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The ski industry is preparing for a future that will require more manufactured snow

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Beijing Winter Olympics gave us a glimpse of what the sport of skiing might look like in the future because they were the first Winter Games that relied almost entirely on manufactured snow. U.S. ski resorts are prepping for a similar scenario, as changing climate is contributing to less natural snowfall and warmer temperatures. Our own H.J. Mai has more.

H J MAI, BYLINE: It's snowing, with temperatures hovering around freezing. And despite low-hanging clouds, the visibility is good. It's an almost perfect day for skiing. I'm at Massanutten Resort in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, a roughly 2 1/2-hour drive from Washington, D.C. The resort is celebrating its 50th anniversary. But whether skiing will be part of the next 50 years remains to be seen.

KENNY HESS: Being in the Southeast, you know, we've always kind of been on the fringe of whether we're viable to be a ski area or not.

MAI: Kenny Hess serves as the resort's director of sports and risk management. He says the lack of natural snowfall has always been a challenge for Massanutten.

HESS: We have never been able to have much of a ski season here without snowmaking.

MAI: Many other skiers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic grapple with similar issues. And climate change is only accelerating the problem. Snowshoe is the biggest ski resort in West Virginia. And it has seen its snowfall amounts slashed in recent years, according to Shawn Cassell, the resort's PR and marketing manager.

SHAWN CASSELL: We used to have an average of about 180 inches of snow every year. And I think over the last five, six years, it's been more like 130, so pretty big drop there.

MAI: Due to advancements in snowmaking technology, most East Coast ski resorts have been able to compensate for the lack of natural snow. But this comes at a cost. U.S. ski resorts invested nearly $100 million on snowmaking infrastructure during the last winter season, making it the largest capital expenditure within the industry. And without coordinated climate action, it still might not be enough, says New Hampshire Congresswoman Annie Kuster.

ANNIE KUSTER: We're very worried about the long-term impact of climate change, truly an existential threat to the sport of skiing and other snow sports as well.

MAI: Snow sports tourism contributes about $20 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to researchers.

KUSTER: Ski resorts are, honestly, the economic engine of New Hampshire's rural economy.

MAI: To make sure this engine keeps running, North America's four largest ski resort operators joined forces last year to combat climate change. Killington ski resort in Vermont, which is owned by POWDR, has invested in renewable energy sources. All its lifts are now powered by solar energy. But to make sure skiing will still be possible in the Northeast by the end of this century, more mitigation efforts are needed and not just from within the ski industry, says Boulder-based scientist Cameron Wobus.

CAMERON WOBUS: If we're not doing more then, yeah, ski seasons might go away for a good chunk of the Northeast.

MAI: This includes reducing energy use and waste, as well as a focus on electrifying transportation. But, Wobus says, there's still time to make those changes.

H.J. Mai, NPR News.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, for more, we turn to Elizabeth Burakowski, research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. Now, we just heard that ski resorts all over the U.S. East Coast see a decline in natural snowfall. How much of a decline are we talking about?

ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: Well, we're - a historical period. It depends on where you are on the most southern to northern latitudes and also your elevation. Some places in the southernmost part of the Northeastern United States - so down in West Virginia, North Carolina area - they're losing snow a lot faster than places up North. But that doesn't mean there's not a warming trend. There absolutely is. And it's something to be concerned about, especially as we make choices moving forward on how we're going to address climate change.

MARTINEZ: Is there any kind of, maybe, quantifiable number or some kind of stat to be able to put this in perspective in our listeners' heads?

BURAKOWSKI: Absolutely. I mean, at the current pace, by mid-century, the ski resorts in North America, in Northeastern North America, they're going to face about 50% decline in the days when conditions will be favorable to make snow. And if we limit emissions of greenhouse gases that trap heat, we could reduce that to a 10% - to a 30% decline instead. So it's still going to decline, but at least our colder days for preserving the snow cover either that we make using snow machines or that comes naturally from Mother Nature, those below-freezing temperatures are going to help preserve it at higher latitudes.

MARTINEZ: Now, just to be clear, I think, probably for - a lot of people think, well, it's the amount of snow. But it's not. You're saying that it is the amount of time that we have with the snow?

BURAKOWSKI: Exactly. And it's the amount of time that we can both make snow artificially by - through snow machine technology, and it's also the amount of snow that we can keep on the ground throughout the winter. One of the big issues that we're very interested in in our research is understanding, how much ephemeral or fleeting melt do we get? How are those freeze-thaw cycles changing in a way that leads to conditions that are snow-free in the middle of winter? And ski resorts have to hustle to make up that lost ground - or, rather, lost snow.

MARTINEZ: Elizabeth, what's driving this trend of less natural snow?

BURAKOWSKI: A lot of it has to do with the combination of temperature and precipitation. And in the Northeastern United States, we're a relatively wet region. Our precipitation is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year, unlike the western U.S., which has a wet season and a dry season. And when we look at our trends, what we're seeing is an increase in winter precipitation. But that's coincident with an increase in winter temperatures, which means that more of our rain is - or more of our winter precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow. And that rain can both, one, help to contribute to melt of an existing snowpack. And it makes it that much harder for new snow to accumulate on the ground if that ground is now thawed and warm. So you have a nice, cold, icy ground, that's going to be much more amenable to making up any of the snow that was lost due to rain on snow events or warm temperatures.

MARTINEZ: One of the things we heard in the piece before us, Elizabeth, is that ski resorts have been trying to go carbon neutral. They're trying to invest in green energy. So is it possible to reverse this trend through climate action?

BURAKOWSKI: Absolutely. And I wouldn't say it's - the onus is all on the ski industry to do that. I think that they're setting an example and walking the walk and showing that we have solutions to this, that we don't need to burn fossil fuels to be a viable industry - and that they can be part of the solution, not the problem in terms of how much fossil fuels they're burning or not burning. And I like to think that the communities that are around ski resorts are also benefiting from that through lower energy prices, through programs that help to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon footprints all around. I see it as a win-win situation, to move forward with those. And any resorts that aren't planning on reducing their emissions or keeping track of their carbon, I think that's a really poor business decision because skiers are going to take notice.

MARTINEZ: That's Elizabeth Burakowski, research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. Elizabeth, thanks a lot.

BURAKOWSKI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOTS AND RECOGNITION'S "STILLNESS WITHIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.