Despite disappearing winters, ski areas in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont aren’t going anywhere. The region is warming quicker than anywhere else, which makes New England ski areas the most vulnerable to climate change. But there's hope.
“Snow cover is projected to decrease substantially in response to warmer temperatures,” wrote Elizabeth Burakowski in the study, Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. Burakowski is a climate scientist and Protect Our Winters (POW) ambassador. She predicts that under a high-emissions scenario—such as continued reliance on fossil fuels—snow cover could decrease by 75 percent. Ski resorts in lower elevations would be hit the hardest.
POW supporters in these three states have asked for more opportunities to get involved with the climate advocacy group. In response, POW rolled out volunteer trainings that included presentations from local athletes, education on climate science, and partnerships with Northeast ski areas.
“POW has always had a presence in New England, but now we are doubling down,” says POW program manager Jake Black.
While POW has successfully mobilized Western ski resorts like Aspen Snowmass, Squaw Valley, and Alta/Snowbird to cut emissions and spread the word about climate policy, it’s now time to focus on the avid community in New England.
Why weatherproofing and waterparks aren't enough to save winter
With the moniker “The Ice Coast,” New England is well-versed in making the most of variable conditions. For example, Vermont’s Jay Peak Resort opened the Pump House in 2011, an indoor water park that ensures visitors had something to do in winter when skiing wasn’t a go. But waterparks are not the norm. In New England, weatherproofing—or bringing skiers to the mountain despite low snowfall—is synonymous with snowmaking. But that’s only possible at 28 degrees or lower.
Storm cycles followed by warm spells happen more frequently and unexpectedly. To recover, the majority of ski area operators are investing in energy-efficient snowguns to produce loads more of that white fluffy stuff and less emissions.
“We’re definitely dealing with climate change in the ski industry,” says Geoff Hatheway, president of Magic Mountain in Vermont. He’s working to transform Magic into a carbon-neutral operation with energy-efficient equipment and ultimately running off solar power. “We’ve got to protect ourselves and the sport we love by being ready to make more snow when we can.”
Yet, even when it’s done sustainably, it’s costly. Burakowski’s study shows snowmaking uses 50 percent of a mountain’s energy, with a steep price of $500,000 annually. Clearly, snowmaking is and always will be vital to the ski industry in the East, but when it comes to climate change, it’s not a silver bullet.
“Resorts can reduce emissions, but even if every resort in the world went 100 percent renewable tomorrow, it wouldn't make a dent in the global climate crisis,” Black says, adding that getting ski resorts to speak up about policies and leverage their power as big players in the local economy is the key to systemic change.
From Sunday River in Maine to Ragged Mountain Resort in New Hampshire, many have implemented robust sustainability programs, by decreasing energy use and hiring sustainability experts, but Burakowski urges them to think bigger and “bring science to the mountains.”
“Ski resorts should take the lead in starting the conversation with visitors,” says Burakowski. “It’s not an easy topic for them to talk about, but it’s a huge step forward to preserve winters for the long-term.”
POW aims to lay the rails for skiers and resorts to take action on local and national climate policies.
How the fight against climate change can unite the region’s winter sports industry
From outdoor retailers to resorts, everyone can relate to the struggle of dealing with volatile winters. Yet, some are more motivated to take bold action than others.
“We need to do anything and everything we can now. This isn’t a dress rehearsal,” says Chris James, co-founder of the retail store, and apparel and gear brand, Ski The East, based in Vermont. “Having an organization like POW proposing solutions to current climate issues is paramount for the longevity of our sport."
James commented that the brand’s followers have “piped up about the new wintertime realities we’re facing” and that having POW in the Northeast is “wicked awesome.”
In April of 2019, several Vermont ski resorts and outdoor brands joined POW in Montpelier for a lobby day, and Sugarbush Resort joined as a POW Resort Partner at its highest funding level. President and CEO Win Smith explained that this aligns them with their younger demographic and sets them up for the future.
“What appealed to me was that they advocate for the proper policies and educate guests about how they can get more involved,” says Smith. He also went to Washington, D.C. with POW for their legislative day last fall.
Killington Resort also became a resort partner this season. Events are in the works for Sugarloaf Mountain and Sunday River in Maine, as well as Cranmore and Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.
Vail Resorts, which owns eight New England ski mountains (including some of the big ones, like Stowe and Mount Snow) opted not to work with POW and focus on its Commitment to Zero pledge instead. A similar mission to POW, Commitment to Zero works towards a zero net operating footprint by 2030 across all 37 resorts, plus zero net operating impact to forests, and zero waste. According to Marjory Elwell, Vail Resorts’ corporate communications manager, they are also “part of a coalition to encourage lawmakers to pass bipartisan climate legislation.”
Across all three states, there’s a growing interest in POW. While many say they’re open to the possibility of collaboration, only a handful of ski areas have gotten involved. For Burakowski, this is an opportunity for growth. “There’s room for a lot more voices to step up.”