A Snowball’s Chance

As global temperatures rise, the New England ski industry is in danger of totally melting away—and sooner than you think.
ski-resorts

Winter Is Not Coming: Vermont’s Hogback Mountain is among the 600 U.S. ski areas that have disappeared over the past 60 years. (Photograph by Madison Kahn)

It’s perfect ski weather: sunny, blue skies, and just cold enough to see your breath. I’m standing in the parking lot of southern Vermont’s Hogback Mountain alongside Jeremy Davis, a meteorologist and connoisseur of old New England ski areas. As we strap on our snowshoes, he tells me that 50 years ago, Hogback—a two-hour drive from Boston—was a veritable hot spot, teeming with skiers.

Plodding across the mountain’s narrow trails, I imagine hordes of New Englanders—harried moms and dads with their stocking-capped kids—bustling onto the slopes from the small parking lot, like something out of a Rockwell painting. With 14 trails and T-bars that could tow 4,300 skiers per hour, Hogback Mountain was one of the region’s premier family ski destinations.

Then I trip on a tree root, falling hard on the dirt. Davis stops every few minutes to remove the rocks caught in his snowshoes. Under our feet, we realize, is not the powder you’d expect on a ski hill, but a shallow crust of ice and snow. We haven’t gone more than a mile before we decide to abandon our snowshoes completely. Hogback, it turns out, has been closed for decades, doomed by a lack of snow and the rising costs of running a ski resort. The trouble started in the 1970s, when scientists say that temperatures began to rise significantly (in truth, there was little climate research done before then). A series of spotty seasons, coupled with the sharp spike in gas prices brought on by the 1973 oil crisis, hit the mountain hard. It finally shuttered for good in 1986.

Now in boots, Davis and I continue exploring the mountainside. We look for the lift line, usually the clearest path to the summit, but Hogback’s forest has already swallowed much of the mountain’s infrastructure. A few remaining artifacts jut out eerily, serving as haunting signs of the mountain’s former life. The Ford engine that once powered its main rope tow sits tangled in brush next to a lopsided, aluminum-roofed red shack. The whole hut leans to the left; the slightest breath, it seems, could blow the entire thing over. We climb through overgrown weeds and fallen trees, following abandoned lift towers toward what we hope is the peak. Before long, we can see Mount Snow in the distance, its broad trails swarming with skiers.

Hogback and Mount Snow are not so different. Just 15 miles apart, both ski areas are located in the middle of what was not long ago part of the Northeast’s 120-inch Snowbelt. Why did one die and the other prosper? Simple economics: Mount Snow could afford the snowmaking technology needed to stay open when temperatures began to rise. Hogback couldn’t.

But making enough snow is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition. Due to accelerating climate change, Mount Snow faces the very real prospect of one day becoming another Hogback, ghostly and abandoned. Almost 600 U.S. ski areas have disappeared in the past 60 years, many of them victims of warmer winters. In fact, if warming trends continue at their current rates, within the next few decades, the multibillion-dollar New England ski industry could collapse entirely.

 

Since 1970, the average global temperature has increased 0.5 degrees per decade. By the end of the century, northeastern winter temperatures are expected to rise between four and 10 degrees, effectively cutting New England’s snow season in half. Scientists at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, recently studied the effects of climate change on the northeastern ski industry and discovered alarming results: If global emissions continue to rise at current rates, in 30 years only about half of the 103 ski areas in the Northeast covered by the study will be able to maintain the 100-day season they need to be sustainable—and none of them is in Massachusetts.