Winter is shrinking in places like Hayward, Wis., reports the New York Times, a town of 2,300 that swells to more than 12,000 people in late February during the American Birkebeiner, North America’s largest cross-country ski race. Last year, organizers canceled the event for lack of snow.
Climate has long ruled the fortunes of winter destinations dependent on snow for skiing and other winter sports. As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the world continues to warm. Last year was the third warmest in the instrumental record and the warmest year that was not experiencing an El Niño state. Seasonally, winter has warmed the fastest, causing those in the winter sports industry to consider how to manage future changes in snow season length, and amount, reliability, and quality of accumulated snowfall.
The ski industry is already hurting from the effects of climate change, with more unpredictable and warmer winters making it increasingly difficult for places dependent upon steady revenue from snow-seeking tourists. Ski operators have proved able to adapt to some extent, such as making up for lost snow through artificial production. However, snowmaking requires energy to run equipment, significant water resources, and sub-freezing temperatures. Winter tourists have had to adjust as well, varying the time and frequency of their travel.
Average snowfall is influenced by a resort’s elevation and the frequency of winter storms and precipitation. But, it’s just not going to snow if it’s warm outside — days below the freezing temperature of 32oF signal whether a resort town can potentially support snowfall for ski days. Making snow doesn’t get resorts off the hook either. The ideal temperature for artificial snowmaking is an even colder 28oF, dependent on humidity. As the climate continues to warm, the number of days that can support snowfall are expected to decrease, and ski resort towns could lose valuable tourism traffic. If emissions continue to rise at the same pace they did in the first decade of this century, places that will be especially plagued by temperature rise include Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley, and Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Whitefish, Montana: Slopes around Big Mountain feature abundance of long, wide open paths with ample pockets of steep and deep terrain. The glaciers that formed the broad, flat valley surrounded by mountains — Flathead County’s namesake – are losing mass and retreating as the region warms. From 1981 to 2010, an average of 162 days each year had temperatures at or below freezing. By midcentury, the county can expect about four months’ worth of these cold days, on average. That shrinks to seven weeks by late century. Under a moderate emissions scenario, cold days diminish more slowly. The county can expect nearly 15 weeks of subfreezing temperatures in late century.
Park City, Utah: Summit County, nestled high in the Wasatch Mountains, includes 39 of the highest peaks in Utah. Park City, which hosts the Sundance Film Festival, is bordered by Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort and sits just south of the nearly 400-acre Utah Olympic Park. An average of 194 days each year between 1981 and 2010 were at or below freezing, but that figure could be cut in half by late century if emissions continue to rise. The county is projected to experience an average of 100 days at or below freezing by 2100, compared to 141 days under a moderate emissions scenario.
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