6:07 PM EST, December 8, 2012
The future of skiing in Connecticut may be as obvious as yet another warm day in December.
Canadian climate change researchers have a bleak prediction for ski areas in southern New England: Within a few decades, slight changes in temperature may make it impossible to sustain a profitable ski season south of the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire.
This means that within a few decades the remaining ski areas here could be just another quaint relic, like the town greens, stonewalls and historic homes that define much of our rural character.
"You will see winters that are warming,'' said Daniel Scott, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "We know those will come."
Scott and a co-author Jackie Dawson predict in a scholarly paper to be published next year that "the impact of climate change will likely lead to the closure of highly vulnerable ski areas." In particular, they point to one scenario that forecasts the disappearance of Connecticut and Massachusetts ski areas within 30 years – or less.
Using decades of temperature data and computer models based on expected carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels, Scott and another scientist see ever warmer winters over the coming century.
"Those in Connecticut and Massachusetts will struggle … within the next 20 to 30 years for sure."
Temperatures in the 50s in December don't exactly bring on the best mood for ski area operators. But the truth is, this business is always a challenge, which is why there are only a handful of ski areas left. Warm days and rain are part of the routine. They have been for years.
"Last year was a tough year for ski areas. But that being said we were open for 82 days, the same as we were two years prior when we had a great year,'' said Ed Beckley, president and general manager at Mt. Southington.
"The way ski areas are adapting is that we realize it's a brief period we have to make snow and we better make it,'' said Beckley, who has been at Southington for three decades. "We are certainly getting the temperatures that you need for snow making, but they are fewer and far between. Ideally we like to be making snow in the teens. Last year we got that one day."
"So I think yes, there is climate change happening. What the cause of it is I don't totally agree. In general, the winters are milder."
There are four operating ski areas in the state, with a fifth, Powder Ridge in Middlefield, planning to reopen next year.
At Ski Sundown in New Hartford, they have invested in new snow making equipment and start stockpiling as soon as it gets cold. Last year, piles of snow made in January helped them stay open through March.
"If we worried about [climate change] we'd drive ourselves crazy. On the other hand, we are always looking to improve our efficiency in snow making,'' said Bob Switzgable, owner of Ski Sundown. "We will be here. We've been in business 46 years.''
Scott, however, isn't so certain. He predicts that more than half of the 103 ski areas in New England and New York may struggle to remain profitable if average winter temperatures rise only a few degrees, as many scientists expect. Since 1900, the average annual temperature in the Northeast has increased by about 0.14 degrees per decade, with higher averages since 1970.
There's a centuries-long history of temperature fluctuation, meteorologists tell me, so relying on data from the last century may not tell us much. "If you have a small error in a model the total error could be huge,'' said Bob Cox, a CBS Radio meteorologist who also appears on FOX-CT.
"You see what happens when we try and make a forecast three weeks out based on modeling."
Ryan Hanrahan, meteorologist at NBC Connecticut, told me the issue isn't snow. It's the warmer temperatures, which he believes are caused by the influence of burning fossil fuels.
"If you look back at the last 100 years there hasn't been a noticeable change in the amount of snow that we receive here in Connecticut,'' he said. "There has been a change in the average temperature. We have gotten warmer. There is no question that through the next 100 years it will continue to get warmer."
The reality is that ski areas have been disappearing for decades in Connecticut and New England (Google the New England Lost Ski Areas Project), so a struggle to survive is hardly a new story. Most scientists also agree that the earth is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is the cause.
By the mid-21st Century, there will only be a few dozen ski areas remaining in the mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York, Scott and fellow researchers predict.
"Others still buy into this isn't happening despite the evidence right in front of them,'' Scott said of climate change. "It drives me crazy."
"We will sees a contraction of the ski industry in your area," he said. "There is no upside."
Climate change or not, Beckley has a more urgent agenda on his mind at Mt. Southington. "We were hoping to open on the 8th. It looks like we are now shooting for the 15th."
"We are looking for the next cold stretch."
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