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Global Warming Cooling Ski Season Profits

As the world warms up, ski seasons are getting shorter. And it's having tremendous impact on resorts that depend on the snowy season.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Caryn Eve Murray
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Poised at the head of ski season’s arrival on his 20 miles of trails in northwestern Vermont, Eric Bowker was holding his breath just before Christmas.

“Last year we were barely open,” said Bowker, executive director of the Catamount Outdoor Family Center just outside Burlington. “And now we are in a very big hole. One more snowless winter will put our business on the brink,” he said. “It’s been really tough.”

Last winter brought only 10 days of sledding and cross-country skiing to the small operation’s 500 acres, he said. Now, in the weeks following the holiday season, Bowker has been trying to be optimistic at the prospect of 10 weeks of snow-kissed traffic ahead.

He’s not the only one: Skiers planning this year’s vacations may be counting on the chance to finally tame their favorite trail or mountain, but some ski resorts and operators have been dreading a showdown with perhaps the slipperiest slope of all -- climate change and the way in which global warming has been transforming once-reliable weather patterns.

“The trend over the last 10 to 15 years has been shorter winters, changing weather conditions and more extreme weather events,” said Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters, a California-based nonprofit founded by ski boarder and outdoor enthusiast Jeremy Jones in 2007. The organization has been working to mobilize winter sports venues to press for a turnaround in climate change -- which, many say, has already begun doing damage.

“Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are having a pretty tough time now,” Steinkamp said. “Business is slower.” The group’s recent report details how the $12.2-billion winter sports industry could have a literal meltdown in years to come. “Without intervention,” the report said, “winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall and shorter snow season.”

A not-so-cold day of reckoning is coming too for states at higher elevations, he said, and for those with regions still blessed by a snow-generating “lake effect” from nearby bodies of water. “States like Montana, Idaho and Vermont are going to feel climate change later,” Steinkamp said, but it is only a matter of time.

Peter Harris, president and owner-operator of Song Mountain in Preble, N.Y., agrees: Lake Ontario has reliably sent its business-friendly snow to Song Mountain and the slopes have clearly benefitted. But nothing lasts forever, especially now, he said.

“There’s not much argument on the fact of global warming,” Harris said, “but the argument may be on how fast or slow. I don’t think the ski business [here] has seen the full effect of it quite yet.”

For the short-term of the next 25 years or so, Harris said, business in the Syracuse, N.Y., area may not be as readily imperiled as in lower-lying spots around the country. But as temperatures inch up, the clock is ticking too. “My grandchildren and great-grandkids are not going to be in the ski business in Syracuse,” he said. “I think global warming will have taken its effect.”

Steinkamp echoes the view that even lake effect has its limits. “Winters have been getting warmer; the years have been getting hotter. The trend over the last 10 to 15 years has been shorter winters and more extreme weather events.

“We get a lot of people who say ‘it is snowing here, what are you talking about?’ But you have to look at a much longer view of this. Years down the road you could be seeing storms…and those storms could be rain.”

Harris, of course, has the tool of snow-making on hand to cover his 24 slopes when temperatures dip beneath unrelentingly snowless skies. Still, he said, man-made snow comes at a price: “That’s $300 to $400 an hour and we make snow for 300 hours a year,” he said. There are those too, he acknowledged, who take the view that snow-making is environmentally unwise: “There are some people who think it might not be a good use of fresh water,” he said. “And it makes use of the fossil fuels [powering the grid] to generate our electricity.”

For lasting turnaround in the future, however, changes must come first in the climate of the industry itself, said Troy Hawks, director of communications for the National Ski Areas Association. And that has already begun.

A December 2012 report from the NSAA praised resorts’ initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their daily business by going greener through renewable energy sources, such as wind-, solar- and geothermal power. Much of this was done through the trade group’s two-year-old “Climate Challenge” program.

Other efforts included composting, buying supplies locally and conserving water – all with an eye toward reducing the carbon footprint.

“The ski industry has an avid following of 12 million Americans who consider themselves skiers and riders,” said Hawks. “Skiing enjoys high visibility and by taking a leadership role we can provide an example to other industries and hopefully … make a difference among those 12 million.” If not, ultimately, for the planet itself.

Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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