Ski Industry Threatened by Long-term Climate Change, Vt. Report Warns

(NECN: Jack Thurston, Burlington, Vt.) - Vermont's average temperature is projected to rise by 2-3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and 5-5.4 degrees in the 50 years after that, according to a report said to be the first of its kind in the nation. The Vermont Climate Assessment, released Tuesday by the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, says climate change is driven mostly by human activity. The report notes the average temperature in Vermont has already increased by 1.3 degrees since 1960, almost half of that change in the past 25 years.

The UVM climate researchers said ski areas could actually see a benefit, because more precipitation is also falling. That will translate to more snow in the winter while it's still cold, said researcher Sam Carlson. "I believe we may be in a climate change ‘sweet spot,’" he said.

That's short-term, Carlson stressed. The worry is what happens decades from now, if winters continue to get warmer. "Over time, 40 years from now, more of that precipitation is going to fall as rain; that's obviously going to reduce the snow pack," Carlson added. "Snow will melt more quickly. That's going to threaten recreation tourism industries, whether it's skiing, snowmobiling, or ice fishing."

The Vermont report piggy-backs on the National Climate Assessment, which the White House presented in May. Its authors said they expect more states to produce state-specific reports down the road.

"We need to have information," said Vt. Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz, praising the report for providing tangible numbers and areas of impact that policy makers can point to in conversations about how to respond to future challenges climate change may present. "We need to have data to refer to that will help us make good choices for the future."

Win Smith, the principal owner of the Sugarbush Resort in Warren, said he is preparing for the future: investing in snowmaking technology if Mother Nature doesn't give enough. Snow guns are now far more efficient, Smith added, using less power and producing fewer emissions, while conserving water. "This season, we were able to produce a lot of snow early in the season, and that really helped make for a good season overall," Smith told New England Cable News.

Skiers and riders now spend more than $700-million a year in Vermont, according to the trade association Ski Vermont. The 2013-2014 ski season featured more than 4.5-million skier and rider visits to Vermont resorts and produced gains in rooms and meals tax revenues, Ski Vermont said.

Because of Vermont's dependence on tourism, how much snow falls in the Northeast, whether it's next winter or 40 winters from now, really matters to many, Smith acknowledged. "When there's not snow down in our main markets like Boston or New York, they don't believe there's snow up here," he said. "That's one of our greatest challenges."

Smith also said Sugarbush and other resorts have worked in recent years to diversify operations to boost business during summer months, which the Vermont Climate Assessment projected will be longer in the future. Sugarbush features a golf course, disc golf, mountain biking opportunities, and other draws during warm-weather months.

"It's something we really need to be aware of," said Andy Nash of the National Weather Service, describing climate trends.

The National Weather Service contributed to the report, and provided some of the info the UVM scholars used to look at climate change impacts. Those impacts go beyond skiing and tourism, to include agriculture, community development, energy consumption, and other areas. "How the climate is changing and warming, getting more extreme, really has an impact on all of us," Nash said.

The full Vermont Climate Assessment is available online. To learn more, follow this link.

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