No country for powder hounds: warmer temps threaten Vermont’s ski industry

By FLORENCE WU

BENJY RENTON
In Vermont, the average high winter temperature has been rising by a sixth of a degree Fahrenheit per decade, according to NOAA data. Local skiers have noticed warmer days on the slopes in the last few years.

It’s a fact no ski resort, snow maker, liftie or snow hobbyist wants to hear: the temperature profile of Green Mountain winters is changing. Vermont has seen a decrease in average annual snow coverage since 1960, with the average high winter temperature rising at 0.64°F per decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The change has caused milder winters, earlier springs and more severe weather events, threatening the very foundation of Vermont’s ski industry.

Year by year, the total days of one or more inches of snow coverage has been on the decline, according the State of Vermont‘s website. Beyond charts and statistics, veteran skiers and snowboarders in Vermont have witnessed this change in action. 

“Anecdotally, winters have seen later snows [in] March and April,” said Mike Hussey, the general manager of the Snow Bowl. Hussey mentioned that winter weather events have been shorter and more extreme, with short cold periods accompanied by abrupt, intense warm periods. 

“The rain events have been more severe in the last three or four years,” said Stever Barlett, head coach of the Middlebury College alpine ski team since 2006. “As a result, skier visits tend to decrease when it’s ‘brown in town,’ as they say.” 

Even younger generations have noticed the trend. While acknowledging the inevitability of winter-by-winter variation, students conclude that winters are getting warmer. In the past, blisteringly cold days were not uncommon, according to Pate Campbell ’20, a senior on the alpine ski team who has spent nine seasons on Vermont’s slopes.

“To have 10 of those –30°F days in a year used to be normal,” Campbell said. “Now you might just have one or two.” 

Jenny Moss ’20.5, who has skied in Vermont since she was four and now works as a snowboard instructor at the Snow Bowl, has observed similar trends. 

“The most consistent thing has just been how wildly inconsistent things are,” Moss said. “We are getting record colds and record [highs]; you really can’t rely on mother nature anymore.”

Unfortunately, according to Campbell, climate change will “hurt the small [ski] mountains the most.” While larger resorts such as those in Vail and Aspen can sustain rising costs by increasing ticket prices on its huge consumer pool (as those in favor of conglomerates have said), small mountains with a fraction of the capital have less leeway to do so. 

The Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center have increased their snowmaking facilities, without which warmer weather could shorten the average 135-day season down to 50–70 days, according to Hussey. Despite changing weather patterns, Hussey remains optimistic about the College’s snowmaking abilities. “Shorter windows of opportunity have driven us to install equipment that can be started and shut down quickly in order to capitalize on as much of the window as possible,” he said.  

However, snowmaking is only a temporary solution to the threat that warmer winter temperatures impose on the ski industry. Those looking to protect Vermont’s slopes can take action by joining and supporting environmental activist groups such as Protect Our Winters (POW). The organization believes that through a “three-way change” in politics, technology and culture, voters can prevent the worst impacts of climate change. As a college student, this can mean participating in climate activism, voting for green politicians, researching renewable energy resources, supporting environmentally friendly brands and companies, and being more aware of personal consumer habits and carbon footprints. 

“The students are the generation that can change the habits of our culture,” Hussey said. “It is late in the game but not too late.”