I’ve been fortunate enough to snowboard for over 22 years, and I’ve seen changes in our winter climate firsthand. I’ve seen big snows and I’ve seen no snows. As of this week, I’ve even seen a Winter Olympics Snowboardcross race cancelled due to fog and carried out in pouring rain. I am proud to have represented my country by taking the bronze medal this year at Sochi, but I’m worried that if we don’t band together to take action on a more meaningful scale, there might not be opportunities like this for athletes in the future. I’m worried that with climate change there might be a very different future ahead.
When my family moved from Connecticut to Vermont fulltime, I started at Stratton Mountain School, a winter sports academy in the Green Mountains. It’s there that I came to understand that a single snowflake is a delicate thing of beauty, something to catch on an outstretched tongue. But pack a handful of those delicate snowflakes into a ball, and you’ve transformed fragile snowflakes into a stinging snowball.
I remember tossing my fair share of snowballs during Thanksgiving break, during Stratton Mountain School’s fall camp. We explored the mountains of the Northeast and snowboarded every day to get ready for upcoming competitions. Now instead of enjoying mountains in their backyard, the students have to travel to Colorado every year because there hasn’t been enough snow in New England in years to build jumps or run gates.
But this is bigger than snowboarding. This is bigger than having to travel to find snow. This is about giving kids the opportunity to experience the outdoors and truly connect with nature. I snowboard for a living, but I’m passionate about the outdoors year-round.
It’s hard to balance having a career with a large carbon footprint and wanting to speak out and make environmental change a reality. I do feel like a bit of a hypocrite sometimes because I travel to competitions and trainings. I know that isn’t eco-friendly. But I do the things I can to minimize my carbon footprint. Last summer, biking was my main mode of transportation, which helped me to only put two tanks of gas in my car over a ten-week period. If I can make these conscious changes to offset all of the extra driving I have to do in the winter, I will.
Personal actions are the first steps, but they’re not enough. I want to make bigger changes. One big step I’ve taken is to add my voice to a strong community of environmentally minded athletes in Protect Our Winters’s Riders Alliance. As athletes, we have an amazing opportunity to have our voices heard. We just need to make sure that we’re saying the right things. Take Olympic Silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler for example. She challenged her fans to participate in the 21 Day Reusable Challenge. By combining our small steps and small voices like that, we can start real change.
It can start with something as cheesy as the fact that I take a reusable bag to the grocery with Seth Wescott’s face on one side and Sarah Hendrickson on the other. I support my Olympic friends and the environment at the same time. My hope is to use my voice to show kids that fighting warming is cool. I want to set an example so that sooner rather than later, so kids will wonder why on Earth would you ever use a disposable, plastic bag?
I’m fortunate to get snowboard competitively, but the industry is bigger than just the athletes. It involves instructors, rental shops, and business owners trying to put food on the table for their families. Many are struggling to make a living. The Natural Resources Defense Council and POW released a report stating that, as a result of climate change, the country’s winter tourism industry lost roughly $1 billion and 27,000 jobs between 1999-2010.
It gets harder the closer it hits to home. Under certain warming forecasts, more than half of the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast won’t be able to maintain a 100-day season by 2039. By then, not a single ski area in Connecticut or Massachusetts is likely to be economically viable. That’s not the Northeast that I grew up in. And that’s not the Northeast I want my children or my children’s children to inherit. We need to step up and make a conscious effort to acknowledge that, given the impact climate change is having on the planet, even the small steps make a difference, and setting an example to inspire others is perhaps just as important.
Alone we are snowflakes, individual voices and token changes. Working together, we amass our talents and voices, until we are no longer individual snowflakes, but a compacted snowball, ready to hurl ourselves headfirst at the challenge of climate change.
Alex Deibold is representing Team USA in snowboard cross at the Olympics.