The typical scene at New England ski resorts over Christmas vacation—madhouses filled with students as young as 2 or 3 packing onto bunny hills while parents head to higher elevations for their first runs of the season—has been replaced by a sobering reminder that climate change is already taking a bite out of winter.
Most mountains in the northeast this December are covered in brown, not white. Killington Ski Resort in central Vermont has 24 of its 155 trails open. Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine has 19 of its 160 trails open. Temperatures on Christmas Day are expected to hit 60 degrees in parts of New England.
The scene is different in the West, where areas that were plagued with drought the last four years are now buried under snow. Fueled in part by a strong El Niño, ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, such as Lake Tahoe, got more snow the first few weeks of December than all of last winter. In the European Alps, many major ski areas are in the same boat as the northeastern U.S., with their slopes empty of snow weeks after their typical opening days.
Winter has become increasingly unpredictable in recent decades due to climate change, scientists and ski industry experts say. December-February temperatures in the U.S. have increased an average of 0.55 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1970, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Warmer oceans are fueling stronger winter storms—as evidenced by Boston's record 9 feet of snow last year—but warmer air temperatures also mean that snow doesn't stick around as long. Seasons are demonstrably shorter. Droughts are more severe and last longer. This kind of weather whiplash is expected to worsen in coming decades.
The snowsports industry—which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and contributes $12.2 billion to the U.S. economy every year—is already hurting.
"This is an industry that is literally seeing climate change first hand," said Chris Steinkamp, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Protect Our Winters. "People are realizing this is something that needs to be addressed, that climate change is not this theory anymore."
The number of ski areas in the U.S. has dropped almost 20 percent in the last two decades, from 546 in 1992 to 470 today, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Locally owned businesses, like hotels, restaurants and ski shops, are feeling the pinch as much as the resorts themselves.
"It is really hard for the industry to plan in advance like they used to," said Steinkamp. "You just never know what you are going to get any given year... The marketing departments of resorts have had to rethink how to do business."
Snowmaking can help some mountains overcome the inconsistency of winter, but it comes at a steep cost—an average $500,000 annually. Many mom-and-pop resorts, especially those at lower latitudes or elevations, with tight budgets are the first to disappear.
Steinkamp said the small hill he grew up skiing in New York shuttered its doors recently. Jack Crouch, a climate scientist at NOAA who tracks winter temperature trends, said the ski resort he grew up going to in West Virginia hasn't yet opened for the season.
"The rate at which winter is warming has accelerated in recent decades," said Crouch. "Every indication in the data shows this long term warming trend is going to continue... For communities that completely revolve around the ski industry, even one or two seasons with below average snowfall can really harm local economies."
Climate and Weather's Complicated Relationship
Scientists and ski experts acknowledge that no two winters are alike. Separating out typical year-to-year variability from longer global warming trends has created a lot of confusion over the magnitude of the climate problem among the winter sports industry.
"I've listened to so many people go on about this. I don't know what to believe," said Rob Megnin, director of sales and marketing for Killington Resort and Pico Mountain, both in Vermont. "The ski industry the last four years in Lake Tahoe really suffered, they had no snow, but this year they are getting smacked with it... I'm not sure I have a lot of faith in science on either side of it."
This year will be the warmest on record, driven primarily by the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. A strong El Niño is adding to the warming, and also bringing precipitation such as the snow and rain to the West. El Niño events do not have a straight-line relationship to climate change, though some research indicates global warming could fuel stronger ones in the future. Even weather patterns not directly attributable to climate change, however, often have greater impact because global warming has changed the conditions around them, for example higher sea levels or soils hardened by drought.
Some of the other changes that are directly tied to climate change can be subtle. Ski seasons are demonstrably shorter due to rising temperatures—the U.S. has lost more than a million square miles of spring snowpack in the last decade, costing resorts $1 billion in lost income—but by days or weeks, not by months.
Satellite images indicate the extent to which snow covers the U.S. and Canada hasn't changed much, said David Robinson, a snow scientist at Rutgers University and New Jersey's state climatologist. But the data isn't clear on whether that snowpack is as thick as it once was—information that would require labor-intensive and expensive on-the-ground measurements, Robinson said.
"We will be getting warmer, and that will have impacts on our snow," Robinson said. "The details, like how much will we lose, are uncertain, but things will change. And people have to be prepared for that."
The resort and industry leaders who understand global warming's impact have become increasingly vocal advocates for climate action.
Dave Tragethon, the director of marketing and sales at Mount Hood Meadows in Oregon, said he's seen the elevation at which snow becomes rain—also known as the "white line"—move higher in recent years. And Jon Bishop, the environmental coordinator for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, said he's seeing more rain at his mountain's base then when he arrived 19 years ago.
"I know we will see more closures of smaller resorts, those that are already hanging on year to year" due to climate change, said Bishop. "We'll all have to adapt."
Thirty mountains, including Killington, Mount Hood and Jackson Hole, have joined the National Ski Areas Association's Climate Challenge, which requires resorts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and shrink environmental footprints. Advocacy groups like Protect Our Winters and professional organizations like NSAA said they frequently meet with legislators on Capitol Hill about the economic impact of losing winter sports to climate change.
In the meantime, resorts are adapting to survive. Mount Hood Meadows has started moving snow from parking lots and other spaces onto trails during dry spells, said Tragethon. The mountain also had a limited opening this year, running its lifts on weekends only until conditions improved.
Many resorts are also expanding into year-round businesses. They've installed zip lines and ropes courses, dirt biking tracks, Frisbee disc golf and hiking trails. Others have repurposed their lodges for business conferences and weddings.
"Snow isn't going to go away entirely, but climate change will force resorts to be more adaptable," said Robinson. "They are going to have to make decisions with some level of uncertainty."