Environment

Ski Resorts Are Reinventing Themselves in the Face of Global Warming

You know things are bad when ski resorts have to reinvent themselves into "sun and fun" parks with bumper boats and miniature golf.
Marshall Heaven of Greenwich, Connecticut got tired of waiting for the snow to fall, so he bought two Backyard Blizzard snowmakers and can now promise 15-foot drifts as early as late November .... Even though it's late January in Mason Township, Maine, Steve Crone of New England Dogsledding tethers his eager canines to a golf cart. "We'd rather have snow," he says with some embarrassment ... Fifteen-year-old Cameron Sonley of Peterborough, Ontario, where the winter was two degrees warmer than usual in the 2006-2007 season, complained last March that because of high temperatures he was only able to go snowboarding four or five times, instead of his usual dozen .... In Staten Island, New York, skaters have been thwarted for three straight years as pond ice failed to thicken ... Janisse Ray, an outdoor recreation enthusiast in Danville, Vermont, got so frustrated when the West River hadn't frozen by last January that she donned a wetsuit and floated downstream in an inner tube, holding aloft a sign that said "Where's winter?"

Where indeed? Since 1970, average winter temperatures in New England have increased 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit. In the U.S., 2006 was the warmest year on record, and 1998 is number two. The last eight five-year periods were the warmest since we began taking national records 112 years ago. During the past 25 to 30 years, says the National Climatic Data Center, the warming trend has accelerated, from just over a tenth of one degree Fahrenheit per decade to almost a third of a degree.

By the end of the century, temperatures in the Northeastern states are likely to rise by eight to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (at which time snow-covered days will have been reduced to half of what we traditionally experience). A 2007 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the Northeast predicted that, under some higher-emission scenarios, "Only western Maine is projected to retain a reliable ski season by the end of the century, and only northern New Hampshire would support a snowmobiling season longer than two months." Warmer weather and changing precipitation will result in a fundamental change to winter recreation and what the report called "the winter landscape."

Our Changing Climate

When Nat "King" Cole sang about "Jack Frost nipping at your nose" and "folks dressed up like Eskimos" in 1946, a white Christmas was standard fare in many parts of America. But with today's milder winters, Jack Frost is not such a regular visitor and hats and gloves are spending more time in the closet.

The Hood Museum at Dartmouth College recently mounted a major exhibit of Inuit clothing, tools and art -- materials adapted to one of the coldest places on Earth. But the once-stable climate there is changing. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment said in 2004 that Arctic temperatures are now rising at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit on average over the next 100 years), reducing sea ice and melting frozen soils. It's been widely reported that Alaska's polar bears are probably doomed by 2050, but the scale of this climatic shift will likely do much more -- completely changing the culture of the Arctic region.

Though there are still a few diehards, the overwhelming majority of scientists now believe that climate change is at least partly responsible for our steadily rising thermometers. Obviously, global warming science is complex and hardly monolithic -- some parts of the world continue to experience very cold temperatures and record snowfalls, just as the climate models say they will. You might even be reading this as a blizzard fulfills the promise of a white winter. But the overwhelming trend is clear: it's getting warmer, and winter is losing force, intensity and duration, changing America's ingrained habits in the process. If you've ever enjoyed ice skating, sledding, skiing, snowboarding or building a snowman, you should know that the future of these enshrined institutions is by no means guaranteed.

In the film Lucky Numbers, John Travolta plays a local weatherman who has it all, including a lucrative snowmobile franchise. Unfortunately, the winter season fails to deliver any snow, so the dealership goes bankrupt. That was fiction, but the Boston Globe recently reported on the real-life closing of Kingdom Cat, a dealership in northerly Island Pond, the "snowmobile capital of Vermont." After several years of little snow and 30 machines left in inventory, owner Bob Halpin decided to call it a day. "The winters have gotten progressively worse," he said. "We decided to cut our losses."

The closing of a northern Vermont snowmobile dealership is hardly an isolated incident. In 2006, major snowmobile manufacturer Polaris had 40 percent lower sales than in 2005. In the U.S., sales for the fiscal year ending last March 31 were down 12 percent from the previous year, reports the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) in Michigan. Total sales of 79,814 in 2006 contrasted sharply with the 170,325 sold in 1997.

"If it doesn't snow, people don't downhill ski, they don't cross-country ski and, guess what, they don't snowmobile either," says Ed Klem executive director of ISMA. Snowmaking isn't an option when the typical Upper Peninsula, Michigan snowmobiler covers 100 miles of trail in a day. "The lack of snow is the highest barrier to entry [into snowmobiling] because consumers don't want to spend $6,000 on a sled unless they're going to use it," Klem says. Many snowmobile manufacturers are saved by the fact that they also make all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), whose sales are steady.

Klem adds that snowmobile sales are, however, up two percent in still-frigid Canada, and have enjoyed double-digit growth for six years in Russia, where the sport is new, disposable income is abundant, and snow still covers the slopes.

Skiing Into Trouble

According to the Concord Monitor in a rather poetic editorial, last winter the New Hampshire woods were filled with "rain instead of snow, open water instead of frozen lakes, the chatter of red squirrels scolding and rustle of dry leaves replaced the icy 'pop' of freezing tree sap." The paper continued, "While black bears continued to rattle birdfeeders and geese and ducks were reported flying north over open water on some rivers, we all knew winter wouldn't remain a no-show so much as a late arrival."

Among the effects, the Monitor said, are native trees damaged and amphibians killed by early thaw-and-freeze cycles. "There may be reason for new concern if current trends for extreme winter temperature fluctuations continue," the paper said.

These changes are not without major effects on the state's economy. Cliff Brown, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, notes that the state had 65 downhill ski areas in the 1970s, but only 20 remain. New Hampshire winters warmed 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, and snowmaking alone hasn't saved the day, especially for the low-lying family facilities. The surviving resorts, Brown says, are larger, tend to be corporate owned, and are located at higher elevations.

To stay in business, the resorts have also diversified from skiing. "They've been very successful at adapting to changing climate patterns, which means year-round activities," Brown says. "That's why you get the water parks, conference centers and condos. There are only so many good skiing days now. The resorts get 30 percent of their skiing revenue from just 10 percent of available days."

On a recent fall day, the lower slopes at Bromley Mountain in southern Vermont looked more like an amusement park than a ski area. It's now known as "Vermont's sun and fun park," with a "Thrill Zone" (alpine slide, miniature golf, climbing wall, bumper boats and an adrenaline-pumping zipline) helping generate revenues well into September.

To lure people in, they host bluegrass concerts, magic shows and even ventriloquists. Like most state ski resorts, Bromley has had to reinvent itself as a summer destination, and the strategy is working. Skiing attendance (which peaked in the mid-80s) is now at 120,000 annually, but an additional 55,000 to 70,000 come for fair weather fun.

"The last couple of years have not been good for skiing," says spokesman Peter Dee. "We usually try to be open by Thanksgiving, but now we're looking at the eighth or ninth of December." Snow guns can cover 85 percent of the mountain, but if temperatures stay above freezing even that option is not available.

Dee adds that snowmaking was once an "insurance policy" for ski areas, but now it's a necessity. At Bromley and other Vermont destinations, the snowmaking starts in late October and continues until late March. But snowmaking has limitations, because if skiers don't see snow in their backyards, they're likely to just stay at home. "If there's no snow in Westchester, New York, the perception is that there's also no snow in Vermont," Dee says. It's not surprising, then, that ski area websites devote so much space to reports from the slopes and offer detailed weather reports.

The Northwestern glaciers once described as "America's Alps" have lost 30 percent of their size in the last century. All of the North Cascades glaciers are receding. "As diehard skiers and snowboarders, we think winter is already too short," said Sustainable Summits, a group of lodge owners in a recent appeal to Congress to do something about global warming.

Analysts are worried about the fate of ski resorts at lower elevations, which stand to experience considerably less snow than their counterparts in, say, the Colorado mountains. Since it was announced in 2000, 184 ski areas around the country (collectively a $5 billion annual business) adopted the Environmental Charter to raise policymaker awareness of the "dependence of winter sports on natural ecosystems," to call for greenhouse gas reductions, and to support science-based solutions to climate change.

The ski areas acted on dire projections, including one for the Rocky Mountain West that showed up to 70 percent snowpack loss by 2050. In 2005, there was already a 78 percent drop in skier visits to the region. By 2085, a 2006 Colorado College report says, the county could lose 82 percent of its snowpack.

At Aspen Skiing Company, operators say temperatures have gone up so much that their snowmaking machines are operating at the limit -- another degree or two warmer and they'd be unable to produce it at all. "We often make snow within one degree, or one and a half degrees, of being able to," said former CEO Patrick O'Donnell. "If we can't make snow, we have a problem."

A study done by Aspen's town government, part of the Canary Initiative, predicted that Aspen's climate will eventually mirror that of Amarillo, Texas. In the short run, higher-elevation resorts such as those in the Rockies may experience greater snowfall, but longer droughts could cancel any positive effects.

To counter warming winters, Aspen has inaugurated environmental reforms -- using biodiesel fuel in its snow cats, running Coke machine compressors on motion detectors, using local ponds as thermal exchangers in place of air conditioning, contributing to the Aspen Valley Land Trust to preserve open space. In 2007, the company spent half its national advertising budget on a global warming call to action. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has launched a "Keep Winter Cool" campaign. "Stop Global Warming or the Snowman Gets It" is the catchy slogan.

Other resorts are taking similar measures. Last August, Jiminy Peak Resort in Massachusetts installed a 386-foot-tall, 1.5-megawatt wind turbine, becoming the first ski resort to make its own electricity. Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Okemo Mountain in Vermont, Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire and Crested Butte Mountain in Colorado, are purchasing enough renewable wind energy credits through Sterling Planet to offset the annual electric use of all three of their resorts. And those electric bills are going up sharply, because snowmaking is so energy-intensive. It uses a lot of water, too, so resorts are now building their own reservoirs to avoid depleting naturally existing streams and lakes.

In Europe, vulnerable ski runs on Swiss and Austrian glaciers are being wrapped with $70,000-a-sheet strips of white fleece the size of football fields, and some ski areas are being "repurposed" as mountain biking destinations. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) and the UN have both reported that the Alps are the mountains most severely affected by global warming.

The EEA says that 75 percent of the Swiss Alps' glaciers will be gone by 2050. Turin, Italy hosted the Winter Olympics in 1996, but the ongoing loss of snow cover makes it an open question if it will ever host another. The Turin Olympic Organizing Committee launched its own climate initiatives which have continued after the games, but there are serious challenges.

The growing popularity of snowboarding has brought a whole new generation onto the slopes, and in some ways their presence is making up for the skiing reversals. But snowboarding is hurting, too. The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia had to close its snowboarding park last year because it couldn't make enough snow for both the slopes and the park. The ski runs were the first priority, and some nights it just didn't get cold enough (40 degrees Fahrenheit or below) to make snow.

When it fails to snow, it's not just ski resorts that suffer. Bob McKnight is chairman and CEO of Quiksilver, which makes sports-related clothes and equipment (including skis and snowboards, through its 2005 purchase of the French Rossignol brand).

"There's no question that our near-term progress has been dramatically affected by a very tough winter for the snow business," he said in a conference call last March. "I think that anyone in the snow industry can tell you that this was, both here in the U.S. and, to a larger extent, in Europe, the worst season in the past several decades. The lack of snow kept many resorts closed and greatly reduced the number of skier days, undercutting the consumer's drive to purchase new equipment." Worldwide, McKnight said, there has been a five to 15 percent decline in snowboard sales, a 10 to 20 percent decline in alpine skis and a 20 to 30 percent decline in cross-country skis.

Given all this, it's not surprising that environmentally themed mountain sportswear company Patagonia is making changes. "We're getting into the surf market because it's never going to snow again, and the waves are going to get bigger and bigger," says Yvon Chouinard, the company's owner. The first Patagonia watersports shop, selling Earth-friendly surfboards and (non-petroleum) wetsuits, opened in California last year. The Sap's not Flowing

Northern New England's climate was once ideal for maple sugaring, but as temperatures rise the industry is inexorably migrating north. Over the past four decades, the traditional mid-February to April maple sugaring season has slowly gotten shorter. According to a University of Vermont study, it now starts a week early and ends 10 days early, with a net loss of three production days. And tappers are getting worried. Tom McCrumm of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association is just one long-time tapper who worries that, by 2100, there may no longer be a maple sugar industry in New England.

Maple sugaring depends on a delicately balanced freeze-thaw cycle. For sap to form, tappers say, trees have to absorb water from the soil on cold nights when temperatures dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When it warms up during the day, the sap flows and can be caught by sugar tappers who bore holes in the trees. When the cold nights fail to materialize the trees begin to form buds, and the sap turns bitter and unusable for syrup.

Last January, Massachusetts experienced 70-degree days, which sent trees into an early bud cycle and resulted in half the syrup yield. Things are likely to get much worse in northern New England, with a six to 10-degree Fahrenheit rise predicted over the next century.

Canada's maple syrup production has tripled since the 1970s. The University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center says that the U.S. produced 80 percent of the world's maple syrup up through the 1940s, but now produces only 15 percent. Today, Canada, not Vermont, is the world leader, with 85 percent of the world's syrup (7.4 million gallons in 2006).

There are factors other than climate involved; Canada heavily subsidizes its maple sugar industry, for instance. According to Tim Perkins of the Proctor Center, Canadian tappers can get very low-cost leases to produce maple syrup on government-owned land in Quebec, an option not readily available in the U.S. Canadians have also benefited from more moderate snowfalls, which makes it easier to get to the trees to harvest sap.

The shorter tapping season has not yet impacted U.S. production, which is holding at 400,000 to 500,000 gallons a year. Perkins says that more efficient production methods -- particularly tubing-based systems replacing the more labor-intensive buckets -- has allowed Vermont producers to hold their own against what would otherwise be a climate-related loss.

Richard Lockerby, who grew up on a farm near Grafton, Vermont and now lives in Chester, has been making maple syrup his whole life. Since he got serious about it in 1990 he's won a wall full of prizes, including the "World's Best Maple Syrup" award in 1995. In a good year, Lockerby produces 325 gallons of syrup, but 2006 was not a good year and he made only 120 gallons. The freeze-thaw balance needed for making syrup was off, first because temperatures were too warm and then too cold. "By the time the snow was starting to melt, it was already very late for sugaring," he says.

In 2007, Vermont went through a very long summer, which helped ski areas bring in seasonal tourists but may augur another slow year for syrup. "The dryness affects the maple trees, because if they don't take moisture in they can't let it out later as sap," Lockerby says.

Jim Ameden's family has been making maple syrup in Vermont for so long that nobody can remember when the business began. Today, he operates a spacious and well-appointed sugarhouse in Londonderry, Vermont with his wife, Josie. Although the Amedens, who double as organic hay farmers, managed a respectable 300-gallon production year in 2006, their long-term outlook is decidedly gloomy thanks to global warming predictions.

Jim Ameden says he's experiencing the shorter -- and earlier -- season in his own business. "It used to be the middle of March to the end of April, but for the past six to eight years we've gotten started in February and ended before April," he says. "Losing two or three days may not sound significant, but it is when there are only 15 or 16 days for us to do our boiling."

Even more ominously, Jim Ameden says he's noticed the gradual dieback of indigenous maple trees, and the appearance in their place of oak saplings, a onetime rarity in his corner of Vermont. "The maples are moving further north, so I think Canada will end up making even more of the syrup," he says.

Josie Ameden enjoys the family enterprise, but she's concluded it's probably on borrowed time. "I think maple syrup making will be gone in Vermont," she says. "Sugaring will become a thing of the past." The family's emerging environmental convictions led them to buy a Toyota Prius hybrid car.

The changing climate calls into question the viability of the entire industry. "As we lessen the number of freeze-thaw cycles, and shorten the production period, we're going to have increasing difficulty in keeping yields up enough to sustain a commercial industry," Perkins says. And he adds that the syrup economy is bigger than the tappers themselves: Syrup-making equipment is also made in Vermont, and the industry provides a great deal of seasonal employment, as well as encouraging tourism.

The long-term picture is not encouraging, even for Canada. Jay Malcolm, a University of Toronto climate change expert, says that Canada's maple sugar boom may not last because sugar maple trees could move northward too quickly. Maple sugar production, he told a UN conference on global warming, could be "significantly reduced" in Canada as a result over the next 35 to 40 years. And even as conditions are briefly ideal for maple sugar, they will start to become untenable for key species such as Atlantic salmon, soft-shelled clams, deep-sea scallops and blue mussels.

***

The warming changes already visible are, to cite a particularly apt cliché, "the tip of the iceberg." In the next few decades, global warming will be shaped by many different factors, with relatively unpredictable results. But the scientific consensus is near-unanimous that the loss of predictable and comforting winter patterns will be a major consequence. Nostalgia for snowy winters past and "the way it was" (see companion story) will be a major growth industry, even as skiing, skating, snowmen-building and maple syrup-making gradually recede in our collective memory.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World