Whether global warming is a reality or just a natural cyclical pattern the planet experiences, a pair of non-profit environmental groups said the result is the same, and it's not good news for the $12.2 billion winter tourism industry.
A new economic analysis details how that industry spread out across 38 states – including Northeastern Pennsylvania – has experienced an estimated $1 billion loss and up to 27,000 fewer jobs during the past decade due to diminished snowfall patterns and the resulting changes in the outdoor habits of Americans.
The study by University of New Hampshire researchers Matthew Magnusson and Elizabeth Burakowski was prepared for the nonprofit groups the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Protect Our Winters (POW) and comes on the heels of a global warm-up over the past five years.
The winter of 2011-12 was the fourth-warmest winter on record since 1896.
The two groups that authorized the report believe the data serve as another wake-up call that failure to address the challenge of climate change will mean even tougher times are ahead for winter tourism.
In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall and shorter snow seasons, Burakowski said. This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter-sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.
And, the report paints an even less rosy picture for the rest of the century.
Surmised from all this data is a portrait of the American winter landscape with more than three-quarters (38) of states benefitting economically from these winter sports and 211,900 jobs either directly or indirectly supported by the industry, the report says. Without intervention, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow-cover area, snowfall and shorter snow season. Snow depths could decline in the west by 25 to 100 percent. The length of the snow season in the Northeast will be cut in half.
For local ski resorts, whose officials have noted uneven seasons in recent years, the industry has limited options outside of playing the hand Mother Nature deals them.
It's a reason some ski resorts have begun adding to their offerings to draw visitors year-round, not just from November through March.
Camelback Mountain Resort near Tannersville started the ball rolling way back when with an outdoor water park. This year it added a 4,000-foot-long, tandem-run Zip-Flyer, which it calls the longest and fastest in North America.
The resort also announced it's developing a 453-room Camelback Mountain Resort Hotel, complete with a 120,000-square-foot year-round indoor water park.
Sno Mountain in Scranton opened Sno Cove outdoor water park on its property on Montage Mountain to attract summer business.
Blue Mountain, near Palmerton, is in the midst of developing not only an outdoor water park in 2014 but also a hotel in 2016.
We do think that being a four-season resort is a key to sustainability, said Heidi Lutz, a Blue Mountain spokeswoman.
By creating a year-round attraction, she said, the resort isn't just trying to offset the chance of a bad winter but to grow our business.
Gregg Confer, the general manager at Elk Mountain near Union Dale, said anyone in the business knows the seasons seem to be shorter the last 10 years.
He said the climate change, regardless of its cause, is certainly a concern.
It's not as cold as it used to be 20 to 30 years ago, Confer said. And the rising temperatures and falling snowfall totals are impacting the bottom line.
The winter sports industry's dependency on consistent snow is serious business, said Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters. Without a stable climate, our industry, our jobs, the economies of mountain communities everywhere and the valued lifestyle of winter will be gone. Climate change is the greatest environmental issue of our time, and it's got the winter sports community directly in its sights. It's our obligation as athletes and businesspeople, parents and citizens, to act.
For those whose livelihood depends upon a predictable winter season, such unpredictability and lack of snow can translate into a precipitous fall in revenue, an early economic indicator of what climate change looks like, said Antonia Herzog, assistant director, Climate and Clean Air Program, Natural Resources Defense Council.
In order to protect winter – and the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend upon a snow-filled season – we must act now to support policies that protect our climate, and in turn, our slopes, he said.