The most profitable months for the tourism-based businesses in the Adirondacks are without question July and August. This is when families take their summer vacations, the weather is warm, and the bugs are tolerable. But while summer is crucial for small businesses, a successful winter season can mean the difference between making money or not for the year.
Vinny McClelland, owner of the Mountaineer in Keene Valley, knows this as much as anyone. His business depends on customers who recreate in the outdoors. In winter, they include backcountry skiers, ice climbers, mountaineers, and snowshoers. If there is a shortage of snow or ice in the winter, chances are there will be a shortage of customers visiting the Adirondacks and his store.
“When we have a good winter, it means we are going to make money that year,” McClelland said. A warm winter means the business has to struggle to get by until the summer tourists return. Some don’t make it. Those that do take a hit to their profit margin.
If temperatures continue to rise as a result of climate change, the Adirondack Park is likely to see bad winters more and more. That bodes ill for the Mountaineer and other businesses that rely on winter tourism to tide them over until the following summer.
In annual surveys for Essex County, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST) has found that only 30 percent of tourism revenue is generated between November and April. The most popular winter activities in the county are alpine skiing and snowboarding.
Clearly, the warmer months attract far more visitors, but ROOST CEO Jim McKenna is still concerned about the potential impact of climate change on the winter economy. “Even though it’s not the largest [part] of our business, it certainly is a large component,” McKenna said.
Mike Farmer, tourism director for the town of Webb Visitor Information Center, grew up in the Old Forge area and has noticed a big difference in winter weather patterns since he was a kid in the 1960s. “We had more snow on a regular basis, year in, year out,” said Farmer, who remembers a few days when temperatures fell to fifty degrees below zero.
McClelland has also noticed that the winters have become less severe in the northern Adirondacks than in the early years of the Mountaineer, which opened forty years ago. “The most significant change that I’ve observed is that our winter is about two weeks shorter on both ends,” McClelland said. “In addition, we used to have temperatures routinely between thirty and forty degrees below zero. We rarely get temperatures that cold anymore. In addition, we used to have one major thaw every year, maybe two. Now we have multiple thaws. We used to sell a ton of minus-forty-degree sleeping bags; [now] we don’t sell anywhere near as many. We sell most of them to people going to places other than the Adirondacks because [here] you can get away with a minus-twenty-degree bag pretty easily.”
Science backs up these recollections. Although the last two winters have been very cold, there is a long-term warming trend. A 2009 study that looked at data from Adirondack weather stations between 1975 and 2005 found that the average temperature increased 3.4 degrees in December, 2.3 degrees in January, and 2.1 degrees in February. The study was published in the Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies.
Scientists say climate change has been occurring for at least a century. Between 1895 and 2011, the average annual temperatures in the Northeast increased by nearly two degrees, while the average annual precipitation increased by about five inches, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Scientists predict that precipitation will continue to increase for the Adirondacks.
Temperatures are expected to rise even faster this century. If carbon-dioxide emissions continue to rise, a warming of four and a half to ten degrees is projected for the Northeast by the 2080s. If emission rates are reduced substantially, the temperature is still projected to increase three to six degrees.
Some of the best evidence of winter warming is in ice records. For example, a 2010 report by the Nature Conservancy found that Lake Champlain freezes about two weeks later than it did in the early 1800s and about nine days later than in 1900. In the nineteenth century, Lake Champlain froze in all but three winters. In the last four decades, the lake has frozen only about half the time.
The Adirondack Park won’t lose its winters in the near future, but rising temperatures over the long term will mean less snow and fewer opportunities for winter recreation. It’s hard to quantify what the economic impacts will be. However, the winter of 2011-2012 could be seen as a test case. That winter was the fourth warmest on record in the continental United States according to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York Snowmobilers Association, said that before that winter about 130,000 snowmobiles were registered in the state each year. Because of the lack of snow in the 2011-2012 winter, the number plunged to about ninety thousand.
“That might give you a measure of what would happen if it really warmed up,” Jacangelo said. “That was not a fun year for snowmobiling, and we lost 30 percent of the people out there snowmobiling.”
Such a big drop in snowmobiling, if permanent, would have a big impact especially in the central and southern Adirondacks. Old Forge, in the southwestern part of the Park, bills itself as the Snowmobile Capital of the East and attracts riders from throughout the state and beyond. The region has an extensive trail system and plenty of hotels and restaurants to accommodate snowmobilers once they get out of the woods. “It’s a very welcoming community for the sport,” Jacangelo remarked.
Farmer said the town of Webb, which includes Old Forge, sells more than ten thousand trail passes a year for a trail system that links Old Forge with Inlet, Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and Long Lake. Overall, he said snowmobiling generates an average of about $16 million annually for the towns.
Given snowmobiling’s popularity in that part of the Park, Farmer estimates that 40 percent of tourism revenue in the Old Forge area is generated in winter. In a long, cold winter—that is, a good winter—the number may be closer to 50 percent, he said.
Farmer said Old Forge, like other communities in the Park, sees more visitors in summer, but winter visitors, especially snowmobilers, tend to spend more. “There are probably five times as many people here in the summer as there are in the winter,” he said. “The difference is the people that come in the winter stay longer. Most of them have vacation homes here.”
Old Forge lies in a snow belt, but Farmer said the region has taken steps to adapt to low-snow conditions. The towns start maintaining the trails before winter and have five grooming machines that run two shifts a day, weather permitting. “Get a little snow into the trails, and they will make it last forever,” Farmer said. “Long after other areas are out of snow, we’re still in business.”
Jacangelo theorized that this could also be a potential scenario in the future. That the Adirondacks could be one of the few places where snowmobiling is possible because it may no longer snow in areas with warmer climates.
“The Adirondacks are going to become even more important,” he said.
Cross-country-ski centers face similar issues as snowmobile trail networks since they also rely on natural snow. In recent years, the Dewey Mountain Ski Center in Saranac Lake, for example, has not received enough snow to open until January, according to manager Jason Smith. Thus, Dewey missed out on the important Christmas week.
The Christmas and President’s Week holidays — when kids are out of school — are vital for winter-tourism business. “Snowy holidays are definitely a big bonus for us, and we haven’t had much of that in recent years,” Smith said.
Dewey Mountain is now building flatter and wider trails that don’t need as much snow to be skiable, as part of an overall effort to improve the venue. That isn’t an adaptation that came about necessarily because of climate change, but it does help them deal with having less snow.
“Little by little we’ve been picking apart our trails and trying to flatten them as much as possible and create really flat, even surfaces so that with minimal snow cover we can get out and start packing snow, grooming, and skiing,” he said.
Downhill ski resorts can cope with climate change by making more snow. The state-owned Whiteface Mountain Ski Area has purchased high-capacity snow guns that are fully automated and have built-in weather stations, allowing them to make snow at optimal temperatures.
“We’ve invested pretty heavily in our snowmaking system, and having that ability to make a tremendous amount of snow in a small amount of time that allows us to cope with some of these climate-change issues,” said Aaron Kellett, Whiteface’s general manager. “When we do have those weird freeze-thaws we are able to get back on our feet again quicker. We’re able to get open earlier [in the season]. We’re able to stay open later.”
Located in Wilmington, east of Lake Placid, Whiteface is one of the biggest draws in the Adirondacks, and it’s an economic engine for the region, with skiers spending money in nearby lodging establishments, restaurants, and other businesses. Despite the changing climate, Kellett said, Whiteface has seen an increase in visitors over the past fifteen years. In fact, it had its busiest season last winter, when attendance reached 216,000. In comparison, attendance was 154,000 in the winter of 2000-2001.
But Kellett remains tempered in his optimism. He noted that while the past two winters were very cold and conducive to snowmaking, the winter of 2011-2012 was not. Temperatures spiked into the seventies in March, forcing the ski mountain to shut down much earlier than normal.
“There’s just these crazy, fluctuating weather conditions that we’re being thrown in the past few years,” he said. “They’re hard to predict. We have to adapt to it and it’s forcing us to adapt to it, unfortunately, but we’re doing everything we can.”
Yet even if Whiteface and Old Forge manage to adapt to climate change, they still must contend with the “backyard effect.” If the weather is balmy where tourists live, they tend to put winter sports out of mind.
“If it’s raining in February and people are looking at grass out their front window, they’re not all jumping in their cars and coming up here,” Farmer said.
Kellett agreed. “A white Christmas in New York City supports us more than a white Christmas in the Adirondacks,” he said.
And once people start engaging in springtime activities such as golf, attendance drops at Whiteface Mountain even if snow conditions remain good.
To combat the backyard effect, Whiteface and the town of Webb deploy webcams to show current weather conditions. “We tell the people look for yourself,” Farmer said. “It’s real time. You can see not only how much snow but how the people are using it.”
If nothing else, climate change underscores the intimate connection between the natural world and the economy in the Adirondacks.
“Everything we have here is based on natural resources, but it’s weather dependent,” Farmer said. “If we have decent weather, summer or winter, no matter what the fuel costs are, no matter what the economy is doing, many of those people are coming.”
Photos from above: The Mountaineer in Keene Valley (photo by Carl Heilmann II); seasonal tourism in Essex County (graph courtesy ROOST); snowmobiler and nordic skiiers photos by Nancie Battaglia.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.