Rising Temperatures Could Ring the Death Knell of Snow-related Activities in US
by Medindia Content Team
January 15, 2008 at 12:20 PM
Global warming is having a perceptible impact in certain parts of the US. Snow-related sports and agriculture face serious decline, it is feared.
Since 1970, average winter temperatures in New England have increased 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit. In the U.S., 2006 was the warmest year on record, and 1998 is number two. The last eight five-year periods were the warmest since the practice of keeping national records began 112 years ago.
During the past 25 to 30 years, says the National Climatic Data Center, the warming trend has accelerated, from just over a tenth of one degree Fahrenheit per decade to almost a third of a degree.
By the end of the century, temperatures in the Northeastern states are likely to rise by eight to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (at which time snow-covered days will have been reduced to half of what we traditionally experience), warns Jim Motavalli, an environmentalist.
A 2007 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the Northeast predicted that, under some higher-emission scenarios, "Only western Maine is projected to retain a reliable ski season by the end of the century, and only northern New Hampshire would support a snowmobiling season longer than two months." Warmer weather and changing precipitation will result in a fundamental change to winter recreation and what the report called "the winter landscape."
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment said in 2004 that Arctic temperatures are now rising at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit on average over the next 100 years), reducing sea ice and melting frozen soils.
It's been widely reported that Alaska's polar bears are probably doomed by 2050, but the scale of this climatic shift will likely do much more -- completely changing the culture of the Arctic region.
Obviously, global warming science is complex and hardly monolithic -- some parts of the world continue to experience very cold temperatures and record snowfalls, just as the climate models say they will.
But the overwhelming trend is clear: it's getting warmer, and winter is losing force, intensity and duration, changing America's ingrained habits in the process. If you've ever enjoyed ice skating, sledding, skiing, snowboarding or building a snowman, you should know that the future of these enshrined institutions is by no means guaranteed.
The Boston Globe recently reported on the closing of Kingdom Cat, a dealership in northerly Island Pond, the "snowmobile capital of Vermont." After several years of little snow and 30 machines left in inventory, owner Bob Halpin decided to call it a day. "The winters have gotten progressively worse," he said. "We decided to cut our losses."
The closing of a northern Vermont snowmobile dealership is hardly an isolated incident. In 2006, major snowmobile manufacturer Polaris had 40 percent lower sales than in 2005. In the U.S., sales for the fiscal year ending last March 31 were down 12 percent from the previous year, reports the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) in Michigan. Total sales of 79,814 in 2006 contrasted sharply with the 170,325 sold in 1997.
New Hampshire winters warmed 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, and snowmaking alone hasn't saved the day, especially for the low-lying family facilities. The surviving resorts, Brown says, are larger, tend to be corporate owned, and are located at higher elevations.
To stay in business, the resorts have also diversified from skiing. "They've been very successful at adapting to changing climate patterns, which means year-round activities," Brown says. "That's why you get the water parks, conference centers and condos. There are only so many good skiing days now. The resorts get 30 percent of their skiing revenue from just 10 percent of available days."
On a recent fall day, the lower slopes at Bromley Mountain in southern Vermont looked more like an amusement park than a ski area. It's now known as "Vermont's sun and fun park," with a "Thrill Zone" (alpine slide, miniature golf, climbing wall, bumper boats and an adrenaline-pumping zipline) helping generate revenues well into September.
To lure people in, they host bluegrass concerts, magic shows and even ventriloquists. Like most state ski resorts, Bromley has had to reinvent itself as a summer destination, and the strategy is working. Skiing attendance (which peaked in the mid-80s) is now at 120,000 annually, but an additional 55,000 to 70,000 come for fair weather fun.
The Northwestern glaciers once described as "America's Alps" have lost 30 percent of their size in the last century. All of the North Cascades glaciers are receding. "As diehard skiers and snowboarders, we think winter is already too short," said Sustainable Summits, a group of lodge owners in a recent appeal to Congress to do something about global warming.
Analysts are worried about the fate of ski resorts at lower elevations, which stand to experience considerably less snow than their counterparts in, say, the Colorado mountains. Since it was announced in 2000, 184 ski areas around the country (collectively a $5 billion annual business) adopted the Environmental Charter to raise policymaker awareness of the "dependence of winter sports on natural ecosystems," to call for greenhouse gas reductions, and to support science-based solutions to climate change.
At Aspen Skiing Company, operators say temperatures have gone up so much that their snowmaking machines are operating at the limit -- another degree or two warmer and they'd be unable to produce it at all.
To counter warming winters, Aspen has inaugurated environmental reforms -- using biodiesel fuel in its snow cats, running Coke machine compressors on motion detectors, using local ponds as thermal exchangers in place of air conditioning, contributing to the Aspen Valley Land Trust to preserve open space.
In Europe, vulnerable ski runs on Swiss and Austrian glaciers are being wrapped with $70,000-a-sheet strips of white fleece the size of football fields, and some ski areas are being "repurposed" as mountain biking destinations. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) and the UN have both reported that the Alps are the mountains most severely affected by global warming.
The EEA says that 75 percent of the Swiss Alps' glaciers will be gone by 2050. Turin, Italy hosted the Winter Olympics in 1996, but the ongoing loss of snow cover makes it an open question if it will ever host another.
Even the maple syrup seems to have fallen on bad days. Maple syrup is a sweetener made from the sap of maple trees and freezing nights and warm days are needed in order to induce sap flows.
Richard Lockerby, who has been making maple syrup his whole life said that in 2007 Vermont went through a very long summer, which helped ski areas bring in seasonal tourists but may augur another slow year for syrup. "The dryness affects the maple trees, because if they don't take moisture in they can't let it out later as sap," Lockerby says.
The warming changes already visible are, to cite a particularly apt cliché, "the tip of the iceberg." In the next few decades, global warming will be shaped by many different factors, with relatively unpredictable results. But the scientific consensus is near-unanimous that the loss of predictable and comforting winter patterns will be a major consequence, stresses Motavalli.
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