But the big question mark in that formula is do they have the money to pay for it, and do they have the water availability to really make that happen?  Maybe they will.  But maybe they won’t, and it’s – again, it’s a very short-term solution.

Right.  I’m not sure anybody’s calculated the externalities of snowmaking, and if the newest technology has a carbon footprint that’s net neutral. 

No, it’s pretty carbon heavy.  It requires a tremendous amount of electricity unless they’re making their own electricity somehow, which not very many resorts are.  That’sa big problem, and then obviously if there’s not a whole lot of water.  If the mountains are in a drought or something like that, then it would be difficult to make snow as well.  I mean a lot of snowmaking systems will capture the water that they put up onto the hill.  But that’s not a 100% kind of thing.  It’s not – I don’t believe that that’s evolved. So either snowmaking has a long way to go, or people need to really put their energy behind just trying to keep winters a little closer to how they are now.

Porter, at the end of the day, what do you want people to know?

I would say that the snow and the mountains as you know it in the Northern Hemisphere is not going to be the same in 75 years if we don’t make large changes in the next 20 to 30 years, and that’s basically it.  It’s that simple. When it gets warm, snow melts. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.