Standing a top my childhood sledding hill, I help my seven year old cousin carefully position himself in to his fluorescent green snow sled before giving him a big push into the rolling terrain below. I watch with gratification as he hoots with excitement on the way down until eventually skidding to a stop with his tiny arms raised high in accomplishment. This particular hill near my home in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, provided my sisters and I some of our most fond childhood memories of winters in New England. It was in this exact spot that I learned to build jumps that wouldn’t fail under human weight and do my first 360 on a snowboard. However there will be no jump building today. Gazing down the hill I stare in some disbelief as my little cousin retrieves his sled and starts hopping his way back up the hill, navigating around patches of bare ground. It’s January in Vermont and I wonder, where has our snow gone?
My small vantage point in the world is certainly no place to make misguided conclusions about the state of our winters, however I appear to not be alone in noticing changes in our regions climate. Alan Betts notes very similar trends in changing snowpack and climate in his paper Climate Change in Vermont (2011), where he discusses data observed in our state and the greater New England area over the past 50+ years. Betts highlights the annual average temperature in the Northeast as having increased by 2°F since 1970, with the average winter temperature increasing by twice as much. Climate trends over this time have displayed a higher frequency of days above 90°F, less precipitation falling as snow and more as rain (with the resulting decline in our snowpack), and earlier occurring spring melts. In fact, these trends show that the growing season for frost sensitive plants has actually increased by 2 weeks over the past forty years (Betts, 2011). The observed changes in Vermont and New England’s climate are consistent with global trends and lead Betts (2011) to predict that Vermont will not only be experiencing a progressively later arrival of winter over the coming decades, but also a shortened ski season with more freezing rain and melt cycles.
New England is not alone. In a recent interview with NPR, Audon Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Company, pointed out that climatologists have predicted shorter winters with progressively less snowfall and increased storm strength such as larger blizzards or precipitation events. In Vermont alone annual precipitation rates have increased by 15-20% over the last fifty years with a noted 67% increase in total precipitation during very heavy downpours (Betts, 2011). Increases in storm strength have been discussed as a side effect of a warmer planet, especially with consideration of Hurricane Katrina, super storm Sandy and our local Hurricane Irene. However in consideration of North American snowfall, Anne Nolin, professor of geosciences and hydroclimatology at Oregon State University pointed out a 1.5-2% decline in spring snowfall over the past few decades (Ferner, 2013). But what conclusions can be drawn from this climate chaos? In general, one may postulate that our futures will posses fewer days out on the ski hill.
In a state that possesses 18 ski areas that employ over 13, 000 people and contributes over $43 million in taxes, shorter winters can hardly be considered a good thing (Vermont tourism data center, 1999). Shorter winter seasons are, as Schendler points out, extremely strenuous on the ski industry that may run in deficit for most of the year and make it’s major earnings in the later months of the winter. In his NPR interview, Schendler used the example of Mammoth Ski Resort, which in 2011 had to lay off one third of its employees due to poor seasonal snowfall and drastically low sales. This, Schendler states, has a massive effect on the surrounding economy and the well being of the business’s that thrive on the tourist sector of ski regions. At the current rate of declining snowpack and increasing temperatures, it is projected that more than one half of ski resorts in the Northeast will not be able to maintain the standard 100-day long ski season by 2039 (Ferner, 2013). This catastrophe could reach it’s climax in 2100 when it is estimated that only 4 out of 14 major Northeast ski resorts will remain profitable enough to remain open (Ferner, 2013). Nation wide US ski resorts employ over 211,000 people and generate $12.2 billion in annual revenue (Ferner, 2013). With an estimated increase of 4-10°F by the end of the century, ski areas are beginning to see the writing on the headwall.
In the recently released report from the United Nations Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it was noted that there is a greater than 95% chance that humans are the main source for warming in the recent centuries (O’Connors, 2013). Carbon and other greenhouse gases of anthropogenic origin have resulted in global climate change of seemingly irreversible scale. This however, hasn’t prevented organizations like Protect Our Winters (POW), California based activist group, from dedicating their time to changing both social trends and environmental legislation in order to mitigate climate based problems of the future. Founded by big mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2007, the group has re-invested over $500,000 in initiatives that both engage the ski community and work to manage their looming climate centered issues (protectourwinters.org). Among other things, POW has created the Riders Alliance, a group of professional skiers, riders, mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts who travel to community based learning projects in order to draw attention to the issue of climate change. Whether visiting schools all over the country or lobbying with senators in D.C., POW has utilized their platform as a means for conscious environmental activism.
In combination with the NRDC, POW recently helped to release a report detailing the impact of climate change on the winter sports economy which detailed the effect warming temperatures and lower annual snowfall would have on not only ski resorts but the economic success of their surrounding towns. It will undoubtedly not be the last as POW continues to spread awareness and provide educational resources around North America. POW has also had a strong influence in generating fiscal resources for environmentally minded filmmakers. For instance, with the aid of POW, Plus M Productions were recently able to meet a goal fundraiser of $65,000 in order to make their most recent documentary on coal exports in the Pacific Northwest and the viability of clean energy in the future.
The loss of the snow on my small ski hill in Vermont is minor in comparison to the global implications that climate change include. We’ve already begun to note a rapid increase in raging wildfires as well as the advance of harmful invasive species that destroy our natural ecosystems, the acidification of our oceans, the melting of the glaciers and Arctic sea ice and the alteration of biogeochemical cycles lending to creation of more destructive storms. It has been noted that we are entering the Anthropocene, a time where the cumulative impact of human beings is so great that the permanence of them will be seen in geologic history for eternity. Many have suggested that if the greater percentage of the earths warming is due to greenhouse gases of anthropogenic origin, then it is time for a fossil fuel resistance. The future of not only our ski resorts resides in the continued activism and outreach of companies like Protect our winters, but the longevity of our home. For now, my little cousin and I will make do with the snow that we have, in the hopes that he creates a connection to this hill just as I did.
Betts, Alan. “Climate Change in Vermont.” (10/29/2011). Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Climate Change Team.
Schendler, Auden; Scott Simon. "Warming sends a chill through ski industry." (12/09/13). NPR.
Ferner, Matt. "Here's How Climate Change Will Ruin Your Winter Vacation." (12/02/13). Huffington Post.
O'Connor, Mary. "The Ski Industry Goes to Washington." (10/03/2013). Outside Magazine.
Vermont Tourism Data Center, UVM & Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. “The Impact of the Tourism Sector on the Vermont Economy” 1999.