Last winter, Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the ski industry. With snowfall totals down by about half and March temperatures soaring into the 80s, skier visits were off by more than 20 percent in the Northeast — the worst season in two decades.
The dismal results had ski areas worried that people would be skittish about hitting the slopes this season, which kicked off this month at many resorts. Some operators are using extra incentives and attractions to combat the dreaded “backyard effect” — if people don’t see snow near their homes, they are less likely to venture north, even if the slopes are packed with powder. But many resorts report season-pass sales so far are even with or slightly higher than last year’s numbers, and with the forecast calling for seasonably chilly temperatures and above-normal snowfall, they hope to tap into pent-up demand caused by last year’s short, rocky season.
“Our past three winters with below-average snowfall and business totals have been followed by incredible winters for business,” said Karl Stone of the trade group Ski New Hampshire. “Knock on wood.”
Still, as global temperatures continue to rise — nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000 — the threat of a milder climate looms over the ski industry. In New England, the outlook is worse than in the West, climate researchers say, and independently owned resorts at lower elevations are at the greatest risk.
“If they get a series of bad winters, that can be all she wrote,” said Daniel Scott, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Of 103 ski resorts operating in the Northeast, less than half could be economically viable in 30 years if winter temperatures rise by between 2.5 and 4 degrees over the next several decades as expected, according to a study by Scott that will be published early next year. The report says that if society continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels, causing emissions from heat-trapping gases to rise, no Massachusetts ski areas would survive the next 30 years, and only seven of 18 New Hampshire resorts and eight of 14 Maine mountains would remain open.
Vermont would remain relatively stable, Scott found, with 16 of 18 resorts able to stay in business through at least the end of the century.
Snow making will become even more important in the coming decades as New England’s natural snowfalls diminish, according to Scott’s study. Resorts are already spending millions of dollars to increase their capacity — Stowe Mountain Resort in northern Vermont spent $4.7 million this year alone — and by the 2020s, Vermont and New Hampshire resorts may have to increase their snow making output by as much as 50 percent.
“Man-made snow is such an integral part of skiing on the East Coast,” said Greg Kwasnik, spokesman for Loon Mountain Resort in Lincoln, N.H. “People may not realize it, but man-made snow is what makes it all possible.”
But snow making also depends on the weather cooperating — the temperature has to be in the low 20s or colder.
A long-term warming trend could also cut ski seasons short as snowpack bases erode more quickly, said Mark Williams, a fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, who has done 100-year projections for ski areas in Colorado and Utah.
Ski areas can adapt by beefing up their operations at higher elevations and using gondolas to ferry skiers from bare base areas to snowier territory, he said, a practice already being used in the European Alps.
In the East, however, there are fewer options for combating extended stretches of mild weather, Williams said. “There’s a lot of days where the temperature is above zero degrees Celsius, so you have melt. You already have a lot of rain events,” he said. “You guys get radical swings in temperature.”
Ski area officials prefer not to dwell on such dire predictions. But, realizing warm winters like last year’s deter people from heading to the slopes — regardless of artificial snow — some operators are offering more incentives.
At Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine, the earlier a skier buys a lift ticket online, the deeper the discount — up to 35 percent off the price at the ticket window. Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vt., has a “quad pack” of four tickets for $199, which must be purchased by Nov. 30.
“This new product is kind of asking people to commit to Sugarbush beforehand,” said spokesman Patrick Brown.
Scott, of the University of Waterloo, suggests that if winters continue to get warmer, ski areas could boost season pass sales by offering to refund people some of their money back if lifts aren’t open for a certain number of days.
Resorts are also increasingly looking beyond skiing to make money. Stowe opened a performing arts center two years ago, and Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury, N.H., has a new Adventure Park with zip-line tours and a treetop obstacle course. At Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont, a new indoor water park helped the resort have one of its best years ever last winter, and season pass sales and lodging reservations have increased by double digits this year.
“Through necessary evolution to year-round revenue-generating operations, ski resorts help to offset concerns they might have about erratic weather and snow conditions,” said David Kaufman, who teaches a course in ski area management at the University of Vermont.
Liz Dean, a 27-year-old snowboarder from Arlington, held off getting a season pass last year, but after seeing the “awesome” forecasts for this winter, she bought a pass to Sugarbush. Dean said she isn’t worried about climate change, but if it does start to adversely affect New England resorts, she has a backup plan: “There’s always out West.”