On January 18, 2023

With low snow, ski areas focus on ‘adapting’

By Emma Cotton/VTDigger and Polly Mikula

The start of the winter season has been difficult for snow sport enthusiasts across Vermont— and the Northeast.

Save for one big storm in December in the south-central mountains — when Killington logged 2 feet of snow in one storm — the state (and entire Northeast) has remained mostly shades of green and brown, only occasionally blanketed with a thin cover of white.

Scientists in Vermont have documented the state’s rapidly warming winters. As snowmakers at ski resorts hustle to keep pace with the changes in weather conditions, skiers have felt the impacts. 

Vermonters have, on occasion, 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 the unseasonable weather has become a trend and it feel less and less like the past “norm.”

“I’ve asked the same thing myself — is this normal?” said Robert Drake, director of Rikert Outdoor Center in Ripton, which hosts cross-country ski trails. “No, it’s not normal. This is the worst year that we have seen here at Rikert in quite some time.” 

Rikert maintains 55 kilometers of trails. Artificial snow is available on 5 kilometers, and half as many have snow cover. 

It’s even worst on the Catamount Trail, a network of cross-country ski paths that run the length of Vermont, as it relies entirely on natural snow.

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

The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), which maintains and grooms over 4,700 miles of trails in Vermont for snowmobiling had zero trails open as of Monday, Jan. 16. 

Alpine resorts, too, faced closures. Mad River Glen closed on Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 9-10, to stockpile its artificial snow for the busier days of Martin Luther King Day weekend. 

Ry Young, marketing and events manager at Mad River Glen, said every year “presents its own set of challenges, especially these days, living in New England. We see a lot of temperature swings.”

“That’s just part of the business,” he said. “We are a very weather-dependent business, obviously, being a ski area, so, we just need to be flexible and adapt to whatever challenges are presented to us.”

Jay Peak, near the Canadian boarder, has recently been faring a little better than the rest of the state, according to Mike Chait, the resort’s communications manager. 

“It’ll snow for three, four days straight, and you know, pick up all this good snow,” he said. “That’ll open up new terrain temporarily, and then we’ll have one of those meltdown events that forces us to close things down.”

While it’s cold, snowmakers get to work, building up a base that can make it through the next melt event, Chait said. 

Killington Resort, known for it’s snowmaking prowess, has faired better — with 72 of 155 trails open and 13 of 22 lifts as of Tuesday, Jan. 17 — but it’s a far cry from being full open as it usually is this time of year. 

The lack of terrain makes trails that are open even more crowded than usual, which is why the resort took every opportunity possible to make snow leading up the the past long MLK weekend. Killington’s snowmaking system can cover 600 skiable acres — about the size of Okemo’s total terrain.

 “Our snowmakers have been working around the clock and the past five days of cold temperatures have gotten us back to solid coverage on all open trails,” the resort wrote it’s its Drift newsletter, Thursday, Jan. 12. “Yesterday, patrol dropped the ropes on Highline where huge whales made for some amazing expert skiing and riding. Snowmaking continued through the night and the grooming team should have that trail primed for the weekend.”

Killington gets an average of 250 inches of natural snowfall each winter. Of that, 18″ typically falls in November, 39″ in December, 34″ in January, 45″ in February, 29″ in March and about 10″ in April on average. In other words, by the end of January, Killington has typically logged 7 1/2 feet of natural snowfall. This year, it has only recorded 61″ total.

Robert Haynes, a meteorologist with the Burlington station of the National Weather Service, said it’s been warmer than normal for the last three months. “The impacts of climate change are being realized on a regional and local level,” he said.  

Average temperatures in the last three months have floated between 3 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal, according to Haynes. At 52 degrees, the warm weather set a temperature record on Dec. 30. 

In the Vermont Climate Assessment, issued in November 2021, scientists showed that winters are already getting warmer by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. The freeze-free period has become three weeks longer since 1960. The season for snow sports will continue to become shorter, the assessment says.  

“Downhill skiing, with the help of snowmaking, will likely remain largely viable in Vermont up until approximately 2050,” the report states. “By 2080, the Vermont ski season will be shortened by two weeks (under a low emissions scenario) or by a whole month (under a high emissions scenario), and some ski areas will remain viable.”

This winter rain has often been accompanied by wind, which, according to Chait at Jay Peak, melts snow faster than almost anything else. 

“Think about it like a hair dryer,” he said. “If you brought in a pile of snow and stuck it on the dinner table and watched it melt, that’s one thing. If you sprinkle some water on it, it’ll melt, but it will also become kind of dense until it meets that critical water content percentage, and then it’ll start to flop away. But if you were to take a hair dryer to it, it’ll go fast.”

In the last several years, the changes in weather have prompted many resorts to sink large amounts of money into state-of-the-art snowmaking systems, which can deftly cover large swaths of ski terrain. 

It’s helped mountains become more flexible, Chait said. 

“I think we really, we just try to stay adaptable, and as things change, we try to change with them,” he said. “We do what we can to roll with the punches and make things as snowy as we can as quickly as we can.”

Drake, at Rikert, remembers hearing about the Vermont Climate Assessment through a story on Vermont Public, which highlighted the shortening of the snow sports season. He felt choked up, he said, thinking about his kids and the future.

“It’s such a part of who we are,” he said. “It’s in my kids’ blood, and they’re not super excited to go skiing because the skiing is not fantastic right now this season. So it’s a huge concern of mine.”

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