HANCOCK, Mass. – The scene is something no ski resort operator wants to see early in the season: Sunlight glaring off the sloppy snow pooling like dirty mashed potatoes at the base of the high-speed six-person chairlift.
The thermometer at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in western Massachusetts reads 59 degrees Fahrenheit on this mid-November day, and Brian Fairbank, president and CEO of Jiminy Peak, is convinced the remaining snow will keep.
A northern exposure, aggressive snowmaking during the prior week's cold snap, and hard manmade snow crystals – the kind responsible for that notorious East Coast ice – will help the resort survive the week's forecast of 50s and 60s.
Just two days earlier, Jiminy's slopes were teeming with skiers and snowboarders on one of the earliest season openers in a decade. Now the mountain's not open this week until Saturday, when it plans to begin full-time day and night operations.
Fairbank has grown increasingly accustomed to weather inconsistencies over the past 44 years of his tenure at the mountain. And he is not alone.
The United Nations Environment Programme has identified the ski industry, which needs cold weather and snow to thrive, as one of the most vulnerable industries to climate change worldwide.
In the northeast United States, at least, it may not be the Killington's, the Stowe's or the Sugarloaf's that are at risk. Most endangered are smaller, regional operations at lower elevations farther south that either can't adapt or can't afford to adapt as warmer temperatures and less reliable snowpack shortly become the new norm.
Tough road ahead
Across the country, climate change impacts will likely vary by region. For the West, for instance, water scarcity and drought could end up having a big effect, as ski areas lose the ability to reliably make snow.
But generally, less predictable winter weather means a tough road ahead for any ski area. And in the Northeast, increasingly unreliable winters could affect more than half of the region's 103 active ski areas, according to a report published in September in the journal Tourism Management.
Shorter ski seasons and a lower probability of being open during the lucrative Christmas-New-Year holiday week could doom many of the smaller resorts, the researchers concluded.
"Climate change is like any other business risk – it will create opportunities for some, misfortune for others," said Daniel Scott, a professor of tourism management at the University of Waterloo in Canada and part of the team of researchers studying climate change's impact on Northeast ski areas such as Jiminy Peak.
By 2039, the researchers found, only half of the ski areas in the Northeast will be able to maintain a 100-day season – a measure of economic viability in the ski industry.
For smaller, southern-tier resorts closer to the major metropolitan areas, the view is especially grim. Within 30 years, no ski areas in Massachusetts or Connecticut will be able to maintain a 100-day ski season and only one-third of the resorts in New York could regularly expect to be open during the holidays. Even with the most efficient snowmaking technology available today, climbing temperatures will make it tough to make enough snow to stay open, said Scott.
The big mountain resorts of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, in contrast, are expected to thrive through mid-century and may even stand to gain more clients as smaller, more southern areas fail and the industry contracts northward.
'A mixed bag'
It's not just about latitude and elevation. The researchers did not account for other aspects of the ski resort business, such as investments in state-of-the-art snowmaking technology, sources of revenue, or capital available for adaptation—other factors, said Dawson, which may ultimately determine if the business floats or sinks.
"In the Northeast, it's going to be a mixed bag," said Jackie Dawson, a geographer at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study. "Climate change is going to help create some winners and some losers."
Jiminy Peak is squarely in that vulnerable southern tier. But Fairbank is trying hard to make the resort a winner. He is aggressively pursuing energy efficiency, which lowers costs. He's sought outside money for infrastructure improvements. Three years ago, he sold the mountain resort to a real estate investment group, CNL, which also owns Cranmore Mountain Resort in New Hampshire. Fairbank leases Jiminy Peak from CNL, and the infusion of capital allowed Jiminy Peak to purchase 40 new snow guns in 2012, increasing its arsenal to 443 total guns.
Fairbank has also taken steps to expand the season and diversify revenue sources at the mountain. The resort holds weddings and corporate events, boasts a mountain adventure park complete with alpine slide and ropes course, and last summer hosted its first Tough Mudder adventure race.
"Short of putting a dome over the mountain, I don't know what else we can do," he said.
The investment is already paying dividends, said Jim Van Dyke, vice president of environmental sustainability at Jiminy. "Twenty years ago, we spent 1,000 hours a year making snow. Today we spend 600 hours a year blowing snow to cover the same number of trails. He said. "Better technology and more efficient machines have allowed us to cut energy costs while reducing our carbon footprint."
But even with these improvements in snowmaking, Fairbank saw energy costs skyrocketing. Ski resorts are energy hogs – lodges have to be heated and lit, chair lifts and snow guns need to run.
In 2005, Jiminy Peak took an unprecedented step with the installation of a wind turbine on the slope. The 1.5-megawatt turbine, dubbed Zephyr, was a first for the industry. It cut Jiminy Peak's dependence on non-renewable energy by about 25 percent and saves them more than half a million dollars a year in electric bills.
"A ski resort isn't an easy business to run. You have to learn how to respond to the immediate conditions at your hill. You have to be a little nimble to make it," said Troy Hawkes, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, an industry group based in Lakewood, Colo.
Since 2000, more than 190 ski resorts across the country have endorsed the Association's environment charter, known as Sustainable Slopes, to collectively address the potential threat that climate change poses to the industry. As a group, the industry has lobbied for clean energy legislation, wind energy production tax credits and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"If there are two industries in the world that know that climate is changing, it's the insurance companies and the ski resorts," said Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire.
According to Hamilton, the industry began experiencing the effects of climate change nearly 30 years ago. A series of unusually warm winters in the 1980s and 1990s was one factor in the closure of nearly 600 small, locally owned and public ski hills across the U.S. Northeast, because they couldn't afford to make snow.
$1 billion loss
Nationwide, the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry has experienced an estimated $1 billion loss over the past decade and seen 27,000 jobs evaporate, according to an analysis prepared for the nonprofit groups Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Diminished snowfall patterns and the resulting changes in outdoor habits of Americans were to blame, according to the report, released last week.
While the industry may survive, it is changing, said Hamilton. Climate change may hasten the prolonged contraction of the Northeast ski industry from a diffuse cottage industry to a corporate-dominated business, with a few large companies controlling the slopes.
That move has already priced some people and demographics out of the sport, Hamilton said.
It could also hit hard communities that depend on the tourism and employment generated by the local ski area, said Scott. "Ski resorts can close, businesses can take a hit, but communities are not going anywhere – they are the vulnerable ones."
Jiminy Peak, for instance, pays 85 percent of the town taxes in Hancock, Massachusetts. It employs 125 full-time and 1,000 seasonal workers, making it the fifth largest employer in Berkshire County.
Fairbank, despite the sparsely populated midweek runs and the lumpy mashed potatoes at the base of his run, is an optimist. In the face of warmer winters, he's convinced Jiminy Peak will thrive.
"We're learning to do things differently to protect the mountain and the business," he said.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.