Polar bears stranded on icebergs. Melting permafrost. Catastrophic hurricanes. Climatic conjecture? You know global warming is a reality when the notoriously optimistic National Ski Areas Association acknowledges it with an initiative called "Keep Winter Cool."
Snow-loving New Englanders can get behind the slogan, but should they also be prepared for more winters like the last one, with snow in October, rain in January, and a prohibitively thin snow pack in the backcountry?
The answer is complicated, according to Roger Hill, the meteorologist at WDEV radio. "Over the shorter term, let's say the next couple of decades, my hunch is that we will have very erratic winter behavior."
Hill predicts that anthropogenic warming - human-induced climate change - will put more water vapor in the air, which will spell heavier snowfalls for the highest two-thirds of the Green Mountains. Meanwhile, areas below 2500 feet will see a mix of rain and snow. "I think this will eventually become the norm through the winter, where one may look up to see white, snow-capped mountains and brown, dead valleys," he says.
That's one gloomy forecast for Vermont's cross-country ski areas. Meanwhile, downhill resorts face different challenges - weird weather necessitates more snowmaking and grooming, which not only require copious amounts of expensive fuel, but directly contributes to the problem they're trying to solve.
A freak, early-season snowstorm brought nearly 3 feet of snow to Killington Peak last October. By Halloween, most of the trails on the mountain were open. But several thousand feet below, at the Woodstock Inn Ski Touring Center, it was raining. With a few exceptions, that pattern continued throughout the season. "People would call up and ask, 'Do you have any snow up there?' and it was raining outside," Director Peter Davenport recalls. "It was very depressing."
Financially taxing, too. More than 100 people purchased $100 season passes last year at Woodstock, but most skied just once or twice. Davenport sent those people a letter this year, offering them a season pass for only $50. "If we have another winter like last, or even another two winters," Davenport says, the touring center and others like it "will be subject to some pretty hard review. Because you've got personnel to hire, and they expect to work. And if the work isn't going to be there, it's going to be a little difficult, to say the least."
Most Vermont Nordic centers had similarly bad experiences last year, and they're responding to climatic challenges with everything from discounts and diversification to snow-making and snow-moving. Huntington's Sleepy Hollow Inn, Ski & Bike Center keeps adding onto its name, and hopes to attract event business with a newly constructed round barn. The elevation-challenged Catamount Family Center in Williston is "trying to squeeze the most" out of its summer activities - mountain biking and running - according to co-manager Erik Bowker.
Craftsbury Outdoor Center benefits from its snow-friendly geography; its leeward orientation in the Northeast Kingdom results in more precipitation, and the trails are largely protected from the sun. But even with all its natural advantages, last winter Craftsbury had to resort to "harvesting" snow from nearby fields in order to stay open all season - which it did, and business was up 12 percent from the previous year. In anticipation of global warming, the area is planning to add a bucket loader and a pickup truck with a dump bed to its fleet of grooming equipment. "We don't make snow, we take snow," says owner Russell Spring, noting the former is too expensive and goes against the center's environmental ethic.
Only a couple of Vermont cross-country areas have gone the snow-gun route. One is Grafton Ponds, a cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-skating and snow-tubing facility connected to the Old Town Tavern. The whole complex is owned by the Windham Foundation, a nonprofit corporation committed to restoring the buildings and economic vitality in the village of Grafton. Colin Lawson has run Grafton Ponds for more than 10 years, and was the director of the area when the Windham Foundation swooped in and provided $250,000 for snowmaking machinery and infrastructure. Has it paid off? "Absolutely," Lawson says. "Are we making a bundle of money in the process? Absolutely not . . . It's a huge expense to put it in and then operate it, but the other side is: I'm skiing."
There's psychology involved, too. Even with snowmaking, it's hard to convince the general public they could be skiing instead of looking out on a brown lawn. Lawson says he can always count on that small population of hard-core Nordic skiers to kick-and-glide, or skate-ski, around a 3-kilometer track of manmade snow in the rain, but, "I have a much better season, all in all, if everybody's open and there's snow everywhere," he says.
Olympic mogul skier Evan Dybvig learned that lesson the hard way last year at Whaleback Mountain, a downhill ski area located off Interstate 89, near Lebanon. In his first season as the co-owner of the slope, he says he spent the winter learning, among other things, "just how bad it can get."
There was a lot at stake for Whaleback. Dybvig hoped to use last year's revenue to turn the ski area into a year-round action-sports facility. The capital didn't come, so the dream is delayed until next spring, when he plans to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot, indoor, freestyle-skiing training center, with a skatepark. Dybvig considers this facility "vital to the success of Whaleback," and not only because it answers the call of the burgeoning youth and action-sport market. It would weatherproof the place. Say it's a soggy day in the midst of a January thaw; Whaleback can still welcome hordes of skaters and BMX'ers for a climate-controlled adrenaline rush.
Steve Wright, the director of marketing and sales at Jay Peak, says few ski resorts will follow Whaleback's something-for-everyone lead. He believes that no matter how many alpine slides or brewers' festivals they cook up, ski areas "are still going to be beholden to cold and snow." Of course, he's in an enviable spot at Vermont's most snowbound resort, where last year's snowfall exceeded the mountain's annual average. Wright notes that ski areas will continue to "insulate themselves to some extent with snowmaking, but when it's 35 degrees, everyone sits in the same leaky boat."
As the weather becomes more erratic, and natural snowfall is less a given, ski resorts will rely even more heavily on snowmaking to keep their guests coming. But turning water into frozen powder is an expensive, labor-intensive operation. Most ski areas lease cadres of diesel generators to jump-start their seasons with a good base, hoping that Mother Nature will put her shoulder to the wheel. But, as fuel and electricity costs rise, so does the cost of snowmaking and skiing.
To exacerbate matters, Roger Hill predicts, "We will likely see a lot more power outages affecting our utilities as storms produce stronger winds and also a higher frequency of heavy, wet snowfalls that take down trees and power lines."
That type of weather - the rain, the sleet, the overnight freezing and quick thawing - levies its own tax. "I need to have a power tiller on my snowcat," says Lawson of Grafton Ponds. "That's the only way you can make good, skiable conditions in adverse weather. But when you have conditions like that, they wreak havoc on the machinery."
To minimize energy expenditures, ski resorts all over New England are switching to high-efficiency tower snowguns that use a fraction of the compressed air - and kilowatts - of the old fan-type systems. And they're thinking creatively. Dybvig, for one, said he is exploring the possibility of using biodiesel in his snowcats and diesel compressors. Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts plans to build a wind turbine near its summit next summer, which will provide the resort with 3 percent of its electrical needs, and offset the annual emission of 4 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
Roger Hill calls what New England is now experiencing "global warming . . . lite." In other words, "It's here, but behind a heavy camouflage of normal weather." But he's fairly certain that in a few years, "Most everyone will see it, and it won't be just something somewhere else in the distance, either."
Of course, there's always faith - and folklore. "See the pine cones on the Norway spruces?" says Davenport of Woodstock. "Some of the locals, they'll look at these trees and say, 'Oh, man, they're really loaded up this year. That means we're going to get a lot of snow.' I hope they're right . . . It scares me to think that, if we don't do something, there's going to be some real serious consequences."