These winter athletes have experienced first-hand the impact of climate change, inspiring them to work hard to protect our Earth.
For Jeremy Jones, snow is not just a sign of winter. To the 38-year-old Truckee, California, native, snowfall is a symbol of his career, his passion, and his lifestyle. Jones, a 10-time Snowboarder Magazine big-mountain rider of the year and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year nominee, worries that climate change will prevent future generations from experiencing the winter season as we know it today.
Jones founded Protect Our Winters in 2007 to unite the winter sports community against climate change through education, activism, and community projects. The idea was that winter athletes were the best spokespeople for this topic. They experience first-hand how climate change is impacting their sports and, on a larger scale, affecting the Earth.
Carbon emissions, often produced by burning fossil fuels (like gasoline, for instance), have contributed to global warming. After seeing resorts closed and areas that once had great jumps for snowboarding shut down due to insufficient snowfall, Jones realized that climate change was a crisis that needed to be addressed. "Our mountains are fine in the immediate future," Jones says. "I will have snow to ride on, but this is for the future generations."
Since 2010, Jones has visited Washington, D.C., three times to spark conversation and bring awareness to Protect Our Winters' cause. Jones says he can see the issue making progress, as more policy makers see that climate change can impact everything from the environment to the economy.
However, the nation's capital is not the only place where change is taking place. Protect Our Winters partners with The North Face and Alliance For Climate Education to visit schools through their Hot Planet/Cool Athletes program. Protect Our Winters educates students about the issue, using an interactive presentation with stories from professional winter athletes to inspire kids to make a difference. Jones says that paying attention to little things in your day-to-day life can help the environment, too. For example, he limits his "carbon footprint" by buying locally grown food. And instead of using snowmobiles and helicopters to get up mountains, he hikes for his snowboarding adventures. "This is the planet you are inheriting" Jones says.
How climate change is affecting their lives
An Impact Beyond Sports
For professional skier Ingrid Backstrom, the five-time winner of Powder Magazine's Best Female Performer, fighting climate change means being part of something much bigger in the world. "It's not only because as skiers [nature] is what we love," says Backstrom. "It is for the health of the mountains, rivers, and lakes."
Backstrom's trips to faraway places have allowed her to meet people who experience the impact of climate change on a regular basis. For example, two years ago she visited Greenland, where for hundreds of years natives would typically see groups of polar bears. However, during her visit a Greenlander told Backstrom that he had seen only one polar bear because the snow was too soft and deep for the bears to travel. On Baffin Island, north of Quebec, Canada, she met an Inuit man who explained that every year the winter melt is coming sooner and sooner, making life harder for animals. "To talk to these people who live and see the changes in their lifetime is really powerful," Backstrom says.
Climate change has forced professional snowboarder Forrest Shearer to go on the run. Over the past decade he's seen the winter decrease from a six-month season (November to April) to a three-month season (January to March), so he has to travel to find the winter, wherever it may be. "Before we could go in our backyard," says Shearer, a resident of Utah who has appeared in and worked on numerous snowboarding films. "And now we have to travel to Alaska or Europe."
The shortened seasons in places like the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Lake Tahoe have limited the time and places he can film. Even locations in Europe have suffered through warmer winters in recent years, forcing many resorts to close. "Traveling the world chasing snow, I've seen it all," Shearer says. "Mountains that once had stable, deep snow packs are now diminishing snow packs. This is changing the face of winter."
A Dangerous Change
Supporting environmental causes is nothing new for Caroline Gleich, a 27-year-old professional big mountain and powder skier. As a student at the University of Utah, Gleich interned with Utah governor Gary Herbert's environmental advisors. Now, the Salt Lake City resident and three-time Ski Magazine cover athlete is using her status as a professional athlete to inspire young people to get involved.
Gleich says that she's seen how climate change can pose an immediate danger to winter athletes. Over the past two winters, Utah has seen a lot less snow, making the snow pack lower. In turn, this makes mountains more prone to dangerous — and sometimes deadly — avalanches. Additionally, with less snow, there are more rocks that could injure skiers.
Avoiding the hazardous areas has also taken away some of the fun of the sport. "When you don't have that snow pack, you can't ski the rad peaks you want to ski," Gleich says. "It's a bummer to have to stay on the smaller mountains."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
It's not hard to help the environment. Forrest Shearer says it can be as simple as walking and bike riding instead of driving, or using energy-efficient light bulbs and reusable shopping bags. Caroline Gleich suggests starting recycling centers and community gardens, which will reduce our carbon footprint. For more ideas, check out protectourwinters.org.
Photos: Jed Jacobsohn for Sports Illustrated, Jordan Manley, Kyle George for Sports Illustrated