Joe Pleban competes at the Lillehammer 2021 Para Snow Sports World Championships. (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Joe Pleban grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an area not typically known for heavy snow seasons. It wasn’t until he moved to Vermont and then to Silverthorne, Colorado, that he began to notice changes in snow accumulation each winter. Even in Summit County, considered by many to be the heart of snow country in that region, Pleban could see the evidence of more bad seasons than good.
“Right now, they don’t have much snow at all in Summit County,” said Pleban, who is a member of the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team. “That’s not normal. It seems, from my perspective, that may be becoming the norm, that there’s less and less snow. An epic season is more the outlier than a super dry season.”
Over the past decade, two-time Paralympic medalist Evan Strong has also noticed extreme fluctuations in the amount of snow during the winter season. Strong, who grew up in Hawaii but currently resides in Nevada City, California, believes environmental toxicity is a key contributor.
“Our oceans are full of plastic,” said Strong, also an avid surfer. “One thing I’ve noticed from being a young child surfer to now a grown adult surfer is how much trash and plastics you find washing up on shores. I know climate change is a politically charged (phrase). But those things are changing our environment.”
In 2007, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones founded Protect Our Winters (POW), a group devoted to protecting the outdoors from the harmful effects of climate change. Since then, the organization has become a major platform with over 130,000 supporters.
According to POW’s findings, increased participation in snow sports during high snow years leads to more jobs and added economic value. During the 2015-16 winter season, more than 20 million people participated in snowboarding, snowmobiling and downhill skiing. This resulted in an estimated $20.3 billion in spending at ski resorts, hotels, restaurants and other retailers around the U.S.
So what happens during low snow years? Participation drops dramatically, leading to the loss of an estimated 17,400 jobs nationally compared to an average season.
Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, a former pro snowboarder who has coached the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team, is a big supporter of POW. She credits Jones for creating public awareness of the problem.
“(Jeremy) has brought a huge amount of cognizance to this issue within all parts of skiing and snowboarding, and extending to other outdoor sports,” explained Chythlook-Sifsof, who grew up in Alaska. “At this point, Protect Our Winters represents not only the ski and snowboard industry but also the hunting and fishing industry, pretty much any outdoor sport. It allows a platform for athletes to speak to these issues.”
At a United Nations climate summit held this past November in Glasgow, Scotland, world leaders attempted to find common ground on cutting emissions. But according to a UN report, little progress was made toward improving future warming scenarios. Their analysis showed the world will emit 51.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year by 2030.
In Pleban’s view, European countries appear to be leading the way in tackling the issue.
“You need to get the big countries with mass populations on board,” he said. “Obviously, the bigger countries with more people, more industry, with larger carbon footprints, that’s where a lot of the difference will be made.”
Many resorts and events rely on artificial snow to survive. Chythlook-Sifsof, the first native Alaskan to make the U.S. Olympic snowboarding team, recalls officials having to bring in buckets of snow by helicopter in order to hold the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.
“We have an outdoor sport that’s uniquely reliant upon the climate,” she explained. “We can all see a firsthand glimpse of how climate change affects our sport, our careers, our goals. Nobody wants to have races canceled. For that reason, it’s important that we pay attention to those markers because they’re not going away.”
Strong remembers having a dream one night that he was an old man sitting on the edge of a beach with a great-grandchild in his lap. In the dream, he and the child were unable to go in the ocean because it was too toxic.
“I woke up extremely sad because the ocean has played such a huge part in my life,” Strong recalled. “It really deserves our respect and our protection.”
In other words, everyone needs to do their part in saving outdoor sports and the environment in general. Along with recycling and composting, Pleban would like to see the U.S. and other countries take advantage of current technology to plant more trees and assist with cleanup efforts.
“I saw where drones can plant trees from the air,” Pleban said. “That’s an awesome kind of technology that can help with the ongoing efforts to clean up the oceans. But it’s got to be a global thing. There has to be major steps from multiple countries.”
For Strong, it’s about each person taking care of their own space and having respect for their surroundings.
“You have enough self-respect for your own hygiene that you don’t get into your bed dirty,” he explained. “It’s the same thing with our environment. (It’s about) having awareness and compassion, to be humble enough to pick up somebody else’s rubbish on the side of the road or at a park.”