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Climate Change Goes on Vacation

The first time I saw Lake Tahoe – covered in sailboats, glittering beyond the parking lot of a faux-rustic time-share cabin – it wasn’t the size that got to me. I had recently relocated to California from the tiny hamlet-state of Rhode Island (where the lakes are all ponds and you can drive cross-state in half an hour) so I’d been prepped beforehand for how truly massive everything would seem. Lake Tahoe, of course, did not disappoint. The mountains are snow-capped, the Redwoods crane necks, and three cities the size of Providence could be squeezed onto the surface of the lake. But despite its enormity, what surprised me most about Lake Tahoe was its color. Capital-B blue, the kind of blue they put in designer paint catalogues, the kind you never really see on the East Coast. Kneeling at the edge of the lake and looking down through the water, the clarity was shocking. The lake looked healthy. I was grateful for that first swim.

All across Lake Tahoe, these moments of clarity help power a massive vacation industry, a crowning jewel in California’s $106 billion tourism sector. Lake Tahoe’s tourism sector alone furnishes 17,000 local jobs. But a lot of visitors leave the lake unaware that its clear waters – and the local economy they sustain – may be at risk.

Over the past decade, researchers at UC Davis have reported that climate change is causing the lake to warm at all depths, which threatens to disrupt the vital mixing process that cycles oxygen through the lake. A 2012 study predicted that increasing water temperatures in Lake Tahoe could cause severe oxygen depletion, even anoxia, at lower depths, precipitating run-away algal blooms, decreases in lake clarity, and an overall restructuring of the lake’s food web.

So what does this really amount to? Lake Tahoe – despite its international fame – is still just a single lake, and even if we can no longer see to the bottom, at least we can still jet-ski across the top, right? But the changes taking place in the depths of Lake Tahoe are indicative of a larger trend. All across the state, Californians are experiencing impacts of climate change now, and it is striking at the heart of the tourism industry.

Take wildfires, for example: with the Rim Fire in and near Yosemite National Park scorching a path into history books as the state’s third largest wildfire of all time, the connection between hotter weather and bigger blazes is growing more apparent. Containment costs for that blaze surpassed the $100 million mark, and that’s not counting the destruction of more than 100 buildings, or the tourist revenue lost due to cancelled Labor Day trips to Yosemite Valley. Families in Groveland and the other surrounding towns that depend on Yosemite tourism were especially hard-hit.

But the state tourism industry is also vulnerable to other pervasive – if less immediately noticeable – effects of climate change. Only a gondola-ride up the slopes from the shores of Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada ski resorts are bearing the brunt of a warming trend that has hobbled the ski industry across the region. Warmer winters have meant anemic and belated snowfalls for many of California’s mountain regions, and some researchers are predicting that by 2050, the Sierra Nevada ski season could be shortened by three to six weeks. By the end of the century, that number could rise to a full three months, relegating ski vacations to the few cold weeks around New Year’s Day. That’s a significant loss for the ski industry, which provides 24,000 jobs in California.

Head down the mountains to the rolling wine country of Napa and Sonoma, and you find a similar story. By 2050, climate change could shrink the amount of California land suitable for wine-growing by as much as 70 percent, driving up prices and precipitating huge losses for another Northern California tourist boon. Jim Verhey, CEO of a viticultural services business and former director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers, confirms that Napa has experienced a marked increase in extreme heat and precipitation events. These “wreak havoc” on his Merlots and Bordeaux, and can trigger significant losses in his growing operation. Multiply this across a $182 billion California wine industry that supports at least 82,000 jobs nationwide, and the impacts of climate change on California’s wine industry cease to be a concern only of vineyard owners and wine aficionados.

Even California’s beaches are now eroding under the pressure of sea level rise and coastal storms, a trend expected to pick up speed over the course of the next century. The California Department of Boating and Waterways has predicted that by 2100, shrinking beaches could cost California’s coastal towns hundreds of millions of dollars in tourist revenue.

The good news is that California’s tourism sector is taking notice of climate change. With the release of each new cautionary report, the sector has shown a heightened willingness to adapt, and also tackle the problem of climate change head-on. The ski industry is investing in new snow-makers, the Tahoe faithful are restoring tributary stream beds to increase the ecosystem’s resilience to a changing climate, and winemakers like Jim Verhey are experimenting with adaptive growing techniques to shade their vines from the sun. “We don’t have a choice to pick up and move somewhere else,” he said in an interview with Next Generation. “We have to deal with climate change now. We have to play the hand that we’re dealt.”

Still, there’s a broader lesson to be gleaned from this, and one that will remain relevant even if Jim’s grapes manage to beat the heat. When we think about climate change, we tend to think about it in near apocalyptic terms. We hear reports of massive sea level rise and crippling desertification, far away and decades down the line. These impacts are removed, unfathomable in the strict sense of the word. But when you look at the impacts we are seeing today on the tourism sector, it becomes entirely fathomable, and too costly to ignore.

At the end of the summer I left California for the East Coast, to go back to school for my senior year. But I’ve promised myself that I’ll be back soon, a tourist once again on the banks of Lake Tahoe. And if we can take California’s tourism numbers as any indication, I won’t be alone in my vacation pilgrimage to the Golden State. But as the studies detailed here and our own experiences are showing us, the California vacation is at severe risk from climate change. We will need to act immediately to limit impacts on the tourism sector, the thousands of jobs it supports, and the familiar pleasures that keep it all going: a run through fresh powder, a cold glass of white wine, a long walk down a wide beach.

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