Idaho’s climate is changing, impacting land and water, industries, and communities across the state. Temperatures have risen almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 (some areas are already above that), equating to fiercer storms, increased intensity of wildfires, and a change in our water regimes. If you are a lover of winter recreation in Idaho, that last change should make your ears perk up—because it means a change in snowpack.

Mountain towns across Idaho have enjoyed white winters for decades. In fact, Sun Valley Resort is America’s first destination resort, attracting powder chasers from all over the world coming every year to experience some mountain magic. But as we prepare for the continued impacts of climate change, what does the future hold for winter sports?

On thin ice

Under projected climate changes, we will likely see increasing single precipitation events in the winter and early spring—but mainly in the form of rain instead of snow, as well as decreasing summer precipitation. An increase in rain on top of snow events is also likely, which is important to note for winter recreation and tourism at resorts like Schweitzer, where the bottom of the Stella Chairlift is only 3,900 feet in elevation. Rain-on-snow can also lead to more flooding as well as landslides and mudslides, which makes hydroelectricity power generation more difficult to plan. In the past 40 years, our western states have seen snowfall decrease by 40%, which equates to about 35 fewer recreation days. If you think that sounds like a bummer for you ski bums, think about the impact to the communities that rely on winter recreation—resorts are opening later in the season, and entire communities are feeling the financial impact of shorter winters.

Changes in our mountain snowpack not only affects winter recreation and tourism, which provides about $475 million in annual tax revenues and boosts our economy by nearly $4 billion, but agriculture, plants, and wildlife as well. 

In our waters, fish spawning can be disrupted when changes in snowmelt alter the timing and abundance of insects and streamflow. On land, certain types of trees rely on snow for insulation from freezing temperatures, and as seen with Laclede near Priest River, mills may need to be retooled to accept tree species that grow on drier sites. Bark beetles are thriving in these warmer temperatures, killing trees and providing fuel for wildfires. Along with having more fuel, warmer temperatures, drought, and earlier snowmelt are leading to longer and more intense fire seasons. 

How did this happen? These changes in rising temperatures, the timing of snowmelt, and declining mountain snowpack are due to burning fossil fuels like gasoline, oil, and coal. When these fuels are burned for energy, manufacturing, and transportation, carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the atmosphere in ever increasing amounts. This builds up CO2 around the Earth, increasing the heat-trapping blanket and causing both air and water temperatures to warm.

For the love of powder days

Ski resorts around the country are taking steps to reduce their contribution to climate change, as well as find ways to adapt—after all, their business depends on it. 

Some are adding shuttle buses to reduce gasoline usage. Just a few years ago, Bogus Basin knows the climate crisis isn’t bogus, and has made a push toward greater sustainability—vowing to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. Others, in an effort to maintain forests that convert CO2 to oxygen, are avoiding expanding their ski trails into undisturbed forest while simultaneously incorporating wildlife habitat and forest protection into their plans. Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall is committing to the conservation cause, becoming the first ski resort in Idaho to be certified as a ‘Whitebark Pine friendly Ski Area’ through the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation.

These efforts should be applauded—and you can do so by telling your local resort that you support them protecting forests and environmentally-sensitive terrain, taking policy positions that support the environment by reducing traffic and emissions, and conserving water and energy. These efforts are becoming increasingly important to winter recreationists when choosing destinations, as they should. 

Idaho’s winter recreation industry can play a leading role in protecting our winters and reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. If we are going to tackle climate change, ease its most dire impacts, and protect our future winter recreation opportunities, then we need to work together to advance clean energy projects, accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, and pressure Idaho’s decision makers to move along at a quicker pace for our climate. Whether your winter adventures are on skis, a board, or snowshoes—the future of these experiences relies on taking action today. For the love of Idaho winters, become a climate advocate today—sign up for ICL Climate Campaign Updates to be alerted when you can take action for Idaho’s climate at the link below!


Want to learn more about ICL’s Climate work? Join us in Ketchum on Wednesday, December 13 for a conversation about our recent climate history, the need for our energy systems to adapt, and the current tools being used to address the climate crisis.