The $12.2 billion winter tourism industry spread out across 38 states has experienced an estimated $1 billion loss and up to 27,000 fewer jobs over the last decade due to diminished snow fall patterns and the resulting changes in the outdoor habits of Americans, according to a new economic analysis.
Even tougher times could be in store for the industry unless climate change is slowed, stopped and reversed, according to "Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States," prepared for the nonprofit groups Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Local ski resort operators and tourism officials are not overly concerned about the study.
University of New Hampshire researchers Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson conclude that a failure to address the challenge of climate change will mean even tougher times are ahead for winter tourism.
The report says without intervention, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall, and shorter snow season. Snow depths could decline in the West by 25 to 100 percent. The length of the snow season in the Northeast will be cut in half.
The impact of less snow and fewer people on the slopes, is already apparent across the U.S.
December 2011 through February 2012 was the fourth warmest winter on record since 1896 and the third lowest snow cover extent since 1966, when satellites began tracking snow cover. According to one industry survey, 50 percent of responding ski areas in 2011 opened late and 48 percent closed early, with every region experiencing a decrease in overall days of operation.
The snowmobiling industry - one entirely reliant upon natural snow - has had relatively flat registrations since 2000.
"In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons," Burakowski said. "This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall."
Climate change is the greatest environmental issue of our time, said Chris Steinkamp, executive director, Protect Our Winters.
"Without a stable climate, our industry, our jobs, the economies of mountain communities everywhere and the valued lifestyle of winter will be gone," Steinkamp said.
However, Aaron Weyman, spokesman for Tussey Mountain Ski Area in Boalsburg, said climate change is a serious thing.
"Last year was the first winter in several years where the warm weather really affected us. This year they are calling for an above average winter [snowfall]." Weyman said.
Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau in State College, agrees with Weyman.
"As long as we have enough cold weather that places like Tussey Mountain can make their own snow, they will be OK," Howell said.
Dennis Tice, executive director of the Bedford County Visitors Bureau, said a lack of snowfall is a concern but doesn't necessarily believe it is because of global warning.
"I see a lack of snow compared to when I was a kid. I am concerned there is a lack of snow. I don't believe it is all about global warming. I believe weather is cyclical," Tice said. "I think everybody will be happy when [the snow] comes back."
Mark Ickes, executive director of Explore Altoona, said he finds the report interesting but is not overly concerned about what it says.
"Even though winter recreation is important to us, it is more important for Explore Altoona to focus on all reasons why people should visit Altoona and Blair County," Ickes said. "That is why we focus on a variety of the visitor experience."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.