NEWRY — A newly released study on the potential impact of global climate change on the snow-sports economy in Maine and New England is getting a chilly reception locally.
"Some years, it's chickens and some years it's feathers," said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. "As for the climate change thing, there's so many conflicting things out there, we certainly strongly believe in weather patterns."
The study, conducted by University of New Hampshire meteorological researchers and released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the nonprofit Protect Our Winters, highlights increasing frequencies of late openings and early closings of ski areas across the U.S. It also notes that snowmobile registrations in the U.S. have been essentially flat since 2000.
The study looks closely at each of the 38 states with snow sports and snow tourism industries.
"In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, snow is currency and climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons," the report warns in its executive summary. "This spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall."
Snow-sports tourism contributes more than $500 million to the state's economy each year.
Maine experts involved in snow tourism, including Meyers, don't deny climate change in happening. They aren't even skeptical of the science. It's simply that the range of outcomes are too uncertain and the details too variable to worry them, they said.
Cycles of weather
Coming off a dismal natural snow year in 2011-12, Meyers said he believes Maine has always seen cycles of very snowy to near-snowless winters.
"We've seen that over the past 50 years, where some years are good snow years and some years are not so good," he said. "And what we have seen in the past is when there is a poor snow year, it tends to be followed by a couple of good snow years. Whether it is some kind of long-term global warming or global cooling that's going on, who knows? The scientists will debate that forever."
One of those scientists, Elizabeth Burakowski, a UNH researcher and co-author of the global-warming report, helped brief reporters from across the country on its findings during a conference call Thursday.
"Change is already taking place on the slopes across the U.S.," Burakowski said. Some are suggesting that the winter of 2011-12 is just a sample of what the snow-tourism business in the U.S. has in store in the future, she said.
"The impact will be felt more keenly by some states than others," she said, noting that Maine was among the states that is likely to be affected more than others.
Using ski industry reported data and data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Burakowski said employment across the sector was down in 2011-12 by 6.3 percent or somewhere in the vicinity of 13,000 jobs compared to the previous year, which was an unusually snowy year.
The winter of 2011-12 was the fourthwarmest on record since 1896 and had the third-lowest snow cover since 1966 when satellites first began measuring that information, she said.
In a survey of more than 100 resorts nationwide last spring, 50 percent said they opened later than usual and 48 percent said they closed earlier, Burakowski said.
Losses total $800 million
The national economic impact of that reduced employment and reduced ski-area visits was estimated at more than $800 million.
"The impact of less snow and fewer people on the slopes is already apparent," Burakowski said. "Unfortunately, it may get worse from here as the report notes, absent intervention, average winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow-cover area, snowfall and a shorter snow season."
But how that shakes out state by state is difficult to assess. Last year, for example, Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry had its second-best ticket sales season on record, spokeswoman Darcy Morse said.
Some of that increased revenue was a result of weather events that prevented some ski areas from opening earlier, including an August tropical storm that devastated parts of Vermont's ski country with flooding and erosion.
"That scenario applied again in the spring, when there were a number of international student groups booked in Vermont and New York," Morse said. "And it was too warm for certain resorts to make snow or they didn't have enough snow already made, so those groups then came to Sunday River."
Maine's three biggest ski resorts — Saddleback, Sugarloaf and Sunday River — all took the unusual step, after a stretch of weather that saw summer-like temperatures, of firing up their snow-making systems in late March.
Both Morse and Meyers said their industries have long been committed to doing their part to help reduce carbon emissions. The snowmobile industry has worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to produce low-emission machines and increase efficiency in recent years, Meyers said.
Resorts, including those in Maine, have continually updated their snow-making systems for efficiency. This year, Sunday River and Sugarloaf, with the help of Efficiency Maine grants totaling $600,000, each added $1 million of new snow-making guns that can make more snow more quickly while using less compressed air.
The cost of compressed air, which requires large amounts of electricity, is often the second- or third-largest annual expense for resorts, behind labor and insurance, Morse said.
Ethan Austin, a spokesman for Sugarloaf Mountain resort in Carrabassett Valley, said Maine ski areas have long been committed to doing what's best for the environment, especially when it makes smart business sense.
Austin and Morse, along with others in the ski industry in Maine and across the country, listened in Thursday to the briefing with the report's authors and sponsors.
Austin said he didn't hear a lot about what resorts are already doing, strategies they have developed and investments they've made to help limit some of the effects of climate change.
Good for the climate, good for business
"A lot of the actions that you take to mitigate climate are good business decisions, anyway," Austin said. "Investing in these low-energy snow guns is good. It reduces our carbon footprint, it reduces the energy we use and it reduces our costs to make the same amount of snow, and we can make even more snow using less energy than we did before."
He said the competition in the ski business is tight and every resort is looking to find those kinds of savings and benefits.
"The goal going forward is to find other areas where we can make similar investments that are that same kind of win-win situation," Austin said.
During the conference call Thursday, Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability with the Colorado-based Aspen Ski Company, said it's all well and good that resorts are doing their parts to reduce emissions and lower their impacts on the environment, but they must become more vocal in their advocacy for congressional action on climate change.
"The ski and snowboard industry has known for years that climate change threatens the existence of the business," Schendler said. "This data suggests there is a monetized risk and the solution should be for the ski industry leaders and trade group leaders to get off their asses and move as if this were an existential threat to the business, which is what it is."
Schendler said industry leaders must motivate and mobilize their colleagues and patrons to become climate-change activists. He hopes the effect of this latest report will be to motivate the 21 million Americans who participate in snow sports each winter.
The goal needs to be " . . . using this incredibly passionate base of enthusiasts in the winter sports world to drive the critical policy change so that we can ski for the next 100 years," Schendler said.