Can Climate Change Hurt Vermont's Winter Sports Industry?

Feb 10, 2014

Winter sports are capturing the attention of Olympics spectators, but climate change is making some environmentalists worry about the future of sports like skiing and snowboarding. Last week, Vermont Law School hosted a panel discussion about how climate change continues to jeopardize the winter sports industry both nationally and in New England.

In Dec. 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report detailing “radically divergent weather patterns” and how “unpredictability and lack of snow” could potentially jeopardize the future of winter sports — and with it, a major Vermont industry.

Winter sports add an estimated $12.2 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

Elizabeth Burakowski co-authored the NRDC report. She says that while many people are aware of global trends, what some don’t know is that here in New England, winter is hit hardest by climate change.

“I think it has been a little overlooked, as to how much it has been warming in winter in our region,” said Burakowski. “It is our fastest warming season.”

Some ski areas in Vermont have already been forced to temporarily close due to lack of snow in recent years.

Parker Riehle is the president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. He says warmer winters throughout New England could hurt Vermont, even if there is enough snow at the resorts.

He calls it the “backyard syndrome.”

“We could have 18 feet of fresh powder in Vermont,” said Riehle. “But if there’s no snow in the backyards of Boston or the tri-state area where 80 percent of our out-of-state skiers come from, it’s really hard to get them motivated to come up.”

Riehle, as well as other members of the Vermont Law panel cited emerging technologies in snow-making as a potential solution going forward.

But Elizabeth Burakowski warns that a low-snowfall winter can cost the U.S. as much as $1 billion, and between 13,000 and 27,000 jobs.

She says that’s not just bad news for the winter sports industry, but for the character of the region.

“It’s worrisome for us, not just for the ski industry but for our ecosystem and also for the general character of New England. When you think of New England, you think of snow and winter,” said Burakowki. “It’s hard to imagine that we would have a future where it might be just brown.”