Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Study: Winter recreation faces challenge from climate change

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/6/17

REGIONAL— A new study suggests winter recreation in the Upper Midwest could be living on borrowed time, and the economic impacts of that reality could be significant in northeastern Minnesota. …

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Study: Winter recreation faces challenge from climate change

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REGIONAL— A new study suggests winter recreation in the Upper Midwest could be living on borrowed time, and the economic impacts of that reality could be significant in northeastern Minnesota.

The study, undertaken by Abt Associates, an international consulting firm, used several modeling scenarios to predict ongoing impacts from climate change on winter recreation throughout the United States. The study looked at the impact on downhill skiing, snowmobiling, and cross country skiing.

While the impacts varied among the differing models and scenarios considered, the ultimate conclusion was that traditional forms of winter recreation in the Upper Midwest, the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest, are likely to all but vanish as viable industries over the next several decades. Indeed, significant impact on winter recreation is now anticipated as early as 2050, or just over 30 years from today.

“Virtually all locations are projected to see reductions in winter recreation season lengths, exceeding 50 percent by 2050 and 80 percent in 2090 for some downhill skiing locations, wrote the authors. “We estimate these season length changes could result in millions to tens of millions of foregone recreational visits annually by 2050, with an annual monetized impact of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The study included Giants Ridge, Lutsen Mountain, and Spirit Mountain among the nearly 250 downhill ski operations examined in the study, and they were among those ski areas expected to see dramatic changes in the length of the ski season by 2050.

Perhaps the biggest impact for the industry is expected in the early part of the season, if increasingly warm temperatures make it difficult for ski operations to generate sufficient snow ahead of the Christmas holiday. “For most downhill skiing locations, opening prior to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays is critical to remaining profitable and staying in business,” conclude the study’s authors. “While approximately 70 percent of modeled downhill skiing sites can reach 450 hours of snowmaking by Dec. 15 under baseline climate conditions, this percentage declines markedly under each of the future scenarios. By 2050 this percentage is reduced by nearly half under both [model types].”

The study notes that snowmobiling and cross country skiing are two traditional forms of winter recreation that are likely to be even more vulnerable to climate impacts due to their greater reliance on natural snow.

Such findings are probably not surprising considering that the average wintertime temperatures across much of the country have already risen significantly, particularly in the coldest regions. Northern Minnesota has seen some of the most dramatic increases in average winter temperatures in recent years of any place in the lower 48, with average winter lows increasing by 5-6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 45 years. Climate scientists project that same trend will continue, and potentially accelerate over the next several decades, as the concentrations of heat-trapping gases, like C02 and methane continue to increase steadily within the atmosphere.

While the study looked at economic impacts across large regions, research in Minnesota highlights the potential economic impact to the state if traditional forms of winter recreation are lost, without viable replacement industries. Citing 2008 data, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Tourism, indicated that snowmobiling generated $54 million in spending in northeastern Minnesota, while cross country skiing generated another $17 million. A 2013 study estimated total statewide spending in the downhill ski industry at $282 million, with a total economic impact of $401 million.

While the study didn’t look at every type of winter recreation, the impacts are being widely felt, according to Paul Schurke, co-owner and operator of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near Ely.

“In the 35 years that we’ve operated the lodge, we’ve watched our season diminish by nearly 20 percent— from an average of 116 operating days to about 94,” said Schurke. “And our industry is the lucky one. All our dogs need is a few inches of snow and off we go. But cross-country skiing and snowmobile tourism need a much more substantial snow base. Those tourism sectors are measuring their operating loss over the past few decades not in days, but rather in weeks.”

While the news would appear to be bleak for businesses engaged in winter recreation, the impact of population growth could somewhat offset the losses in visitor numbers, at least under a scenario which predicts milder impacts from climate change. Even under that more optimistic scenario, however, the study forecasts visitation at Midwest ski operations would fall by more than a third. Under more pessimistic scenarios, these operations will largely disappear by 2090.

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