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Winterless Wonderland: Help Protect New England’s Winters

John Kassel  /  January 17, 2012  /  4 Min Read  /  Activism, Snow

In the mid-1990’s a Vermont ski area executive told me this joke.

“How do you make a small fortune in the ski industry in New England?” he asked.

“Start with a large one.”

He was talking about the challenges he faced then, which seemed normal at the time:  limited water for snowmaking, labor shortages, skyrocketing costs of doing business, aging baby boomer population, and inconsistent (though generally reliable) snowfall. The snow sports industry now faces a much more fundamental challenge: a shrinking winter.

[John Kassel, his brother Peter Kassel, and Peter’s dog Bear (Bear is the one in the middle) on a New Year’s Day hike up Vermont’s Camel’s Hump. Note the extremely thin snow cover – unusual for the Green Mountains at that time of year. Photo courtesy of John Kassel]

But for a recent cold snap, a light dusting on MLK day and a destructive storm in October our winter here in New England has been largely without snow. The temperature has been high – in many instances, far higher than normal.

Consider recent temperature trends as reported by @JustinNOAA – the Twitter feed by NOAA’s Communications Director. On Friday, December 9th, he Tweeted: “NOAA: 971 hi-temp records broken (744) or tied (227) so far this January.” The day before broke “336 hi-temp records in 21 states.”

Rising temperatures are a death knell for falling snow. On the final day of 2011, only 22% of the lower 48 had snow. Today, New England remains largely untouched by snow. A glance at NOAA’s snow depth map shows most of New England with 4 or less inches of snow. This was true of my New Year’s hike with my brother and his dog up Camel’s Hump. As the background of the photo shows, there was little snow across the surrounding Green Mountains.

With so little snow, New England is suffering. While ski mountains have been making snow (and areas like Sugarloaf and Stowe are reporting recent snow fall), other outdoor recreationists are suffering. Some seasons haven’t even started yet, weeks if not months into their normal season.

Snowmobilers, for instance, are facing one hell of a tough time. With so little snow in most of New England, they’ve been prevented from riding over familiar terrain. Ice fishermen, too, are facing lakes and ponds that, by this time of year are usually covered in a thick layer of ice by mid December. Today, many that are usually frozen by now remain open bodies of water.

The effects of this extends beyond our enjoyment to our economy. According to a story on NPR, reported by Maine Public Broadcasting, the unseasonably warm winter has meant millions of dollars in lost revenue for sporting good stores, lodging, and recreation. One store in the story has reported a decline in sales by around 50%.

Competitive cross-country and downhill skiers suffered, too. They’ve have had their race schedule reshuffled due to rain last week. According to the US Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish, quoted in the Boston Globe, “We’ve had the same challenges on the World Cup. It is always a challenge in a sport that relies on the climate.”

That is precisely the problem. People are drawn to New England to live, work and play for its climate: its warm summers, stunning falls and picture perfect winter landscapes, suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities. Walk down the halls of our states offices and you’ll see signs of that passion right here at home: people wearing ski vests, pictures of people snow shoeing, cabins nestled into densely fallen snow. If our climate changes – which the IPCC and others have repeatedly demonstrated it will – then New England will not a very different region than the one we all have come to know and to love.

That’s why I ask you to help us protect our New England winters. Help us protect the places where we enjoy ourselves.

To do just that, I suggest a few things:

  1. Help us transition away from inefficient, 20th century energy to clean energy of the 21st century. As a recent EPA report showed, power plants account for 72% of greenhouse gases – by far the largest contributor to global warming in the U.S. Here at CLF, we’re pushing for a coal-free New England by 2020.
  2. Also according to the EPA, transportation accounts for the second largest portion of greenhouse gasses. Ride your bike, walk, or take public transportation to work, to do your errands or your other daily tasks. It makes a big difference.
  3. Support both national and regional or local environmental organizations. As I wrote in a NY Times letter to the editor recently, local environmental organizations “have known for years what the nationals are only now realizing: we’ve got to engage people closer to where they live.” Support local, effective environmental organizations who are creating lasting solutions in your area.
  4. Make yourself heard; write letters to your Senators, Congressmen and Representatives. Ask tough questions, and don’t settle for easy answers.
  5. And be sure to get outside. Plant a garden, even if it’s a small one in a city. Go for a hike, or for a bike ride. And take a friend or family member. Remind yourself and others why we need to protect our environment.

By doing all of these simple but important things, you can help us keep winter, winter.

John Kassel is the president of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). Since 1966, CLF has been working to find pragmatic, innovative solutions to New England’s toughest environmental problems to make it a better place to live, work, and play.

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