WINTHROP, Wash. — For the first time in 32 years, organizers of the Rendezvous Cross Country Ski Festival in West Yellowstone, Montana, had to cancel the traditional November ski-season start event due to a lack of snow.
Some 300 miles away, Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah offered skiing in November by building an elaborate snowmaking system, while a small business in Vermont was able to double its skiing days after laying a new pipe to power water-hungry snowblowers.
It wouldn’t work at Methow Trails in northern Washington, which cannot cover its 200 kilometers of ski slopes with artificial snow; instead, they’re doing snow dances and working on plans to move the trails to a higher elevation if needed.
The snow hasn’t stopped falling, but it’s certainly not piling up as much or as far as it used to amid climate change and it’s hitting a sport that grew wildly when COVID-19 hit the winter 2020.
Many have escaped cabin fever by hitting the cross-country trails for exercise, fresh air and serenity.
Nordic skis quickly became the new toilet paper – they were hard to find and sold in stores.
“What COVID has done is push people out,” said Vermont executive director Reese Brown. Association of cross-country ski resorts. “It brought a lot of new people to cross-country skiing, because it’s the quintessential winter sport.”
Yet climate change is making the future of all skiing uncertain, from elite World Cup circuits and sprawling resorts to family-run operations that bustle on weekends with recreational skiers.
For cross-country ski centers, warmer temperatures mean more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, forcing them to rely on snowmaking equipment to cover their trails.
Water scarcity and cost make this option impossible for some, especially in the American West.
New study predicts mountain states will be in dire straits ‘with little to no snow’ within 35 to 60 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels.
The problems have already affected top athletes who spend more time on the snow than most.
The lack of snow has made early-season training difficult for many top cross-country ski racers and biathletes as they prepare for the Beijing Winter Olympics next month.
“In cross-country skiing, we see the impact of climate change in the cities we pass through,” said Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins of Afton, Minnesota. “There are years where they only have artificial snow and 2 kilometers of skiing on a very small hamster loop.”
When the team trained in a small town in northern Finland where snow is traditionally guaranteed in mid-November, the slopes were limited.
“We were skiing on a sliver of dirty, artificial snow and there was green moss and little purple flowers blooming on the edge of the trail,” Diggins said. “It looks fake and feels wrong.”
Tim Burke, a retired American biathlete who has competed in four Winter Games, said he has seen the impact of climate change throughout his career. Places like West Yellowstone used to have reliable snow for early season training “but that’s just not true anymore.”
Marine Dusser Bjornsen is a former member of the French biathlon team who now lives in Winthrop, Washington, where she runs a ski shop with her husband, former United States ski team member Erik Bjornsen.
She saw Nordic skiing explode after the arrival of COVID-19, but she also saw how climate change is depleting the snowpack.
“When I was 15, 16, we would go glacier skiing and it was groomed,” she said. “Now these glaciers no longer exist. It’s just rock.
Nordic skiers and biathletes are made for summer, the saying goes, but climate change has halted off-season training.
Brian Halligan, director of biathlon training at Auburn Ski Club The training center in Truckee, Calif., said smoke from the wildfires that hit the Lake Tahoe area in September killed their fall season.
“We’re actually looking at setting up some boot camp trips to the East Coast or maybe the Bay Area to basically avoid the smoke so we can keep training,” he said. declared.
Wildfires on the west coast have even impacted training in the east, according to Olympic biathlete Susan Dunklee, who lives in Vermont.
“I could smell the smoke in the air,” Dunklee said. “The change in air quality puts stress on your lungs.”
Methow Trails, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, boasts the largest network of cross-country ski trails in North America, with 124 miles of groomed trails connecting the towns of Winthrop and Mazama through agreements with over 200 state, federal and private landowners.
The operation is a significant contributor to the region’s economy at more than $12 million per season, said James DeSalvo, executive director of the trail network.
“There would be dramatic consequences if the snow melted,” he said.
Methow operators have spent years developing contingencies for a light or snowless winter, but those plans do not include artificial snowmaking. The trail system is just too big.
“And then there’s the environmental piece — water,” DeSalvo said. “There is already a moratorium on well drilling in the county.”
One option is to move the trails to higher elevations, he said, taking advantage of old logging roads.
“It’s been one of our strategic priorities and has been for over a decade,” he said. “We are very worried about this.”
Although not an option everywhere, snowmaking has breathed new life into some cross-country ski areas that have seen snow disappear.
“If you look at the alpine ski industry 30 or 40 years ago they were where we are now with cross country,” Brown said. “There were alpine regions that had artificial snow and others that didn’t and it was difficult. Today, practically all alpine ski areas have an artificial snowmaking capacity of 50 to 100%.
Some small northern centers in Vermont have been able to get snowmaking systems for $65,000 to $80,000, Brown said. These involve blowing snow in piles and using front-end loaders to move the snow around the trails.
Riker Nordic Center in Ripton, Vermont, made a bigger investment and went from 70 ski days to 140 thanks to HKD snowmaking equipment. The initial cost exceeded $850,000, and it takes about $40,000 each season to maintain the system, which includes labor and electricity, Brown said.
Luke Bodensteiner, general manager of the Soldier Hollow Center where cross-country and biathlon races were held during the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, said climate change has reduced the snow they see each year.
“Natural winters are definitely getting shorter. There is no doubt about it,” he said. “We’ve probably lost two to three weeks of early season natural snow skiing both front and back of the year since this place was established.”
Utah hopes to host the Winter Olympics in 2030 or 2034. Soldier Hollow has invested in state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment to make this work. It helps that they sit at an elevation of 5,900 feet (1,798 meters) with cooler temperatures.
Yet climate change has had an impact.
“We’ve been able to keep pace with our historic opening days, but we’re doing it a lot less often on natural snow and a lot more often on artificial snow,” Bodensteiner said.