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Climate change impacting winter tourism

With seasonal cultural festivals like Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow, summer marks the height of Berkshire County tourism.

Yet visitors still flock to the area during the winter to take advantage of activities such as skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, funneling additional dollars into the local economy.

That winter tourism revenue could be in jeopardy over the long term. The culprit? Climate change.

A new report commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the organization Protect Our Winters (POW) concludes the U.S. winter tourism industry, which has already started to feel the impacts of decreased snowfall and warmer temperatures, will face even tougher times ahead if climate change continues unabated.

According to the report, titled “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States,” the winter tourism industry, particularly the snow-dependent sports like skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, contributes economically to three-quarters of the U.S. (38 states) and supports 211,900 jobs.

The $12.2 billion industry already has lost $1 billion over the past decade, and there are now 27,000 fewer jobs across the 38 states. While a bad winter season (from the industry point of view) cannot be blamed entirely on global warming, the overall trends accompanying the current changing climate are clear – warmer average winter temperatures, decreased snow pack in some areas and a shorter snow season.

As outlined in the report, winter temperatures could rise by four to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if climate change goes unaddressed. In the northeast, the duration of the snow season would subsequently be reduced by 50 percent.

Last winter was the fourth-warmest winter on record and had the third-lowest snow cover extent since 1966, when satellite snow cover tracking began.

Local effects

Ski areas in The Berkshires are certainly experiencing the impact of winter warming. According to Matt Sawyer, director of marketing at Ski Butternut, like many others across the country, the Great Barrington ski area was hit hard by last year’s very mild and dry winter.

“This past winter was the most challenging winter we’ve had in our existence,” said Mr. Sawyer.

He acknowledged revenues and attendance were way off and said they were forced to open for the season later and close earlier than usual.

Mr. Sawyer acknowledges the reality that lack of snow on the ground, especially in residential areas, translates into reduced attendance.

“If people don’t see snow in their backyards, they don’t think to go skiing,” said Mr. Sawyer.

He is trying to combat this effect by taking advantage of the latest technology trends to help convey visual images of snow on the mountain.

“From a marketing standpoint we’ve embraced certain pieces of technology to try to convey that image as cost-effectively as we can,” said Mr. Sawyer.

Another challenge of warmer winters is snowmaking. The optimal snowmaking temperature is around or slightly below 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Snowmaking at higher temperatures is more costly.

“Because of the higher costs we are forced into becoming more efficient in making snow,” said Mr. Sawyer.

“As long as the downhill areas are making snow, it helps our business,” said Linda Bacon, who along with her husband, Dave, owns and operates Canterbury Farm, a cross-country ski touring center in Becket.

Although Canterbury depends entirely on natural snow for skiing, its guests do have other recreational options, including snowshoeing, ice skating and even hiking.

“If we don’t have snow, the ice skating is still fantastic,” said Mrs. Bacon. “There’s hiking here too,” she continued. “If you’re a skier and there’s no snow outside, are you going to sit inside all winter?”

Last winter, Mr. Bacon started offering nature walks on Sunday mornings. There was no snow, so he resolved to just take his guests on a guided walk along the miles of wooded trails. Mr. Bacon, who works as a landscaper when he’s not running the ski center, put his professional skills to use in maintaining the ski trails to compensate for less snow.

“What we’ve done to adjust is we fine grade our ski trails so we don’t need as much snow to operate,” he said.

Canterbury’s northeast trail orientation, he added, helps in holding snow because the sun doesn’t shine so directly.

While ski areas like Butternut and Canterbury are doing what they can to respond to our warming world, the reality is winter as we know it may eventually fade to just a memory. For skiers, and those in the ski business, that’s a frightening forecast.

According to Mr. Sawyer, “We’re definitely experiencing warmer winters and I think it’s going to impact our industry.”

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Posted by on December 13, 2012. Filed under Featured,National News,News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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