On a sunny day at Shawnee Peak, a family-sized mountain about an hour northwest of Portland, Maine, faithful early-season skiers carve their first turns on a good choice of trails thanks to the numerous snow-blowers going full tilt to cover the otherwise brown slopes. Ski patrol, in their tell-tale red jackets, say something’s changed about winter.
"We think about how long it takes to open the mountain, I mean because it’s just not cold enough to blow snow and get enough snow on the hill to be able to use," said Janet Davis.
Davis’ on-the-slope observations are backed up by a growing body of climate science that spells challenge for the sport: less natural snow, more rain and fewer days cold enough for snow making. A recently published report predicts that all the ski resorts in Massachusetts and Connecticut are likely to go out of business – or the skiing business, at least – within 20 to 30 years.
But it also finds that the ski mountains in Vermont, northern Maine and northern New Hampshire will likely survive into the next century.
"You know, this isn’t doom and gloom to all of the industry," said Daniel Scott, co-author of the study and director of University of Waterloo’s climate change center. "There are winners and losers in this."
Scott took a range of increasingly refined and site-specific temperature models and applied them to the economics of all the ski mountains in the northeast. And as he sought to divine their fates through the end of the century, he made one important assumption – that every ski resort would invest in the best available snow-making technology. Even with that, Scott’s death knell sounds for Sundown and Mohawk in Connecticut – likely out of business by 2039. In Massachusetts, Berkshire, Butternut, Bousquet and Jiminy are on the list. So are the southern-most New Hampshire mountains, and Maine’s Shawnee Peak.
"We didn’t see them able to sustain at least a 100-day ski season," Scott said. "And if that’s their main product, if they haven’t diversified their revenue streams into other activities – whether it be spas or whatever else – I couldn’t see them sustaining a purely ski business based on a reliable snow product."
Back at Shawnee’s base lodge, ski patrolwoman Dale Martin says she’s skeptical that climate change could make a significant dent in the resort’s future.
"Even though there’s perhaps some global warming happening, we’ll figure out a way to make that snow anyway," Martin said. "That’s what I feel. We’ve always adapted, we’ve always figured it out, and I know we will."
Many in the industry are wary of the scientists’ claims. Some question whether global warming is in fact occurring. All point to the industry’s long-term record of coping with ordinary weather variability and continued growth in skier visits. They are confident that technology improvements will allow snow to be made at higher temperatures and in ever-greater quantities.
Still, some like Jiminy Peak CEO Tyler Fairbank, do take climate change seriously.
"I just don’t want to get this one wrong," Fairbank said. "I don’t want to sit there in 30 years and go, ‘Darn, you know what? Those guys who were talking about global warming, they were right. We got it wrong, we should have paid attention.’ "
Fairbank does have faith in the snow making techno-fix. But he’s also expanding year-round offerings at his resorts. That’s been an aggressive industry trend the last five years – with golf courses, alpine slides, zip lines and even indoor water parks popping up on the hills.
"An increasingly balanced portfolio of revenue streams coming in that are both weather-based on non-weather-based," Fairbanks said. "When I look at these kinds of reports, do I take them too seriously and yell that the sky is falling? Not necessarily. I am certainly not going to go throw a ski resort on the blocks because of it."
But many areas may be on the blocks within the next few decades, according to Canadian scientist David Scott’s analysis. Yet for the northernmost New England resorts, it’s actually opportunity that may be knocking. The report finds that since they’re "altitude advantaged" they’ll make it, and could draw ski refugees from snow-starved southern New England.