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Ski resorts no longer trust there will be reliable snowfall in warming climate

DON GONYEA, HOST:

You may have seen those pictures of the massive snowmaking effort China put on to host the Winter Olympics on normally desert mountains. Well, it's not just China. A changing climate is keeping snow from mountain resorts here in North America more often. And as North Country Public Radio's Ryan Finnerty reports, the ski industry is adapting.

RYAN FINNERTY, BYLINE: Back in December, much of the U.S. went through a winter heatwave. Temperatures in New York's Adirondack Mountains rose into the 50s. It reached 62 degrees in Vermont. A few weeks later, the temperature at the base of New York's Whiteface Mountain was still hovering around freezing. Outside the lodge, melting icicles hinted at the elevated mercury. This is often the reality for modern ski resorts. Natural snowfall is less consistent, and temperatures aren't as reliably cold as they once were. That's made artificial snowmaking essential to keeping mountains open.

WILLY YOUNG: Those guys that are snow makers deserve a lot of credit.

FINNERTY: Sixty-year-old Willy Young of Plattsburgh, N.Y., has been skiing here for more than 50 years. We met on the ski lift, and he says snowmaking crews are what keeps the mountain open throughout the winter.

YOUNG: If they don't groom it, they don't make it, they don't blow it, we have nothing to ski on but rocks.

FINNERTY: Riding the chair over white trails lined with snow guns, we cross a run that only has natural snow. It's closed off, with patches of grass and rock clearly visible.

AARON KELLETT: We can't rely on natural snow anymore. It's just too unpredictable, too unreliable, and it hasn't been happening much the past couple years.

FINNERTY: Aaron Kellett is the general manager of Whiteface. He says the resort has to be able to make its own winter precipitation.

KELLETT: When Mother Nature does cooperate with cold, we need to be able to capitalize on that to get our mountain open, get skiers.

FINNERTY: Mountains around North America are now having to consider those kind of investments. Win Smith owned Sugarbush Resort in Vermont for two decades. He says in many cases, resorts in the Northeast are ahead of their Rocky Mountain counterparts in expanding snowmaking.

WIN SMITH: They really had to be because, you know, we're at a lower elevation. We have events that you don't have out West, like the rain, freeze, thaw events.

FINNERTY: But over the past 40 years, snow droughts in the western U.S. have become longer and more intense. Large, profitable resorts may have the money to expand snowmaking, but Smith says smaller, independent mountains operating on thin margins with aging equipment...

SMITH: Those are the ones that I think are going to be more challenged.

FINNERTY: Adaptations like snowmaking will keep many resorts viable for some years to come. But University of New Hampshire climate researcher Elizabeth Burakowski says if warming trends continue, there will be a tipping point.

ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: We are going to see a threshold crossed where making snow is not even going to be an option because the temperature is simply going to be above freezing.

FINNERTY: Burakowski says more southerly or low-elevation ski areas in places like Pennsylvania will cross the threshold much sooner, and eventually even snowmaking won't be able to compensate.

BURAKOWSKI: But in the future, we're going to be seeing more nights that are above freezing and that you can't even operate the machinery in a way that makes sense for energy efficiency or cost-benefit analysis.

FINNERTY: Part of that challenge will be economic. Nationwide, the winter sports industry generates an estimated 190,000 jobs and $7 billion in wages, often in rural communities with limited opportunities. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Finnerty in Lake Placid, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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