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Minnesota is in the middle of a historically warm and snow-free start to winter

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And now to Minnesota, which is in the middle of a historically warm and snow-free start to winter. That may mean less shoveling, but it's a big blow to skiers, snowmobilers and other snow enthusiasts, as well as the many small businesses that depend on them. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Deep in the Minnesota North Woods, about 25 miles from the Canadian border, Peter McClelland runs White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures.

PETER MCCLELLAND: Yeah, it's more like mud wilderness right now.

KRAKER: One hundred sled dogs are tied up, itching to run.

MCCLELLAND: Normally, we'd have 15 sleds going out a day, every day, this time of year. And right now, we have none.

KRAKER: With no snow on the ground, McClelland has canceled trips through at least January 7. He's offering discounts to customers to postpone until next season because he doesn't have enough cash to refund all their deposits.

MCCLELLAND: Running a sled dog business like this is a labor of love. You do it because you want to. It's great to share this with the guests that come up. But you do not make enough money to really be able to weather this kind of disaster.

KRAKER: He still has expenses, like dog food and vet bills, and he still has to exercise the dogs. But instead of using a sled, he hooks them up to an ATV.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

KRAKER: They get excited, huh?

MCCLELLAND: Yeah. They - the sled dogs really live for this.

KRAKER: McClelland says he's just hoping to survive until next winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

KRAKER: Nearby, in the small town of Finland, Minn., businesses that rely on snowmobilers are also struggling.

BOB BUUS: This year is unbelievable. I mean, we've got no snow - raining - and it's really hurting us.

KRAKER: Bob Buus runs Our Place bar and restaurant with his wife, Dianne. The four cabins they rent are empty, and, for the most part, so is the bar. Just a couple people are shooting pool.

BUUS: It's getting pretty deep in our pockets - getting deep into money that was put aside for retirement.

KRAKER: Low-snow years aren't unheard of in northern Minnesota. What's different this year is the uncommon warmth. Temperatures soared to over 50 degrees on Christmas Day, breaking century-old records. It was also the wettest December on record, but almost all of that precipitation fell as rain instead of snow.

KENNY BLUMENFELD: We're experiencing a truly great - and I don't mean necessarily good - but a truly extraordinary climate event.

KRAKER: Kenny Blumenfeld is a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This winter's surreal weather is driven in part by a strong El Nino. But Blumenfeld says Minnesota's winters have also grown significantly warmer over the past several decades, and that's wreaked havoc on some cherished winter traditions in Minnesota.

FELIX JOHNSON: I'm sad.

KRAKER: In Duluth, it's been too warm to freeze neighborhood ice rinks, which is a serious bummer for 8-year-old hockey player Felix Johnson.

FELIX: I would usually like to come here and, like, skate, but, like, we can't because of the warm weather.

KRAKER: Felix's dad, Keith, says their neighborhood youth hockey association has postponed a big jamboree that was scheduled for this weekend. He says, two years ago, they had to shorten the tournament because it was so cold.

KEITH JOHNSON: This is just, like, amazing to see the difference from year to year.

KRAKER: But there is some hope for Minnesota winter lovers. The forecast calls for snow and colder temperatures this weekend.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Duluth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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