It’s December and colder temperatures are rolling in across the Northeast. The chill is something many New Englanders dread, but for some, below freezing temperatures mean more than the start of winter, those temperatures also mean the start of ski and snowboard season.
But changing temperatures and unpredictable weather mean an uncertain future for skiers, as well as the rest of the winter sports industry. The winter sports season we have come to know and love is going to change, what is uncertain is how exactly, and at what rate that change will happen.
Climate change has been impacting ski areas for decades. New England alone has lost over 600 ski areas since the mid 1930s, according to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project. Of course, climate change is not solely responsible for these closings, but it has been a major factor.
“What you’re left with in New Hampshire today is a bunch of ski areas up north and at high altitudes,” explains Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist and senior fellow at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy who studies climate change.
Vermont’s disrupted winters
The overall trend of climate change doesn’t look great for the future of the ski industry, but there are some areas where winters may be more optimal before they head downhill. Vermont is an example of an area that is potentially looking at an increase in precipitation due to climate change.
Over the next 25 or so years this may be a good thing, that is, if temperatures stay cool enough for that precipitation to fall as snow instead of rain. The downfall will come when average temperatures are high enough that the precipitation falls as rain, which can quickly ruin the build up of snow that acts as a base on a mountain.
The Vermont Climate Assessment was released in 2014, and shows that average Vermont temperatures have been steadily rising over the last century and a half. Additionally, winter temperatures are rising even faster than summer temperatures, at a rate of nearly one degree per decade.
While the overall trend is clear, extreme weather events like the winter storms of 2015, or the aftermath of hurricane Irene in 2011, are also becoming more frequent. The weather is expected to vary, and the consistent winters marked by early snow that provide a solid base for snowmaking and further snowfall will soon likely be a thing of the past.
“If the last few decades are a prediction of the next few decades, which is a good assumption, we’ll have those good years and the bad years,” explains Gillian Galford, a University of Vermont researcher who worked on the Climate Assessment.
The long term trends may be difficult for the average person to see now, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. “On a scale of year to year it’s hard to say, you can have warm years and cold years. So year to year, it goes up and down, we have a lot of snow or not much and it’s hard to forecast that but the climate is changing,” says Hamilton.
And it’s not just about the variability from one season to the next, the variability within each season also makes a difference. A heavy warm rain, or a week or so of unusually warm temperatures can ruin what’s left of a winter’s snow and force a mountain to close for the season earlier than usual.
Limits to snowmaking
The changing temperatures mean winter sports seasons are starting later in the fall or winter, and ending sooner in the spring. A study out of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, showed that the average ski season in the northeastern U.S. is shortening. Mountains are opening up later in the winter and closing earlier in the spring, and sometimes, even when they are open, they have some trails closed.
“Skiers are just having to realize that winter’s not always going to come in November,” explains Isabelle La Motte, a University of Vermont graduate who recently made a documentary called Last Tracks about climate change and the ski industry. Due to the warming temperatures and shorter seasons, winter sports enthusiasts are looking to head north to the mountains as Professor Hamilton explained.
“Mad River Glen, right now, their average amount of days they’re open is 100 days but they don’t rely on snow making and they’re known for opening later and closing earlier, but that’s how its going to become for more skiers,” La Motte says.
Some mountains that are at higher altitudes up north in areas not affected by a decline in precipitation can rely on the natural snow to get them through the season. Other mountains aren’t so lucky, or have so many trails that to keep them all up and running, snowmaking is necessary. But even snowmaking requires certain conditions.
“I think the biggest influencing factor in terms of having snow on the ground is overnight temperatures and we definitely see those warming, but they are still averaging above freezing,” Gallford explains. “So I think the point at which we really start worrying about that is as we get closer to 2050, maybe the 2040s, but for the next 25-35 years we are cold enough at night that, in theory, even if the precipitation isn’t coming to us, places are anticipating being able to make snow.”
Snowmaking is a clear adaptation strategy many resorts and mountains are taking on. “It’s a short term adaptation, and over the 20th century we saw it move from a luxury to a necessity,” says the University of New Hampshire’s Hamilton. A luxury turned necessity that not every mountain can afford. He also pointed out that as snowmaking is expensive, it raises the cost of lift tickets for visitors and requires those cold nights Gallford was talking about, with temperatures below freezing.
Snowmaking is not only a big financial decision; it’s an environmental decision that will have increasingly serious impacts, as it becomes a more popular practice. The water for snowmaking has to come from somewhere. “Snow making requires a lot of water. You’re draining a lake or river or pond somewhere to put it on the slope, and that dries up a water sources there. So that’s changing the whole water cycle and also the ecosystem.”
Snowmaking can cost millions, The fans or guns, the hoses, and the pumps needed for snowmaking cost millions of dollars to buy and maintain, and then of course, there’s the energy cost.
Mt. Abram in Maine, uses solar panels to provide a considerable amount of the energy needed at the mountain as part of a green initiative plan. Other mountains, like Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface in New York have also switched to solar power. But as with snowmaking, the switch to solar can be expensive and difficult for smaller mountains to afford.
And the necessity for snowmaking will only grow. “They’re spending more and more money to keep up with a changing climate,” says Hamilton. Given that most mountains make their money during certain peak weekends, holidays, and school breaks, rather than throughout the season, losing one weekend or holiday to poor weather can be devastating, according to a study conducted by Hamilton and colleagues.
The Vermont Climate Assessment shows that “the end-of-year holiday season is very important economically, generating as much as one-third of a ski resort’s annual revenue.” And there isn’t really any way to come back financially from a missed weekend or holiday. “A lost weekend is lost, there’s no way it’s going to balance out,” Hamilton says.
An uncertain future
Many mountains have a section on their website explaining the environmental efforts they are taking to protect the winter sport industry in an environmentally responsible way. They’re doing what they can, but it’s unlikely it will be enough to save many resorts.
With this reality in mind, resorts are transforming themselves into year-round destinations, with attractions for every season of the year. In Vermont, winter activities account for 75% of total ski resort revenue, but it’s possible that with the addition of activities that aren’t snow dependent, resorts could make up for those winter losses sustained during the ski season.
The good news is that the state is already seeing an increase in visitors during the warmer months. In 2014 more than 4 million people visited the state during the summer.
Some resorts are promoting mountain biking, and have added other amenities like spas, pools, and hiking. Those resorts located near national parks are especially well adapted to a future tourism industry that is dependent on the summer months. But even summer tourism has its own climate change issues. Threats and nuisances like algae blooms in lakes, diseases from an increasing tick and mosquito population, and plants like poison ivy will all become more common as temperatures rise.
The members of the winter sports industry have also started working together to save winter. In 2007, Jeremy Jones, a professional snowboarder, founded the nonprofit Protect Our Winters, which now consists of over 130,000 supporters. The winter sports enthusiasts have come together to work for a future with winter in it, and to keep the winter sports economy going.
Since 2000, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has promoted a “Climate Challenge” and “Sustainable Slopes” initiative, which provides guidance and grants to ski resorts looking to improve their sustainability.
Nationally, there are over 50 million skier and snowboard visits each year that contribute to over 7 billion dollars of direct spending, according to the NSAA. It should come as no surprise that people in the industry are trying to keep winter going as long as possible. Were the winter sports industry to be lost in New England, thousands of people would lose their jobs, millions in tourism spending would be lost, and local economies would suffer.
If New Englanders want to keep skiing and other winter sports a cultural pastime, and a key part of their economy, they need to take action now. The time has passed to stop rising temperatures and other disruptions from climate, now it’s a matter of whether the worse impacts can be prevented. As the University of New Hampshire’s Hamilton puts it, “People think it’ll warm up two degrees and then stop, but that’s not how it works.”