Mild winters: A blip or troubling sign for Pennsylvania skiing?

 

Camera icon Frank kummer / Staff
Skiers at Shawnee Mountain in the eastern Poconos on Presidents' Day weekend 2017.

Especially after two mild winters, the eastern Pennsylvania ski industry wasted no time in welcoming this weekend’s cold snap.

“It’s not over yet!” crowed an email blast from Spring Mountain, one of the closest ski areas to Philadelphia. The email promised ramped-up snowmaking at the resort near Schwenksville, as well as steeply discounted lift tickets and equipment rentals to lure skiers who thought spring was here to stay.

Another 40 minutes farther north, this weekend’s Eastern Pennsylvania Ski Council Cup Race at Bear Creek Mountain, in Lehigh County, is back in business after facing near-certain cancellation due to dry or slushy slopes.

Weather readings in Scranton, even further north and closer to the Poconos ski areas, tell the tale of just how tough these times have been for the industry.

  • The three months ending Feb. 28 saw an average temperature of 34.3 degrees — nearly 6 degrees above normal.  
  • Last winter, the average temperature was 35.1 — 6.6 degrees above normal. It was the second warmest of 116 recorded seasons. In fact, four of the five warmest winters since 1900 have occurred in the last 17 years.
  • Snowfall for the 2015-16 season was 12 inches, or nearly 19 inches below normal. The current season has had 18.3 inches of snow, still more than a foot less than the norm. (Snowfall varied throughout the region; most resorts now boast high-capacity snowmaking.)

But skiers are a hardy lot and have learned to work around nature.  

Christina Lynch and daughter Kathrynn, 11, drove to Shawnee Mountain in the Poconos early one day last month, when the calendar said winter but the thermometer said spring.

“In the morning it’s fine,” said Lynch, of Rockville Centre, N.Y, a regular at the mountain, who has learned to anticipate what happens when the sun has been out for a few hours on a well-above-freezing day. “We plan to leave by afternoon.”

On that Presidents' Day weekend, the mercury was headed to the 50s. Since then, Pennsylvania ski country, which includes the Poconos and northeast counties, has seen winter temperatures in the 60s and even the 70s.

“It’s no surprise to see the trend in snowfall going down and the trend in temperatures going up,” says Jessica Spaccio, a climatologist at the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

“Our winters are warming as well, and with that the precipitation is falling more as rain and less as snow.”

The snow that does fall does not stick around as long as it did when temperatures were lower, Spaccio said. To examine Northeast Pennsylvania trends, she crunched data for Scranton.

 

Camera icon Jessica Spaccio / Northeast Regional Climate Center
Average temperature for each winter for Scranton since 1900. Red marks the trend line.
 

Average snowfall over time for Scranton. Red marks the trend line. (Reliable data are missing in some areas because of collection issues.)


Dean Iovino, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, said there is consensus that climate change is real, but he prefers to consider long-range trends, not one season.

“One mild winter is not necessarily attributable to climate change,” Iovino said. For instance, after days of warm temperatures, Friday dawned considerably cooler, and cold weather is forecast this weekend.

The ski industry is reluctant to complain publicly about the weather, but global warming -- and public perceptions of it -- are clearly factors in the business.

“Climate change and greenhouse effects may adversely impact our results of operations,” Peak Resorts, the parent company of Pennsylvania’s Jack Frost and Big Boulder facilities, wrote in a 2016 annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Jack Frost and Big Boulder comprise 308 acres in the heart of the Poconos.

“Our business is vulnerable to the risk of unseasonably warm weather conditions and skier perceptions of weather conditions,” Peak Resorts stated.

The White Haven-based Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association, which includes 20 facilities, says three million skiers and snowboarders hit slopes each year.

“Here at Shawnee Mountain, we’re hanging in,” said spokesman, Jim Tust. Presidents' Day weekend was “strong, business-wise,” despite mild weather.  

“Families, beginners taking lessons, and snow-tubers” enjoyed the spring-like conditions, he said.

Shawnee will make snow until March 19, or possibly up to March 26, if it remains cold enough -- meaning the overnight temperatures need to be below freezing.

Brian Bossuyt, a Poconos Mountains Visitors Bureau spokesman, said this winter has been better than last year.

The 2015-16 season was “challenging,” as resorts couldn’t even open until January. This year, he said, Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekends were solidly booked.

“I don’t know if we see it as a trend,” he said of higher temperatures. “I’ve been in the resort industry for a long time. ... We could be seeing a cycle of five years of warming, followed by five years of cold.”

Bossuyt notes the region is not solely dependent on winter sports. The Poconos -- Carbon, Wayne, Pike and Monroe Counties -- draw 26 million visitors year-round. Summer is actually the biggest draw, followed by winter and fall. About 35 percent of the local workforce is involved in tourism.

This season has prompted some creativity. Blue Mountain kicked off a "Mercury Rising’’ event last week with reduced lift-ticket prices. How much of a reduction depends on how cold -- or warm -- it gets.

Moderate temperatures haven’t been the only weather challenge. A rare 120 mph winter tornado on Feb. 25 ripped a path through Lackawanna County, lifting just north of Montage Mountain ski resort, injuring two people at Lake Scranton. It damaged 28 homes, knocked down over a thousand trees, and cut power at Montage, forcing the ski area to close for days. It has since reopened.

To adapt to changing weather in recent years, ski resorts increased off-season offerings including wine festivals, obstacle runs, zip lines, concerts, and waterparks.

Like resort operators, some skiers look on the bright side.

 


The Cross family skiing at Blue Mountain in late February.

“We got a full day of skiing in without the crowds,” said Jaime Cross of Gloucester Township, whose family went snowboarding at Blue Mountain on a day when temperatures soared into the 70s.

“When we weren’t skiing or snowboarding, we were able to sit outside.” A regular, she called it “one of the best days yet.”

But Alpine Mountain Ski Resorts, in the Poconos’ Monroe County, may offer a cautionary tale. The 97-acre property went up for sale in January with a suggested offer of $750,000 -- the fallout of a bankruptcy.

“Alpine’s problems were more complicated than just the weather,” explained Stroudsburg attorney Philip W. Stock, who spoke on behalf of Alpine principals. “But the unusually warm weather the end of February and beginning of March [2016] was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”