Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg has been around since the 1940s, but the small ski area didn’t open at all last winter, and has yet to host any customers this winter.
The culprit: Not enough snow.
“This is the first time we’ve had back-to-back tough winters,” said Jeremiah Greco, the marketing manager at Hickory. With no snowmaking equipment, the ski center relies entirely on natural snow.
The lack of snow this winter is a problem for downhill skiers and snowboarders, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers — the sort of problem that may only worsen over the next few decades because of higher average winter temperatures attributed to global climate change.
The average U.S. temperature is up 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, with more than half of the increase occurring since 1979, according to the Accuweather weather service.
“There’s no doubt about it. We are going upward,” said Brett Anderson, a meteorologist at Accuweather in State College, Pa.
In the Northeast, the winter of 2011-2012 was so unusually mild and snowless that even the biggest Adirondack ski areas closed early for the season. This winter, a return of more typically cold temperatures hasn’t been accompanied by the hoped-for level of natural white precipitation.
Hickory, a small ski area with a gorgeous view of the winding Hudson River, has never installed snowmaking equipment. But with the weather trend, it is now making plans to do it, Greco said.
Twenty miles to the northwest, the state-run Gore Mountain Ski Resort in North Creek has dramatically upgraded its snowmaking abilities in the past couple of years, in part to meet the challenge of climate change.
“We can make snow quickly when the weather is cooperating, and we can recover quickly when it doesn’t,” said Gore spokeswoman Emily Stanton.
The winter sports industry depends on snow — and on people who live in cities and suburbs seeing it in their backyards, ideally. But they need snow on their slopes, or at least cold-enough temperatures to allow artificial snowmaking.
Nationally, the ski and snowmobile industries are estimated to be worth $12.2 billion in economic activity each year — and they are vital to the winter economies of Adirondack communities like Warrensburg and North Creek.
Warming weather threatens that.
In a report released late last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Save Our Winters, organizations devoted to fighting to stop climate change, said the warming trend “spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent on predictable, heavy snowfall.”
Individual ski businesses are adjusting to deal with the changing climate. Gore installed 160 high-capacity snow guns and new snowmaking towers in 2011. But part of the problem in 2011-2012 was that temperatures were often too warm to allow snowmaking.
“We’re not even going to compare last winter to this winter,” said Stanton. “This year we’ve been able to make snow on all the trails where we have the capacity.”
Hickory Ski Center, meanwhile, has prided itself on being a small area with an old-time feel. But to survive, it is looking at spending the millions of dollars it would take to provide its own snowmaking.
“It’s become generally accepted throughout the Northeast that you have to have snowmaking,” Greco said, noting that a trend of less snow — and thinner snow bases — is being seen throughout the ski industry.
For this season, Hickory is “holding out hope for a good later February and March,” Greco said. “Historically, March is a big snow month for the Northeast.”
It was a disappointment when the Feb. 8 storm known in some circles as Winter Storm Nemo — which brought blizzard snows to Long Island and eastern New England — dropped only a few inches from the Capital Region on north.
“Not being able to open is a challenge right now. We’re just asking our skiers to hold out hope,” Greco said.
Open ski areas have another problem — convincing people that they have quality skiing available, even if the snow in places like the Capital Region is patchy to non-existent.
Stanton said Gore, which is run by the Olympic Regional Development Authority, is using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to try to get the message out, as well as more traditional advertising outlets such as newspapers and television. Trail reports on Gore’s website are updated multiple times per day.
“It’s a challenge for anyone in the ski industry,” Stanton said. “We have the product ready to go, and we have to reach the mindset of people. It’s definitely been a challenge, but our best advertising is the word-of-mouth of our skiers.”
Ski areas look to compensate by increasing activity at other times of year, hosting mountain biking and community festivals in the summer, and perhaps offering gondola rides to scenic mountaintops during the fall foliage season, as Gore does.
Meteorologist Anderson, at Accuweather, said national data shows that overall snow coverage in the United States declined from 1966 through 1992, but there isn’t a clear trend one way or the other since then.
But there’s every reason to think warmer temperatures will lead to fewer days each winter with snow on the ground, he acknowledged.
“What research suggests is that the length of days we have snow on the ground is going to diminish over the next couple of decades,” Anderson said.
The Associated Press reported last week that soon-to-be-published climate studies conclude that the Northern Hemisphere could see less snowfall in the future as weather warms, but more blizzard-type storms, because warmer air can hold more moisture and more energy.
“Shorter snow season, less snow overall, but the occasional knockout punch,” Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer told the AP. “That’s the new world we live in.”
While ski areas can deal with erratic natural snowfalls by making snow, the lack of deep natural snow is a bigger problem for snowmobilers. The machines generally need a foot of snow for safe operation.
The New York State Snowmobile Association estimates snowmobiling is an $868 million activity each year in the state, with people traveling significant distances to find good snow conditions.
“We depend on Mother Nature and the good will of landowners who let us use their trails,” said Dominic Jacangelo, the association’s executive director.
He said there are good conditions in parts of the Adirondacks.
“We’ve had more lake-effect snow this year, and that was totally missing last year,” Jacangelo said. “I was up in the Moose River Plains-Long Lake area last weekend, and riding was not bad at all.”
Storms that in recent years have brought rain to the Capital Region often bring snow to the Adirondacks, he said, and the Lake Ontario lake effect snows that can bury the Tug Hill Plateau often extend into the central Adirondacks.
There are about 105,000 snowmobiles registered in New York state this winter — about an 18 percent increase from last winter, which saw a major drop from 2010-2011’s heavy snow year.
Closer to the Capital Region, it’s been a tough winter for casual cross-country skiing. Commercial cross-country ski centers at high altitudes — like Lapland Lakes in Benson and Garnet Hill Lodge in North River — have snow, but free places to ski like Saratoga Spa State Park, the Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater and Indian Meadows Park in Glenville have had only a handful of days when skiing was possible.
The Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park last week postponed an annual moonlight ski scheduled for Saturday until Saturday, March 23. The event had originally been scheduled for January, but there wasn’t enough snow then, either.
“There are just too many bare and icy spots to run a nighttime trail event safely,” said Margo Olson, the preserve’s executive director.