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Ski days may melt away

New York's multimillion dollar ski industry could lose half its season to ongoing climate change by mid-century, according to a recent federal report.

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, Albany Times

New York's multimillion dollar ski industry could lose half its season to ongoing climate change by mid-century, according to a recent federal report.

In a study of nearly 250 ski resorts across the U.S., projections call for "virtually all locations" to see their seasons decline dramatically as natural snowfall declines and warming temperatures diminish conditions needed for machine-made snow.

Estimates in the study, released last fall by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Colorado, appear grim for people who like winter recreation and those who make their living from it.

The changing face of winter will come at a cost to the winter recreation business in New York and other states. Currently, downhill skiing is a $300 million-a-year industry in New York drawing more than 3.6 million visits annually, according to the report.

With shorter winters and less snow, and less cold that allows snow guns to be used, that could drop to $130 million or less by 2050, with only about 1.3 million visits.

"In the past, we would make snow on the main trails and move on, occasionally touching up where need be," said Scott Brandi, president of Ski Areas of New York Inc., a trade association that represents about 35 of the state's largest ski areas.

"These days it seems we are forever having to go back to hit trails we finished again and again, not to touch up but in some cases to start all over again." He said the industry has to keep investing in snowmaking equipment, calling the quest to make snow when nature won't "not a choice, but a necessity."

For example, Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondack High Peaks, which had an anemic ski season of 59 days in 2011 (the baseline year for the study) could see that shrink to 21 days by 2050, according to the report. That is based on climate models that reflect declining global levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Higher elevation resorts, like Killington Ski Area in Vermont, which normally is one of the first in the Northeast to open and the last to close in the spring, will fare a bit better. With a fairly robust 133-day season in 2011, Killington still could have 55 days by 2050.

In the nearby Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, the Jiminy Peak Ski Resort, which had 76 days of skiing in 2011, could see that drop to 32 days by mid-century.

Resorts at lower elevations could be hit the hardest. The Belleayre Ski Area in the Catkills, which had a 2011 season of just 25 days, could see that drop to 3 by 2050, essentially rendering the area no longer capable of supporting a resort.

Ski resorts in Windham (44 days in 2011) and Hunter (80 days in 2011), also in the Catskills, would fare a bit better, seeing their seasons decline by mid-century to 20 days and 38 days, respectively.

The study also modeled another scenario where global greenhouse gas emissions continue climbing through 2040 and beyond until 2090. Under that, Killington would have only 11 days of potential skiing by 2090; all the other resorts in the region would have less _ or none.

The difference between the two greenhouse gas emission scenarios "represent the difference between preserving skiing and snowmobiling in the eastern half of the country, and losing these activities almost completely by 2090," according to the report.

"Large components of the winter recreation industry will face challenges without reliable access to snow," the report continued. "This could threaten tens of millions of current annual recreational visits."

Ski resorts need a sustained temperature of 28 degrees or less to make snow, and the start of that kind of cold weather will continue to come later in the year, potentially endangering the Christmas and New Year's holidays, which is critical for resorts to be profitable, the report predicted.

On the other end of the season, the earlier arrival of spring temperatures pose a similar threat to skiing on Spring Break, which is also financially important to the industry.

The state Olympic Regional Development Authority operates three ski mountains, including Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre.

Asked about the implications of the study, ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin said the state is moving to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the resorts by using more renewable energy and more efficient snow-making equipment.

"We are committed towards reducing our impact on the climate and ensuring that skiing and riding remains for generations to come," said Lundin.

The EPA report paints an even bleaker picture for cross-country skiing, which relies on natural snow.

In Rensselaer County, Walter Kirsch, owner of the Pine Ridge Cross-Country Ski Center in Poestenkill, who needs snow to cover his 35 kilometers of trails. He has been dealing with the consequences of an unpredictable, fading winter in recent years.

Last week, a burst of 60-degree weather wiped out all his snow cover and "we lost the Martin Luther King weekend, which is our biggest weekend of the year," said Kirsch.

He has about given up on selling skis and snowshoes, since people who come to look usually end up buying online anyway. A lifelong cross-country skier himself, Kirsch questioned whether it is even worth it for someone to buy their own ski gear anymore, if the number of potential outings continues to decrease. "People who don't go out as much may as well just rent," he said.

Over at Alpin Haus, which for decades has been selling skis and other winter recreational gear, sales of cold-weather jackets, gloves and hats this year is surpassing the sales of ski equipment, said Jamie Georgelos, manager of the company's ski division.

"People are trying to stay warm during this cold snap," said Georgelos.

The study was published in May in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Global Environmental Change.

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