Weather on Not: Outdoor Industry Preps for Uncertainty

Winter weather in the northeast has always been unpredictable. As the old adage goes, if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute. But after the past few years, the only certainty seems to be an increasing uncertainty – and that’s a dangerous proposition for an outdoor recreation industry that relies on snow.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. And according to a Washington Post report last May, the U.S. just completed the “warmest 12-month period in 117 years.”

Climate change “may be setting up conditions for a greater frequency of big storms,” says AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) Research Director Ken Kimball. His research links climate change with an increase in atmospheric moisture. Whether that moisture will be released as snow or rain in the winters to come, however, is hard to assess. As every outdoor enthusiast knows, a change from 30 degrees to 34 degrees can be the difference between a foot of snow and a total washout.

And Kimball expects the increase in moisture to continue. “What is shifting is the variability of the storms, and the magnitude of the moisture they contain,” he says. “It is getting tougher and tougher to build a business model ” based on the weather.

The outdoor industry – from ski resorts, to Nordic and snowshoe sites, to ice climbing outfits – also faces the challenge of distance and perception. Most winter recreation in the Northeast occurs far from population centers, and potential customers are less likely to travel to recreation areas when they have grassy backyards at home. Snow cams and Facebook updates can only do so much to convince people that winter conditions are worth the trip.

So how is the winter recreation industry adapting? By being less weather dependent.

Mountain resorts, which already have large infrastructures, are building alternatives to skiing. Some projects, like the enormous Pump House Indoor Waterpark at Jay Peak in northern Vermont, are open year-round. Others, like zip lines and alpine slides, operate only in the warmer months. All non-snow activities, however, help sustain an industry that is heavily invested in site-specific locations.

But outdoor activities like cross-country skiing and ice climbing, typically not supported by a resort-based infrastructure, are bracing for further financial challenges as well.

“One of the most troublesome downsides,” of recent winter weather, says Zach Stegeman, executive director of the New England Nordic Ski Association, “has been the economic impact on the overall ski industry.”

“Of the changes we are seeing, one of the most impressive is the increase in venues, large and small, implementing snow making,” Stegeman says.

Pineland Farms, in New Gloucester, Maine, is using cheese whey from the on-site farm to quadruple its snowmaking output, Pineland’s outdoor recreation director Matt Sabasteanski says. The cheese whey is added to potable water pulled from fire hydrants. It provides particles around which the water can crystallize; without it, the water is too clean and can’t produce as much snow. Thus far, Pineland’s entire system has cost $30,000, far cheaper than the $1 million snowmaking system the business considered buying five years ago. And the snowmaking is already paying off. Two years ago, Pineland, a 20-minute drive from Portland, sold 751 season passes. Last year, despite the warm weather, it still sold 749.

The ice climbing community is likewise trying to free its sport from a dependence on winter weather. Dick Chasse, who leads both ice and rock climbing tours with Acadia Mountain Guides, says Acadia is diversifying what it offers by incorporating elements like search and rescue training sessions into trips.

Climbers are also adjusting to the conditions. Advances in gear make it easier to do mixed climbing, tackling both ice and rock on the same trip, Chasse says. Chasse, who guides out of Orono, Maine in winter, says the real challenge is trying to get clients to places where conditions are more stable, in order to sustain a business.

Backcountry enthusiasts may have to embrace a Zen-like mindset, where the purpose of an excursion becomes less about skiing or climbing, and more about enjoying whatever conditions are available.

It is a challenge that the outdoor recreation industry will like face for years – regardless of how much snow we have this winter.

(Originally published in AMC Outdoors,  but not online.)

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