All the cold and snow this winter have meant a great season for American skiers and ski resorts. In Pennsylvania, the industry has a $360 million dollar annual economic impact. But climate scientists predict that half of the resorts in Pennsylvania could be forced to close in the coming decades because it will be too warm to maintain snow cover. The models also show people could change that trajectory, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
On a rainy day at the Blue Knob Mountain Resort in Claysburg, east of Pittsburgh, a cold wind is blowing. Rocky Sprow is right at home. He grew up skiing Blue Knob and still lives just over the ridge.
“Actually, my dad worked here,” he says. “He ran the ski school desk for years, in fact.”
Now Sprow is a retired school teacher and part-time ski instructor. His bright red cheeks and friendly smile make him a favorite at Blue Knob. He jumps off the ski lift, ending his lesson with a young girl, and heads out to the expert trails to enjoy the view, the quiet—and a vertical drop he says will curl your hair.
LISTEN: “How Climate Change is Impacting PA’s Skiing Economy”
“Can you see the valley floor? It’s straight pitch from here to there. It’s all soft bumps right now, you can see how soft the snow is.”
It’s mid-week and the slopes look sparse. There aren’t many skiers or lines at the lifts. The early season, around Christmas-time, started slow at Blue Knob and elsewhere in the region. But Sprow says cold and snow the rest of the winter have made for a good ski season at Blue Knob.
“This has been a great winter all and all for western Pennsylvania.”
That hasn’t been the case in many recent years, particularly the winter of 2011-2012, which was one of the warmest on record. Kids were in T-shirts, not thinking about ski slopes. Blue Knob owner Rich Gauthier says they lost more than $150,000 that season. Some bigger resorts lost much more. Gauthier says he’s spent more than a million dollars on snow-making equipment.
“Everybody has to make snow these days. Even out west in the Rockies, they’re making snow at the lower levels. You can’t count on Mother Nature to do it for you.”
But Mother Nature doesn’t always allow humans to work around her either. Snow—natural or man-made—doesn’t hold if temperatures aren’t low enough. It’s got to stay below freezing at night to maintain the cover.
“Yeah. That’s the bottom line for our model,” says Daniel Scott, director of the Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. His team has published predictions for the ski industry based on climate modeling.
“Whenever we talk to the ski industry, they tell us, ‘Don’t tell me how much snow is going to fall, I don’t care. Tell me how cold it’s going to be and can I make enough snow.’”
To be considered economically viable, a ski resort has to be open at least 100 days per season. That means it needs below-freezing temperatures on enough days to maintain snow cover for 100 days.
Scott’s team modeled climate predictions separately for eastern and western Pennsylvania, and they looked at scenarios where greenhouse gas emissions were at low levels or at high levels. Across the state, and at both emission scenarios, they predict a loss of 15 to 20 percent of the ski season over the next couple of decades. Scott says that’s not too bad.
“So, by mid-century, I would think most of your ski areas, with advanced snowmaking, would still have a good chance of being in operation.”
Scott says some states, such as Connecticut, will lose all of its ski resorts, while Vermont will likely maintain all of its skiing. But Pennsylvania is right on the bubble of that 100-day season. He says a key factor will be getting cold weather early enough. Many ski resorts depend on being open for Christmas and New Year’s, but they need cold temperatures for the snow to stick.
This year in Pennsylvania, it rained during that holiday week. But otherwise, it’s been a cold, dry winter. And that’s kept the slopes in good shape.
But if greenhouse gas emissions continue at higher levels, Scott doesn’t think Pennsylvania ski resorts will make it past the year 2070.
“Later century, particularly under the warmer scenarios, now you’re looking at a 50-percent loss in your ski season. So that’s no longer sustainable at that level.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists says under similar models, the closest major resort to Philadelphia would be nearly 300 miles. Pittsburghers would have to drive 500 miles to go skiing.
At Blue Knob, which is just a couple hours from Pittsburgh, owner Rich Gauthier doesn’t give long-term predictions like this much credence.
“It’s kind of like the weather people. I mean, how nice is it to get paid and be wrong? That probably drives me crazy more than anything. I always say—if you don’t like the weather on one report, just turn to another one. Just keep going until you find the one you like.”
Researcher Daniel Scott doesn’t dispute these kinds of comments.
“They’re exactly right. It’s variable year to year—that’s what weather brings. What we would expect is we would get more of those warm years over time. And so by the 2050s, what we would consider to be a record warm year now, would actually be a fairly average winter then.”
Scott says the problem for many resort businesses is that they cannot sustain the lost revenue of even two warm winters in a row.
But Scott’s climate models, and others that look at Pennsylvania, show that things don’t have to go downhill for the state’s ski industry. If the amount of greenhouse gases is reduced, they predict many more ski resorts could remain viable.
Knowing that has politicized an industry known for its laid-back style. In recent years, skiing trade groups have been lobbying in Washington on various climate and energy bills.