In drought-prone regions, golf courses are struggling more than ever

At a time when social media is changing the way we interact with strangers and governments, one of the most popular outlets around is game shows. The host of the “Jeopardy!” television quiz show, Alex Trebek, announced this week that he had undergone a brain tumor surgery. “If I have to hit ‘the buzzer’ more than five times a game, I have to find somewhere else to go,” the host told reporters. “I haven’t been very smart since I was a kid.” Yet millions of Americans are investing more time and money in golf courses than even Trebek does — many facilities have been struggling with economic forces that have brought heavy storms during what should be much quieter times.

When a downpour of snow is a lie. De-iced fairways are a lie.

The trend came to light in a newly published study by experts from three universities. They took a sample of a wide range of cold-weather courses across the country to measure their variable rates of rain for years on end, comparing annual averages to the fact that in many parts of the country the average rain total is now decreasing. The researchers discovered that since the late 1970s, the average rainfall has dropped by about 3 percent nationwide but more strikingly the frequency of rain events — which range from 60 minutes to just a few minutes — has risen by about 40 percent. Across most of the country, the total number of rain events has doubled. “How do we explain this wild increase in rainfall?” the authors of the paper asked. “Climate change is a plausible cause, but here we see few reasons to believe that the observed change is perfectly constrained by climate change.”

This study estimates the total number of rain events and how much rainfall they produce for each golf course. Golf ball,

Overall, droughts and increased rainfall are greatly lowering golf course revenues in the United States and around the world. Golf courses are heavily dependent on membership fees and “an increase in the number of damaged, missing and unplayable holes; [and] declining revenue from rounds played due to deterioration,” write the authors of the report. “Depending on the golf course, losses could exceed US$1 million per year.” In the top 100 golf courses in the country, the number of rain events has increased from 13.9 percent in 1977 to 62.5 percent of the total. Around the United States, rain events have increased at an average rate of 18 percent every year between 1975 and 2014, whereas a year’s rainfall has increased by less than 5 percent nationwide over the same period.

What are the companies behind golf courses doing to adapt?

Most golf courses are brick-and-mortar structures, but recent findings suggest that in regions like North Carolina where climate change is most extreme, many operations are shutting down in anticipation of their continued growth, especially over the next 30 years. Severe drought in the state is expected to return 20 to 30 percent by 2081, according to a 2011 study by the Duke University Applied Climate Change Center, led by climate scientist Kathryn Bailey.

In North Carolina, the Raleigh-Durham Metro Area had the second-worst rain drought of the United States from 2011 to 2014, behind only the western suburbs of Los Angeles, according to a report by the paper Planning Your Water Face-Off: Managing a Drought-Repaired North Carolina. Some of the hardest-hit parts of the state — Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham — rely on rains from storms in neighboring South Carolina to recharge groundwater and provide a supply of some, perhaps significant, relief. Without the rainfall from heavy storms in neighboring South Carolina, as the drought did in 2014, the region may not have enough groundwater. With all three cities looking north to Clarklake Reservoir, north of the North Carolina coast, and their battle against dry weather, Gov. Roy Cooper has approved a plan to replace a portion of the dam’s population if the reservoir reaches maximum capacity.

In Arizona, the desert climate means daily highs hover between 110 and 120 degrees. In the Las Vegas Valley, it sometimes rains during the summer. And around the globe, rain is a more reliable source of water in these regions than snow does. It’s not that golf courses don’t enjoy the precipitation to some degree, or that golf courses can survive without it; the problem is that too much rain can damage the course in ways that don’t matter to the amount of people golfing.

No one has ever played a round at a golf course in a rainfall. That was the assumption of the study’s lead author and a professor at Notre Dame, Chris Hemington, who co-authored the study.

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