N.H. Ski Industry Must Cope With Warmer Seasons and Midwinter Thaw

Mar 13, 2017

The winter tourism industry in New Hampshire provides thousands of jobs and garners millions of visits to resorts across the state. In the past few years, however, shorter, irregular seasons have forced ski resorts to adapt, either by using snow machines far more than expected, or preparing for fewer customers. Today, we're looking at how skiing, and winter sports, are changing across the Granite State. 


GUESTS:

  • Elizabeth Burakowski - Research assistant professor at UNH, who studies how landscapes interact with surface climates. She works with economists to determine how weather impacts the winter sports industry. 
  • John DeVivo - General manager for Cannon Mountain. 
  • Sam Evans-Brown - Host of Outside/In, an NHPR show about the natural world and how we use it. He is also an avid skier, and coaches high school Nordic skiing. 
  • Jessyca Keeler - Executive Director of Ski NH, a statewide association representing the 33 alpine and cross-country ski resorts in the state. 

Be sure to check out Sam Evans-Brown in Outside/In's coverage of disappearing small ski hills.

How warm has it been?

Elizabeth Burakowski, a research assistant professor from UNH:

This last winter was our warmest winter since 1896, and this winter really wasn't much colder. We might have had a cold snap recently, but overall, December through February was over four degrees above average.

Sam Evans-Brown says a recent study from UNH found the "vernal window" -- the transition from winter to spring where there is frequent freezing and thawing  -- is growing longer:

In particular, it's those cold winter nights that are getting warmer and warmer, which if you're at a temperature that's already on the border of being below freezing or not, some of those cold winter nights might be nights where the snow is now melting, where before it was staying frozen. So what that translates to is not necessarily a decline in the amount of snow fall...there is a trend in declining snow cover, as in as much snow is falling as before, but much of it is melting faster than it used to. 

John DeVivo, general manager of Cannon Mountain, put it succinctly:

I think anybody would be naive to deny that climate change exists.

The Rise of Snow-making:

Both alpine and Nordic (cross-country) ski areas benefit from snow-making, and since its use as early as the 1930s and 40s, the technology to manufacture snow has improved dramatically and reduced its carbon footprint. 

Jessyca Keeler, of Ski New Hampshire, says that snow-making technology has allowed many resorts to stay open for longer, even when the temperature spikes:

I think the technology is almost moving faster than climate change in some ways. We're able to make snow in a much shorter amount of time.

However, for Nordic ski areas, snow-making is more challenging for several reasons. Sam Evans-Brown explains:

In a previous life, I actually did make snow on the Gunstock [Nordic] trails. Gunstock is one of the few cross country areas in the state that does make snow, and it is a real challenge. One of the benefits of an alpine area is everything runs uphill, so when you're done at the end of the night, you turn off the water and drain the pipe, and it all drains downhill. Cross country ski areas tend to be rolling, so you get points where the pipes can freeze if you don't drain them. And what we had to do at Gunstock is we had to blow all the snow in one area, and the snow is then loaded into a manure spreader, which is then sprinkled on the trails behind a tractor. It's a whole production, it's a labor of love.

Burakowski says:

The good news about snow-making tech is that it's become a lot more efficient, so it consumes a lot less fossil fuel or energy in general, and it has become a lot more water efficient, so it's not really too environmentally detrimental. 

DeVivo says he is optimistic about the future for alpine skiing, at least:

I don't see that resorts that are trying to keep up, from a technology perspective, are going to have any problem whatsoever...people are going to ski, they're not going to give up on that sport they love. They may ski a little less, they may be cramming more days into what they see as a shorter season.

What about local ski hills?

In the episode "Gnaw Pow" of Outside/In, Evans-Brown tells the story of disappearing local ski hills that often appeal to families, new skiers, or those who don't want to invest time and money into expensive gear and lift tickets. These local ski hills, like one in Franklin, N.H. that was founded by a local person who wanted a hill for his family to ski on, offer used equipment and charge small fees to use the lifts or rope tows. Evans-Brown says:

If you look back to the sort of golden era of skiing, which is the 1930s and 1940s, there was a rope tower in town where a new skier could pay maybe a couple bucks to go and try out the sport on a gradual slope...When you look at the dynamic that climate change brings into this...[these small hills] are still really inexpensive and they don't have the capital to invest in snow-making, which means that climate change really hits them a lot harder. And that means that skiing becomes less accessible because these cheap places, that aren't maybe of interest to someone who's been skiing their entire life, but for a new skier, are really perfect, they struggle in this environment. 

Keeler agrees that protecting these small hills is vital for attracting new skiers and keeping the industry alive but says climate change is not the only reason the small areas struggle.

The cost and availability of liability insurance actually drove a lot of [these ski hills] out of business. 

If you want more information about local ski hills in your area, check out this list by WMUR. You can also follow the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, which documents those locations that have closed.