Local ‘Snow Farmer’ Considers Climate Change

Dec 4, 2018

The day after Thanksgiving, the federal government published its Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report full of alarming conclusions about how climate change could affect life in the United States. At one local ski resort, thinking about a warmer and less snowy future has already begun.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports.

[Snow gun blasting snow]

Jet engine? Torrential downpour? Try a Ratnik snow gun, turning forty gallons of water every minute into fine, white snow drifting down onto a ski trail at Massanutten Resort.

KENNY HESS: Without machine-made snow here in Virginia we probably wouldn’t have a ski area. I think that we’d probably be limited to a day or two a season without machine-made snow.

To make snow, the wet-bulb temperature – a measurement that factors in humidity – has to be no more than 28 degrees. On this late November morning, it’s a good bit colder than that as Kenny Hess, Massanutten’s director of sports and risk management, checks in with his crew, working to take full advantage of a cold snap.

[Snow gun roaring, machinery rattling, radio squawking]

HESS: This is our 48th season, I believe. We average opening around December 10th or 12th.

Thanks to enough cold weather and the resort’s more than 200 snow guns, Massanutten’s ski season is set to open this Saturday – right on target. But being weather-dependent means the fortunes of a ski resort in Virginia can vary significantly from one season to the next.

HESS: I’ve seen years where we were only open for 35 days. And there’s been years where we were open for 120 days. It’s Mother Nature, it’s fickle. And we’re snow farmers. Sometimes we have a good snow crop and sometimes we don’t.

Because of their reliance on machine-made snow, it’s temperature, rather than snowfall, that matters most at Massanutten and the region’s other ski resorts. Either way, there’s a major, lurking challenge out there for Virginia snow farmers such as Hess: climate change.

HESS: We talk about what will that mean for us in 20 or 30 years, 10 years, 50 years, whatever that is.

Analyzing data from a weather station in nearby Luray, the University of Virginia Climatology Office found a statistically significant decrease in the number of cold winter nights between 1976 and 2011. Jerry Stenger, director of the climatology office, says the data show a trend of 7.5 fewer days per decade with low temperatures of 20 degrees or colder over that period. That’s oddly specific language because records from the Luray station are a bit spotty, and because it’s only describing one specific statistical analysis. Still, in layman’s terms, it looks like really cold winter nights in the Valley aren’t as common as they once were.

ADRIENNE SAIA ISAAC: In general, when you look at something, a sport like skiing, which is weather-dependent, regardless of your outlook on climate change, it’s important to take some of the uncertainty out of your business.

Adrienne Saia Isaac is director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association. The group adopted an official climate change policy in 2002, and has been outspoken about the issue ever since.

ISAAC: To that end, NSAA has taken for the last 16 years a really focused effort on ‘here’s what we think climate change is going to bring to the industry and here are ways and resources for us to help you weather-proof your business’ – and, in the bigger picture, hopefully stem some of the changes that we’re seeing now.

Geraldine Link is director of public policy for the organization.

GERALDINE LINK: Some of the messages that we’ve been giving to resorts is mitigation, or reduction of your own footprint, because that’s a really important thing that we can do as a business. And then on another front, we stress adaptation with our ski area members. And that means changes in your operations or your planning to account for the impacts that climate change will have on your business.

At Massanutten, adaptation has already taken at least two forms. First, says Hess, there’s ever-improving snow-making technology that allows it and other resorts to take better advantage of any cold weather that comes along.

HESS: With the advances and the capital improvements, just because it’s 45 degrees in Charlottesville or Harrisonburg or Newport News doesn’t mean we don’t have a good product.

And then, there’s looking beyond skiing altogether.

HESS: We’ve put a lot more investment into our summer activities, with the water park, with the downhill mountain bike park.

Those investments certainly weren’t made only because climate change may jeopardize skiing revenues. Still, they reduce the resort’s reliance on skiing if climate change were to make it a less reliable proposition in the future.

HESS: Massanutten will still be here and will still be a viable resort whether we have skiing or not in 30 years or 40 years, because we don’t rely on ski ticket sales to drive the engine of Massanutten.

That time still hasn’t come, and the snow guns have been operating at full bore in recent days. Another ski season is about to begin, and Massanutten’s snow farmers are putting in their crop, hoping for the best while already planning for the worst.

HESS: There’s no magic number, like ‘if we can’t operate 50 days a year or 60 days a year or 70 days a year, at what point do we say ‘this just isn’t a viable enterprise anymore and let’s put our eggs in another basket and go in another direction.’ We haven’t gotten to that point yet, and I hope we don’t have to but it’s something that’s out there.