Ski areas fight to keep snow on slopes amid warming winters
Artificial snow a must to keep trails open longer
Ski season is over at Whaleback Mountain, and snow remains only in scattered patches across its 30 trails. It’s normal for the mountain to be closed this time of year, said Business Operations Director Alex Lahood. But these remaining patches tell the story of Whaleback’s efforts to adapt to warming winters.
“Anywhere where we’ve made snow … that’s where the snow still is,” said Lahood, looking up at the slopes on a rainy April afternoon. “Anything that’s natural — it’s totally gone at this point.”
Whaleback, a small nonprofit ski area in Enfield, makes snow on about 30 percent of its terrain. Lahood explained that this season, snowmaking was especially important for keeping the mountain open.
“We relied on our man-made snow for a long time — all the way through February, until we started to see a couple of consecutive storms,” he said.
Whaleback is used to seeing occasional warm temperatures in January and February, but this year, “it was definitely more drastic than normal. The warm temps were longer than they have been in the past,” Lahood said.
According to Elizabeth Burakowski, an assistant research professor at the University of New Hampshire, this warming trend was reflected across New England.
“When you look at the monthly temperatures for the entirety of New England, January 2023 was the warmest January we’ve seen since recordkeeping began in earnest in 1895,” Burakowski said.
For New Hampshire in particular, this winter was the third warmest on record.
It also fits into broader winter warming trends that Burakowski and other climate scientists have studied. “Looking backwards over the past 100 years or so, we know that winters are losing cold, they’re losing snow, and the overall period of sustained cold winter conditions is getting shorter,” Burakowski said.
Burakowski grew up skiing at New Hampshire mountains and has been ringing alarm bells about climate change for years, in part because warmer winters mean fewer days on the slopes.
“These are all the mountains that raised me, from elementary school up into high school and into college. And they raised me to love winter and to appreciate winter.”
“I share that love with my children now,” she said, recounting her son’s adventures learning to ski at Gunstock Mountain this year.
But the New Hampshire winters of “50, 60, 70 years ago,” Burakowski said, are “different than what our children are experiencing now.”
According to data from Climate Central, winters in Concord are warming at the fourth-fastest rate of any location in the country — about six degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.
‘All man-made snow’
Pats Peak Ski Area in Henniker can make snow on 100 percent of its trails, helping it survive in its central New Hampshire location, just 20 minutes from Concord.
According to Lori Rowell, director of sales and marketing at Pats Peak, snowmaking “has been important since the beginning,” when the mountain first opened in the 1960s.
This year, the mountain was able to follow its usual schedule of opening on the first Saturday in December and closing on the last Sunday in March. Keeping that schedule, however, required a robust snowmaking operation.
When Pats Peak opened in December, Rowell said, “it was all man-made snow.”
For Rowell, that wasn’t surprising. “We just anticipate there won’t be a lot of snow. It’s not like we’re planning around snowfall. We’re just planning around what we want to open and when we have the temperatures,” she said.
Still, for Pats Peak, “it was a bit of a roller coaster. For a little while there in February I think we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, is it gonna be winter?’”
Rowell and Lahood both reported a dramatic increase in snowfall in March, which helped keep their mountains open through the end of the season.
Jessyca Keeler, president of the ski industry trade association Ski New Hampshire, called it a “miracle March.”
‘Smaller windows of opportunity’
But a “miracle March” doesn’t always come, Keeler said. In March 2020, she said, “we weren’t getting as much of that natural snow, and that can have an impact on skier visits.”
Keeler added that New Hampshire ski areas across the board are setting themselves up to make more of their own snow during warming winters.
Their 32 member ski areas, she said, “have really invested in modern and more and more technologically advanced snowmaking systems, so they can take advantage of smaller windows of opportunity to make snow.”
At Whaleback, Lahood described a constant struggle to make snow in these “windows of opportunity” — when temperatures and humidity cooperate — in order to keep the mountain open in long stretches without natural snowfall.
He recalled one period of colder temperatures early in the season when the Whaleback operations team, led by director Gerd Riess, “really kicked it into high gear” and “pretty much made snow around the clock for seven days.”
Then Mother Nature had her own way with things. Not long after that, said Lahood, “we got three days of 50- (to) 60-degree weather with rain and that washed away pretty much everything that we had done.”
UNH researchers predict that only 15 percent of ski areas in New England and nearby parts of Canada will survive the century.
There is only so much technology can do to replace natural snowfall, Burakowski explained.
“The technology has come a long way,” she said. “But at the end of the day, there’s a physical constraint … even though you can make snow at temperatures that are warmer. At the end of the day, that snowpack is going to melt when it gets about 32 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Keeler also sees warming temperatures as a limiting factor to snowmaking. “There is a point where I don’t know that technology will be able to keep up (with rising temperatures),” she said. “We’re not there yet. But it’s something that I think people kind of wonder what’s gonna happen 20, 30, 50 years from now?”
A study conducted by Burakowski and others in 2018 found a significant correlation between low snowfall years and a decline in the number of visitors to New England ski areas.
Keeler attributes that decline in visitorship during snowless periods to what’s been dubbed the “backyard effect” — when people in the cities and suburbs don’t see natural snow in their own backyards, they’re less inclined to head to the mountains, even if those mountains have snow.
“If people in our key market areas, whether it’s southern New Hampshire or the greater Boston area, or places like that,” she said, are “not seeing snow or just even cold winter temperatures, they’re not really thinking about skiing.”
A decline in visitors at ski resorts spells economic trouble for the state, Burakowski warned.
“At the end of the day, for a place like New Hampshire, when we have less snow, when we have warmer temperatures, we see less secure business and that means less money coming into the state through visitor spending,” she said.
Skiing contributes over $500 million to the state’s economy.
The ‘big picture’
While ski areas are investing in snowmaking, Keeler and Ski NH are focused on supporting policies they think will benefit the ski industry, including climate and clean energy bills.
“We need to say, ‘Hey, legislators’ and ‘Hey, communities, this is important to us and if we don’t do something about it, this industry will suffer,’” Keeler said.
One of Ski NH’s current priorities is advancing electric vehicle infrastructure in the state, which Keeler says is both because the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the state, and because New Hampshire ski areas might attract more tourists if the state were home to more EV fast-charging stations.
Keeler also has her sights set on the “big picture.” “If society in general doesn’t address this and really embrace cleaner energy and cleaner technology and do things to try to stem a warming temperature,” she said, “that could really shorten our seasons in the future.”
Burakowski agreed. “I hope that we can save some winter,” she said, acknowledging that New Hampshire winters aren’t what they once were, but that there’s still time to save some of those cold, snowy days if we “act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NH Business Review and other outlets to republish its reporting.