Monday, April 30, 2012

Slush Pile: Whiteface Skiing and Climate Change

What follows is a guest essay by Kirsten L. Goranowski, a 2012 graduate of Paul Smith’s College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies. This is part of our series of essays by young people from Paul Smith’s College.

It was a rainy wait for the Face Lift chairlift at the base of Whiteface Mountain on March 9th. I overheard a woman complain to her husband about the unpleasant weather. There was mention of an alternative plan for the day. I myself contemplated an alternative, yet I had bought a season pass and still had to get my money’s worth. Winter of 2010-2011 was the first time I picked up the sport of snowboarding, and I’m now questioning whether any of it was a worthwhile investment.
Last year, snow didn’t stop falling until early May. Although this past winter’s warming could be a result of the Arctic Oscillation, which in its positive phase has favored warm weather for the Eastern U.S., global climate change could also be factored into the equation. Even in my mere 22 years, I have witnessed a decrease in the amount of snowfall throughout the winter months. There is no denying that this past winter has been significantly warmer than last winter, and it was especially surprising to see such a mild winter in the Adirondacks.

This past March marked the warmest March on record for the contiguous United States, based on records that date back to 1895. The average temperature was recorded at 51.1°F, which is 8.9 degrees above the March average in the 20th Century, and more than 15,000 warm temperature records were broken. Various technological advances including the use of satellites have enabled scientists to accurately develop the overall picture of our Earth’s temperature history, and global temperature has indisputably continued to rise above natural levels. For 650,000 years CO2 had never risen above 300 parts per million in the atmosphere, until the start of the Industrial Revolution. Apart from scientific studies, there is physical evidence of rapid climate change: sea level rises, shrinking ice sheets, and an increase in extreme weather events.

New York State in 2011 published a report that responds to climate change on a statewide level. It projects that temperature and precipitation will increase across the state, anywhere between 4.0 degrees and 9.0 degrees by the 2080’s, with a 15 percent increase in precipitation. Increasing temperatures along with increasing precipitation will result in heavy downpours, dramatically impacting winter skiing conditions. In the Adirondack region, there will be a loss in high-elevation plants, animals, and ecosystem types, as well as a decline in winter recreation.

Since the Adirondack region relies on tourism, there are many questions concerning how local business will be affected. This leads me to predict that even the top ski resort of Whiteface Mountain will eventually have a significant decline in overall economic stability. But do Whiteface operators take into account the possible negative impacts that climate change would have on business? Through email, I contacted the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority Public Relations Coordinator Jon Lundin for answers.

Comparing this past skiing season with previous seasons he said, “It’s no secret that this past season was a struggle. While Whiteface didn’t have the same number of trails open that it had last season, the skiing was still excellent…this season was about the quality, not the quantity.” And if conditions were not ideal, he said that even with the continued recession, families wanted to get away for the weekend, as the destination of Lake Placid is “much easier and affordable to drive to a destination, rather than fly.”

However, when asking a friend how he would describe this past winter’s skiing conditions at Whiteface I received a different answer: “The skiing this year was pretty rough. For us there was really only one good day of skiing….It rained more than snowed so the conditions were usually icy.” My friend, who is an avid skier, estimated that he went to Whiteface around 10 weekends out of the entire winter. I also found conditions icy and became hesitant to head to the mountain because of it. Although Lundin reiterated, “Skiing was excellent,” I would disagree.

So how did this season compare with last? Taking into account all of ORDA’s venues, Lundin stated there was about a 12% drop in visitors compared to 2010-11, and in 2010-11 there was an increase of 11% in visitors when compared with the 2009-10 season, somewhat stable. With the closing of Whiteface on March 25th (about two weeks earlier than anticipated), this offered 129 days of skiing. When asked if Whiteface has any familiarity with long-range climate predictions, or how information is obtained, Lundin replied, “To be honest with you, Whiteface follows the same models that several other ski resorts use.” However, I was left curious as to what these sources are.

With mild winters in the Adirondacks becoming more evident, I wonder what these poor season conditions might mean for local communities. Lundin admitted, “Fewer guests, fewer skiers.” However, Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain area are unique, he explained. “Whiteface/Lake Placid has been selected #1 by readers of SKI Magazine for off-hill activities available to our guests including bobsled and skeleton rides, touring of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic venues, taking in world-class shows or sporting events, dining, and of course strolling and shopping down one of the most unique main streets in the Northeast.” Although there are activities available off the slopes, Whiteface Mountain and the winter activities on the slopes are arguably vital for the overall economy of Lake Placid.

According to Jerry Jenkins, from his recently published book Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability, “Winter recreation dominates the Adirondack winter economy. No town can really prosper without a year-round economy, and no Adirondack town can have a year-round economy without winter recreation.” Having an increased unpredictability in weather due to climate change will result in shortened winters that will decrease the events available, number of visitors, and quite possibly an overall decreased interest in the area. Less enjoyment of outside activities such as bobsled or skeleton rides, and the use of Mirror Lake for dog-sled rides or hockey could lead to economic downfall. Conditions that are not ideal at Whiteface Mountain may result in increased business in off-slope activities. Even though climate change is not much of a strong trend so far in the Adirondacks, Jenkins says that Western Massachusetts is an example of what is happening as a result of climate change: a decrease in snowfall, as well as a decreased interest in winter sports.

“Compared to 30 years ago, the Adirondacks are warmer and wetter. Springs and falls are longer, winters shorter and warmer. The changes are not big, but they have come quickly,” writes Jerry Jenkins. So wouldn’t it be logical to think about the projected future trends and how Whiteface may be affected if warming trends continue? Lundin e-mailed, “We may be getting a little ahead of ourselves with this question. Following the 2004-05 season in which there was 143 inches of natural snowfall, the next skiing and riding season, 2005-06 saw 202 inches of snow, while the 2006-07 featured 263 inches of natural snowfall. The 2007-08 season received 255 inches of natural snowfall that year.” Over a ten-year period Whiteface Mountain averages about 195 inches of natural snowfall, but is he really considering the effects that climate change will have in, say, 50 to 100 years? Those are the trends I am more interested in.

Lundin says that if warming trends continue, Whiteface operators are working on a plan to cope that would emphasize “off-hill activities that make Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain entirely unique to other ski destinations in the Northeast.” This past season Lundin said that more snow was made than last year. But I wonder if the economy will be able to withstand the possibility that snowmaking might become impossible in the future. Right now Lundin may be relying too much on hope: “…[W]inters like the one we just experienced have been followed by abundant snowfall the next. Let’s hope that trend continues.” But what happens if that trend doesn’t continue? The Adirondack Energy and Green House Gas Inventory published in April 2009 states:

Winter recreation is another major component of the economic value of the state’s natural ecosystems. New York has more ski areas than any other state, hosting an average of 4 million visitors each year, contributing $1 billion to the state’s economy, and employing 10,000 people. New York is also part of a six-state network of snowmobile trails that totals 40,500 miles and contributes $3 billion each year to the Northeast regional economy. Shorter, warmer winters and reduced snowpack will have significant negative impacts on winter recreation in the state and the region.

Whiteface may be the highest ski resort in the Northeast, with a true-up vertical descent of 3,216 feet, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will endure. And although the Lake Placid area may offer a lot of off-hill activities, what would it mean for its local economy if summer events became its primary revenue? Whether Whiteface would like to admit it, warmer conditions will make way for precipitation that is dominated by more rainfall than snowfall. Imagine tourists who have the money to decide between a winter vacation in Lake Placid or in the Rockies no longer choosing Lake Placid.

I witnessed the effects of elevation on that last trip on March 9. It was raining at the base, and as I ascended the Face Lift chairlift the rain proceeded to turn to sleet, and then into snow at the top of the lower mountain. Conditions were slushy and some spots bare, with a rock gouging my board quite nicely. Every time I went to the bottom during the morning, it was raining. Certainly not the conditions one would have hoped for after investing in a season pass, board, boots, bindings, and snowboarding apparel.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

7 Responses

  1. Joe McAvoy says:

    Gee Kristen… I’m sorry you had such a bad season at Whiteface this year.

    I guess I did too. I only skied 66 days after skiing 84 days the previous season. But, I’ve been skiing 56 years, some wonderful & some not so.

    Keep with it, each “bad” day will give you some fun too.

  2. Tom Beardsley says:

    Great article, nicely researched and noted. As you pointed out, it’s difficult to see a dramatic change with just one season, but the long term trend sure seems to portend more seasons like this past.
    Your experience at Whiteface, of course, is simply illustrative – I understand that. The entire story, however, indicates changes are inevitable. NPR stories this morning spoke of coastal changes in Indonesia. We hear of South Pacific countries which may disappear, high tides in the gulf becoming higher and ocean currents beginning to change.
    Knowledge gives us the power to react. Acceptance gives us the reason. Keep up the work.

  3. Hope Frenette says:

    Although I didn’t get to actually ski Whiteface until March of this year, when I did the conditions of the open trails were excellent spring skiing conditions. That being, said the conditions in March were like typical April conditions that I’m used too. It was disappointing to me that the season was cut so short as I enjoy the spring skiing the best at Whiteface.

  4. Thanks for the interesting, well-researched article. A couple thoughts:

    Although the evidence of accelerated climate change is nearly indisputable, the mild winter of 2011-12 was a function of weather (specifically the positive AO phase you mentioned), not global warming.

    The winter of 2011-12 may provide an example of what skiing may be like in the Adirondacks 50-75 years from now, but is it fair to ask a business manager for specific adaptations they will make to their business model a half century from now?

    The winter of 2011-12 may have provided a good “shock test” of adaptations ski areas may need to implement in the face of future mild winters, regardless of whether a mild winter is the result of short-term weather or long-term climate change. The adaptations I observed as a season passholder at Gore this winter included some pretty drastic shifts in snowmaking strategy: open trails were frequently re-surfaced, resources went towards deepening snow bases rather than expanding trail counts, some trails were sacrificed and didn’t get snowmaking at all. I felt Gore was extremely creative in finding ways to make the most of the poor winter weather. From what I saw first-hand at Whiteface, or heard from other skiers, they found creative solutions up there as well.

    I’ve been skiing at Gore and Whiteface for more than 30 years, and I skied at Gore just about every weekend this past winter. Like most skiers, my ski season wasn’t as great as 2010-11, but I had many good, if not excellent, ski days this year. I got in somewhere around 35 ski days (20+ of those at Gore or Whiteface) and I felt that I got excellent value out of my Gore season pass. It sounds like you’ve only been skiing/boarding for two seasons. You’ll develop the experience and insight to know when ski conditions will be good and when they’ll be bad. You’ll find out (if you haven’t already) that conditions on the hill can vary greatly from one day to the next. There can be lousy days even during a great winter. If you become an avid skier, you’ll make it a priority to get out on the days when it’s going to be great. I didn’t ski on March 9 (a Friday), but I did on the 10th. If conditions at Whiteface that weekend were similar to Gore, skiers should have found plenty of good snow and good skiing.

  5. Mike S says:

    This ski season was certainly one of the worst for natural snowfall, hopefully we will do better next year. Seems like since 1980 we have had many winters with well below average snowfall and when we did get lots of precip it was in the form of rain. Makes it tough for any ski area even if you have a state of the art snowmaking system.

  6. Paul says:

    Didn’t WF have the longest season ever last year?

  7. Paul says:

    It is really too bad that we lost all that snow in March. Once the weather turned we would have had a great spring ski season. We would still be skiing.

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