Valley News – In a season impacted by patterns of climate change, ski areas work to be ‘adaptable’

The start of the winter season has been difficult for snow sports enthusiasts across Vermont.

Save up for a few inches of December snow — including a storm that brought rain, a flash freeze, a near-record-breaking wind and lightning – the bottom of the earth has remained in shades of green and brown, only occasionally embedded in a thin white blanket.

Scientists in Vermont have documented the state’s rapidly warming winters. As snow guns at ski resorts rush to keep up with changing weather conditions, skiers have felt the effects.

Vermonters have occasionally seen less snow and felt warmer temperatures in the winter even before climate change became a household term. But many people in the snow sports industry say they’re seeing weather trends that are starting to feel less than the norm.

“I’ve been wondering that too – is this normal?” said Robert Drake, director of the Rikert Outdoor Center in Ripton, Vt., which is home to cross-country ski trails. “No, thats not normal. This is the worst year we have seen here at Rikert in quite some time.”

Rikert maintains 55 kilometers of trails. There is artificial snow on 5 kilometers, and half as many are snow-covered.

Robert Haynes, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Burlington station, said it had been warmer than normal for the past three months.

“The effects of climate change are felt at regional and local levels,” he said.

According to Haynes, average temperatures have been between 3 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for the past three months. At 52 degrees the warm weather set a temperature record on December 30th.

Mad River Glen closed Monday and Tuesday to store its artificial snow for busier days — Vermont’s mountains are particularly busy over the Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Ry Young, marketing and events manager at Mad River Glen, said each year “offers its own challenges, especially these days when you live in New England. We see a lot of temperature fluctuations.”

“It’s just part of the deal,” he said. “As a ski resort, we are obviously a very weather dependent company, so we just have to be flexible and adapt to any challenges that come our way.”

According to Mike Chait, the resort’s communications manager, Jay Peak is doing a little better.

“It’s going to snow three, four days straight, and you know, pick up all that good snow,” he said. “That’s going to break new ground temporarily, and then we have one of those meltdown events that forces us to shut things down.”

While it’s cold, snow guns go to work, building a base that can survive the next melting event, Chait said.

The Catamount Trail, a network of cross-country ski trails that stretches the length of Vermont, relies entirely on natural snow.

“It’s pretty thin everywhere,” said Greg Maino, the organization’s communications director. “Anecdotally, I know most of our tours across the state are being canceled right now.”

In the Vermont Climate Assessment released in November 2021, scientists showed that winters have already been warming by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. The frost-free period has increased by three weeks since 1960.

According to the assessment, the season for snow sports is getting shorter.

“Downhill skiing, with the help of snowmaking in Vermont, is likely to remain largely profitable until about 2050,” the report states. “By 2080, the Vermont ski season will be shortened by two weeks (in a low emissions scenario) or by a full month (in a high emissions scenario), and some ski resorts will remain viable.”

Despite a light blanket of snow in some areas of the state on Thursday, the warm and humid weather is likely to continue into the weekend, Haynes said.

“It looks like pretty much everyone should see a transition to rain by early Friday morning,” Haynes said. “Even some of our ski resorts in areas 3,000 feet above the ground look like they’re going to warm up by their mid-30s and see some of that rain.”

Vermonters across the state are likely to see a mix of freezing rain Thursday night, rain on Friday, followed by 1 to 3 inches of snow in the northern mountains at the storm’s rear end.

Rain is likely to be accompanied by wind, which Jay Peak’s Chait says melts snow faster than almost anything else.

“Think of it like a hair dryer,” he said. “If you bring a pile of snow and tape it to the dinner table and watch it melt, that’s one thing. If you sprinkle some water on it, it will melt, but it will also become somewhat dense until it reaches the critical percentage of water content, and then it will start falling away. But if you add a hair dryer, it’s quick.”

In recent years, the changing weather conditions have prompted many resorts to pour large sums into state-of-the-art snow machines that can deftly cover large swathes of ski terrain.

It has helped the mountains become more flexible, Chait said.

“I think we’re really trying to stay adaptable, and as things change, we try to change with them,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to roll with the punches and get things as snowy as possible as quickly as possible.”

Drake von Rikert recalls hearing about the Vermont Climate Assessment through a story on Vermont Public that highlighted the shortening of the winter sports season. He felt suffocated, he said, thinking about his children and the future.

“It’s such a part of who we are,” he said. “It’s in my kids blood and they’re not particularly excited about going skiing because the skiing isn’t fantastic this season at the moment. That’s why it’s very important to me.”

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