Jagged peaks ringing Colorado’s Copper Mountain turned indigo in the rising sun as Jamie Baker knelt to measure the ski resort’s latest snowfall. The total came to what it’s been too often this season: zero.
“This is our basic ruler you used in elementary school,” the ski patrol employee said, poking the wooden stick into the space around a stake used to gauge overnight snow. “It’s really important, so guests have the correct information and know much snow we got.”
Colorado ski resorts, which bring about $3 billion into the state economy each year, are hurting. After the driest winter in two decades decimated resorts from Maine to California last season, the drought in Colorado continues, leading to fewer skiers on the slopes for a second year.
As ski enthusiasts monitor snowfall to decide which resorts to visit, reports about new precipitation are taking on greater importance. Lack of snow is also prompting resort operators to take new steps to attract visitors, such as installing time- lapse cameras that show flakes falling on measurement stakes.
Skier visits nationwide fell 16 percent in 2011-2012 -- a 20-year low -- to 51 million from 60.5 million a year earlier, RRC Associates, a Boulder, Colorado-based research firm, found in an analysis compiled for the National Ski Areas Association.
Unseasonable warmth kept many Coloradans from the slopes in the early part of this season as well. Colorado Ski Country USA reported this month that skier visits at its 21 member resorts decreased 11.5 percent through Dec. 31, when compared with a similar period a year earlier.
Even as equipment used to gauge all sorts of weather becomes more sophisticated, many popular ski areas, like Copper, rely on snow measurements taken in the same areas with the same methods used for decades.
Snow reports are to avid skiers and snowboarders what record swells are for serious surfers: Most check them religiously online at resort websites or those of aggregators that collect totals nationwide, or on mobile applications. If it doesn’t snow, they’re not likely to ski.
There’s a temptation to inflate snow estimates, some skiers say.
“We know they get inflated from time to time,” said Jim Stanek, 55, a retired banker and frequent skier as he viewed a panorama of grass- and rock-studded slopes at Loveland Ski Area, about 56 miles (90 kilometers) from Denver. Only 40 of Loveland’s 93 runs were open in the third week of January.
Skiers aren’t the only ones pointing fingers. Resorts also accuse one another of trying to lure business by inflating snow totals.
“We report really accurately and neighboring resorts do not,” said Joani Lynch, communications director for California’s Mammoth Mountain, where employees keep an eye on a sign 19.5 feet tall to gauge snow at the summit. “A lot of times, resorts will report an inflated storm total and inflated base depth. It’s competitive and it’s a competitive advantage.”
The debate intensified in 2012, when two Dartmouth economics professors released a paper titled “Wintertime for Deceptive Advertising?,” in which they tracked resort website visits and found “consumer demand responds to both resort- and government-reported snow.” The study was the second of two on snow reporting by Jonathan Zinman and Eric Zitzewitz.
The first, in 2009 with the same title, found resorts reported 23 percent more new snow on weekends -- when ski visits rise -- than was collected at nearby government weather stations.
Increasing competition prompted areas such as Loveland to install video cameras so skiers can see new snow accumulating for themselves.
“They can look at it first thing in the morning,” said Pip Baehler, director of Loveland’s ski patrol, gesturing to a metal stand where the snow stake the camera will focus on was recently installed. The resort turned on the camera last week.
“If they see it’s dumping and snow is piling up, they can say, ‘OK, let’s go skiing today, instead of work,’ or ‘There’s no new snow, let’s go to work,’” he said.
A webcam also sits above Copper Mountain’s Solitude Weather Station, pointed at a snow stake and its platform, where a four- inch-tall red toy van sits. When the toy’s buried, skiers can use a $99 pass that allows them to ski anytime Copper receives four inches or more.
There isn’t a national standard for how U.S. resorts should measure their snowfall. In Colorado and Utah, trade associations ask members to install snow stakes midway up the mountain and to measure snow at roughly the same time each day.
In interviews, resorts and trade associations say they don’t exaggerate their snow totals, adding they would be exposed in social media for misrepresenting how much precipitation they received.
“You always get people saying those numbers are inflated by the marketing department,” said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, which represents the state’s 14 resorts.
“In a state like ours, we hang our hat on getting a lot of snow,” he said, noting that half of the region’s ski areas are within a 45-minute drive of one another. “You don’t have a lot of credibility as an organization, or as a resort, if you consistently inflate your snow report numbers.”
Snow is comprised mostly of air -- flakes don’t pack together on a smooth surface, making it difficult to build scientific equipment that accurately measures powder, said Joel Gratz, a self-described “skiing meteorologist” known among resorts and skiers for his snow forecasts as CEO of opensnow.com.
“Snow is probably the hardest weather variable to measure,” he said. “It changes so drastically over such short distances. In a place like Vail that is more than 3,000 feet from top to bottom -- as are most of the ski areas in the west - - there is so much terrain that snowfall will vary.”
Vail, which uses a camera pointed at a mid-mountain snow stake to take its early morning reading, found out firsthand how closely skiers monitor snow reports when it announced a foot of new snow on Feb. 23, 2012. It later retracted the advisory and changed it to two inches.
Wind caused 12 inches to pile up on the snow stake, said Bob Norris, resort operations manager at Vail Mountain. The resort was alerted to the discrepancy when visitors and ski patrolmen reported less snow elsewhere at the seven-mile-wide property, he said.
“There’s always going to be a bit of human error involved,” Norris said. “It’s not an exact science. We do what we can.”
Employees, he said, now look to see if new snow outside the communications center at the base matches what they see on the stake. If it doesn’t, they ask an employee on the mountain to take a measurement.
Ski areas and skiers agree they desperately need fresh powder in a region where some resorts are operating with half their typical snowpack.
“February and March hotel bookings are pacing ahead of last year by 3.5 percent and 8.6 percent respectively,” said Melanie Mills, president and chief executive of Colorado Ski Country USA in a statement earlier this month. “And Colorado’s traditional snowier months lie ahead.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at Joldham1@bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Taylor at Jtaylor48@bloomberg.net