Snow problem or no problem? Resorts concerned as ski season heats up

Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 5:58 PM EST
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WARREN, Vt. (WCAX) - According to the WCAX Weather Team, Vermont’s winters have warmed an average of about 5-6 degrees since 1970. It’s a concerning trend for one of Vermont’s keystone industries-- skiing.

So how are resorts weathering the warming climate? I got a peek behind the curtain at the Sugarbush Resort with a tour through their snowmaking hub, where massive systems ensure when you want to ski, they have terrain open.

“We push water up from the Mad River to here and these pumps here boost the pressure and push the water up onto the hill,” said Shawn Patenaude, the manager of snowmaking at Sugarbush. “Our snowmaking season is November through January, three months or 91 days essentially.”

It’s a process rooted in moving massive amounts of water from the Mad River to Lincoln Peak or Mount Ellen, combining it with compressed air in sub-freezing temperatures. It’s described to me as an art, capitalizing on windows of near-perfect conditions, though those windows are shrinking.

“If we are looking at 90 days and we can only do it in 60,” Patenaude said.

The snowmakers say volatile weather patterns of fluctuating temperatures, rain events and high humidity over the last few decades throw a wrench into ski resort operations.

According to weather records, we see roughly the same amount of snow annually but it doesn’t stick around.

“When you get these more frequent bursts of warmth, that is going to be harder to keep the snow on the ground, to keep the snowpack thick,” WCAX Meteorologist Jess Langlois explained.

Those fluctuating temperatures not only hurt our snow accumulation between storms but hold back what industry leaders say is a crucial operation.

“Snowmaking is really a sustainability tool that allows ski resorts to open on time and operate through the season,” said Molly Mahar of Ski Vermont.

Mahar says as winters warm, Vermont is already leaning on snowmaking as a crutch to open trails early in the year and keep them open.

The weather before Christmas was a great example-- warm temperatures and rain closed about 20% of open terrain statewide on Christmas Eve, but by the turn of the new week, many resorts were able to reopen what was lost and then some thanks to freezing temperatures.

“We would not have the terrain open this holiday week that we do without snowmaking,” Mahar said.

Back at the heart of the snowmaking operation, the team says in smaller windows of ideal time, it’s a race against Mother Nature, taking maximum advantage of optimal snowmaking time.

“Make snow more quickly, push more water onto the hill, be more efficient about our operation,” Patenaude said.

But questions have been raised about how much more efficient they can get.

“If we’re at a point of diminishing returns, if the efficiencies we can put into our systems are all realized,” Patenaude said.

Despite the warming winters, volatile weather patterns and maxing out efficiency, they still have faith in the snowmaking process and are determined to make the most of the tool.

“Ultimately, we want as many people up there skiing as possible,” Patenaude said.