The heat is on: Climate change and its impact on the bottom line

Hurricanes like Ike and Katrina are increasing in intensity, tornado disasters like the dozens that ripped through the south on Super Tuesday 2008 are coming in clusters and doing twice the damage. In northern Michigan, meteorologists and farmers alike attest to new, extreme droughts, rainfall and winds. Whether you're an active member of Greenpeace or a hardened naysayer, it is clear that an atmospheric shift is in play and one hot-button term sums it up: global warming.

Scientific results regarding all the symptoms and causes of global warming are pending, but according to TV 7 & 4's Chief Meteorologist Greg MacMaster, it is believed that global warming is the primary result of two factors: 1) a natural climate cycle which has been evidenced for hundreds of thousands of years and 2) the enhanced atmospheric build-up of carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and pollutants originating with the industrial revolution. In the end, quite simply, we appear to be heating up.

It's the second factor, the emissions-based global warming, that has much of the planet stirred up. The response locally is mixed and many don't buy into the theories. However, others are taking great strides toward sustainability, particularly those in industries most likely at stake by a climate change, such as agriculture and snow sports.

Winter-based businesses consider green practices

Boyne Resorts is the third-largest snow sports resort network in North America. When asked about the ski resort's concern regarding global warming, Public Relations Manager Erin Ernst replied, "Actually we just had the best season in 10 years last year." Yet, the resort recognizes the need to be green and Boyne Highlands Resort recently earned the Green Lodging Michigan Steward certification from the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth.

"You will find that most people in the ski industry recognize that global warming is a problem," notes Jim MacInnes, president of Crystal Enterprises Inc., also known as Crystal Mountain Resort. Both Jim and his wife Chris MacInnes, executive vice president of Crystal Enterprises Inc., agree that there is clear evidence in their business of global warming, mainly in the reduction of their window of opportunity to make snow.

"There are several climatic factors involved with snowmaking," said Chris. "We have been tracking the weather for the past 20 years and have noticed a decline in the weather-appropriate times in which we can use snow guns."

So, what is the resort doing to reduce global warming? The company uses renewable energy credits for wind power to operate their high-speed chairlift. The new Crystal Spa – opening by Christmas – will be the Midwest's only LEED-(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified spa facility. Crystal Mountain also replaced 4,500 light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs resulting in a savings of four million kilowatts of light, six million pounds of carbon dioxide leaking into the atmosphere, and a considerable amount of light-bulb- changing labor.

"Honestly, we could talk for hours about our green efforts at Crystal," notes Chris MacInnes, "but being green is not about having a laundry list of politically correct deeds, it is a way of looking at business; a way of looking at the world."

Northern Michigan vs. Napa Valley

Few can track the shift in environment like those in the agriculture business. As reports on the success of Michigan's wine industry continue to emerge, the rumor mill churns out stories of west coast wine- makers relocating to Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula.

"It's true that California is getting really hot and not suited to particular grapes," says Bill Nelson, president of Wine America, The National Association of American Wineries. "Riesling, in particular, is a good example of a wine better suited for northern Michigan's climate."

Local industry insiders confirm that California winery representatives are looking here and have been for some time. Charles Shaw of Two Buck Chuck fame from Napa Valley has been looking but has not yet purchased any land, according to industry insiders. The area is vintners heaven for several reasons: less expensive and more available land, better tax structure, less water usage restrictions, and, most importantly, our climate is proving itself to be one of the best Riesling areas in the U.S.

Napa Valley winemaker Scott Harvey would know. Harvey chose to partner with Black & Red Vineyards in Omena and 45 North Winery in Lake Leelanau to create his successful Jana Riesling.

"I have been making wine for 35 years and, being German, love to make the cold climate wines," notes Harvey. "Our harvest here in Napa Valley is definitely getting warmer. For example, right now the light rains should have started. We are just not getting the rains that we used to and the vines start dehydrating their own fruit."

Shawn O'Keefe, specialty winemaker for Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula, agrees, but points out that people aren't moving here because global warming helps northern Michigan, but because Lake Michigan and East and West Bay provide shelter from the effects of global warming.

"The spikes are scary. There are a lot more extremes in temperature, in rainfall, and in drought," observes O'Keefe. "But on the peninsulas, the water acts as a buffer, creating a longer, colder spring which delays the bud break and a longer warmer fall harvest season: ideal for winemaking."

Shawn's brother Eddie O'Keefe, president of Chateau Grand Traverse, has also noted dramatic fluctuation in weather. "I've been in the business for 35 years and can safely say that, weather-wise, I feel like anything can happen now."

In the cherry business, Dennis Hoxsie, owner of sweet and tart cherry farm Orchard Hills in Acme, reports minor fluctuations in the weather. "The winters aren't as strong as they used to be and we don't get as much snow," he notes. "But our harvest dates are steady and continue to be about the same time every year for as long as I can remember." Hoxsie also pointed out that there have been more dry spells but that those actually benefit cherry crops. Coincidentally, Hoxsie is also involved with Mt. Holiday ski and recreation area in Traverse City. "Now there we have noticed that we are only making snow much later in the year and we are more prone to having a thaw at an unusual time like mid-ski season."

Local symptoms of global warming

Locally, MacMaster has personally observed an increase in extremes in weather. "Broadcasting weather from the same place for almost 15 years provides me with the unique advantage to note trends and see changes."

Brent Lofgren, physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Ann Arbor, confirms the area's observations:

"Lake Michigan has a moderating effect on the temperatures in the western Lower Peninsula and thus, yes, has a different baseline of extreme events," he says. Additionally, when asked about why a warming climate contributes to weather extremes, Lofgren said, "Simple. If you start with a bell curve of temperature probabilities and shift it to higher temperatures, the probabilities of what were previously considered extreme highs increase sharply."

According to Lofgren, the increasingly heavy rain occurs because a warmer atmosphere can contain more water vapor, so a thunderstorm, once triggered, has more water to draw from. As for droughts, even when there are very heavy precipitation events, the times between them are likely to have a greater evaporative demand accompanying higher temperatures, leading to drying of the soil.

Meanwhile, on an international level, the facts accrue. While the findings of meteorologists, climatologists and scientists often vary on the reasons and symptoms of global warming, some basic results show a warming trend. According to the 2007 Climate Change Synthesis Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, widely considered the authority on global warming, "eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850)."

Area green thinking grows

Whether the climate affects businesses' bottom lines or not, environmental responsibility is spreading among the general business community. At Higher Grounds Trading Co., don't even think about going in without your own ceramic mug. You'll leave empty handed – no Styrofoam or paper cups on the premises. The Traverse City Commission recently adopted a resolution encouraging the reduction of the use of plastic shopping bags for purchases. Oryana Natural Food Market completed its green building renovation last year, and the new BATA bus terminal won a gold medal in LEED certification.

Several more area organizations and individuals are striving toward sustainability. However, neither the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), the Sierra Club, nor the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council produce a formal list or awards system for the environmentally-minded.

"If you take the time to, for example, ride a bike to work each day, that one effort truly chips away at the world's greatest challenge," notes Hans Voss, MLUI executive director. "Ultimately, all of these seemingly small individual efforts – buying locally, sharing rides, exploring alternative energy – are good for people, good for the environment and good for business." BN