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.
Of the resorts able to stay open, at least 75 percent will require substantial artificial snowmaking to survive, which, in turn, will significantly increase operational costs and lift-ticket prices. To put it bluntly, within our lifetime, researchers say only 34 ski areas across the entire Northeast will be viable.
And even if those few ski areas can make enough snow to survive, they’ll suffer from the lack of flakes elsewhere. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found evidence of a psychological “backyard” effect: City dwellers are less inclined to drive somewhere to ski when there’s no snow in their own neighborhood. This could have serious implications for ski areas that rely on day-trip traffic from feeder cities like Boston and New York. It doesn’t help that, according to the University of Waterloo study, the few remaining mountains will be so far north that Bostonians may have to drive five hours to reach them—or they just won’t.
Already we’ve seen evidence of a warmer climate’s effect on the industry. Today, about 95 percent of resorts worldwide use snowmaking to supplement natural snow. Half of U.S. ski areas are opening late and closing early—and in the past 50 years, the average season length has decreased by seven days. As a result, the national $12.2 billion winter tourism industry has lost more than a billion dollars in revenue and eliminated as many as 27,000 jobs over the past decade, according to a report issued in December 2012 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and a group called Protect Our Winters. In the West, the increased volume of water required for snowmaking is creating conflicts over water use, and in due time, the same could happen in the Northeast.
Here in New England, the loss of the ski industry would be acutely felt: Northeastern ski resorts record more than 13 million skier visits per season—the highest of any region in the country—and help prop up many related businesses, including apparel, boot, and gear companies (to say nothing of mountainside restaurants, shops, and hotels). Snow sports contribute billions every year to the region’s economy and employ as many as 46,000 people. Even just tacking on a few more inches of snow to a regular season—and perhaps extending it by a couple of weeks—can translate into an additional $13 million in revenue. But those days seem to be waning. With snowy winters no longer the norm, the University of Waterloo’s scientific models suggest that northeastern ski areas will lose $3.2 billion in annual revenue over the next 40 years.
The National Ski Association, now known as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, was founded in 1905. But the sport didn’t catch on until the ’40s, when European instructors began offering ski lessons through the Appalachian Mountain Club and at northeastern universities like Dartmouth. In the wake of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, eager baby boomers built rope tows in towns and at private schools across New England. A decade later, as many as 60 ski areas existed within an hour’s drive of Boston. Today, there are three.
When it opened in 1947, at the peak of New England’s ski boom, Hogback Mountain was a prime destination for city skiers. The mountain’s last owner, 91-year-old Dick Hamilton, is almost as old as the sport itself. On the day I met him in his quaint white Marlboro farmhouse, he was sporting his old Hogback Mountain Ski Area beanie. “I’ve been wearing this hat to Stratton ever since Hogback died,” Hamilton said. “And every day, people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I learned to ski there.’”
Hamilton’s first experience on the slopes was on a pair of maple skis—he put them to use in 1947, when his sweetheart’s father opened Hogback. “Snow was pretty much always here during those times,” he said. Every weekend, Hamilton told me, both sides of Route 9 were lined with license plates from Canada and all over the northeastern United States. The parked cars left barely enough room for the squadrons of Greyhound buses, carting eager New Yorkers and Bostonians. It cost as little as $5 a day to ride the rope tow, which could serve 900 skiers per hour, the highest-capacity T-bar in the East at that time. Only 14 trails were open for Hogback’s 1,200 daily visitors (most larger ski areas today have more than 100), but that was enough to serve the mountain’s prime customers: families, who paid $260 for a season pass. After Hamilton bought Hogback at its peak in the early ’70s, it quickly grew into what Vermont Life magazine described as the “biggest little area in New England.”
Within a decade, however, the mountain’s annual snow-packed winters had grown few and far between. “I remember one year we didn’t open until February,” Hamilton said. “And by then, people had made their commitment to other areas.” Those “other areas” were hills with the snowmaking technology that Hogback lacked. To make matters worse, the cost of liability insurance was skyrocketing. For a small family ski area with reasonable prices, Hogback couldn’t afford to stay open amid sparse winters.
Many other mountains in the vicinity followed a similar trajectory—29 ski areas in southern Vermont closed over the decades. Today, there are roughly 115 ghost mountains in the state. Massachusetts has even more: 173.