Skiers, snowmobilers and the northern woods adapt to season’s shift
By Brandon Loomis
The Adirondack winter of 2015-2016 was one for the record books, and not in a promising way.
There was no December “Snowdeo” gathering for snowmobilers in Old Forge, and scarcely a snowmobile season later. It had snowed 1.6 inches in November. During the first week of December, riders wore T-shirts, a local official recalled.
That November snowfall on its own was not a record low in the village that proudly qualifies as an Adirondack snow capital. The weather station had twice charted just an inch in November, in 2001 and 2009. And neither was it a trend, exactly. The following November brought 10 times the snow; the previous one 15 times as much. Snow droughts have always visited occasionally, but that 2016 winter’s total—just 78.9 inches from Nov.1 through March 31 in a place that topped 400 inches one winter in the Disco Age—reflected what scientists say is an emerging reality in the changing climate.
A winter with snow that falls before Thanksgiving and consistently covers the northern forest’s floor until spring is increasingly rare.
A different world
Longtime winter High Peaks hiker Steve Mackey measures the change by his footwear. The Lake Luzerne grocer didn’t own and couldn’t have used microspikes on boots when he became the 150th person to register as a Winter 46er for climbing the park’s 46 highest summits, mostly in the early 1990s. Instead, he would lug snowshoes on his back up a hiker-packed trail such as the one to Marcy Dam, until he encountered deep powder. “You put them on after that and wore them all day,” he said. Once, he remembered, all the trees atop Mount Marcy, Gray Peak and Mount Skylight were buried.
More recently he has hiked High Peaks such as Mount Colden without ever slipping into snowshoes. No longer does he expect to turn back when the going gets deep, as in the old days. “You pretty much get where you’re going for unless there’s a blizzard.”
Maddie Phaneuf has experienced and noticed the change in less than two decades. She would. She’s a world-class cross-country skier on the U.S. biathlon team, for whom snow cover is nothing short of elemental. She first strapped on Nordic skis when her family moved her to Old Forge at 8. Those early years of the 2000s were indeed usually snowier. Old Forge’s records indicate that winters, on average, have lost at least a foot in each successive decade since 1970. (The village still averaged 11 feet in the last decade, the 2010s.)
“Our winters are shorter on both ends of the season,” Phaneuf told the Adirondack Explorer by email from Germany, where she placed fourth in a field of 124 at the International Biathlon Union’s IBU Cup. “This is happening pretty much anywhere I’ve traveled, but obviously I’ve been able to see the difference more clearly in Old Forge since that’s where I grew up.”
She remembered snows that started around Thanksgiving and stuck until at least March. “Nowadays, that’s very much not the case.”
Now Phaneuf lives in Lake Placid, a two-time Winter Olympic host village where it rained last Christmas.
“It’s been hard to watch,” she said, “but I remain hopeful that we can still make a difference.”
More about Maddie
Read a profile about Maddie Phaneuf and her environmental advocacy work
For Phaneuf, that means speaking out for climate action as one among dozens of snow-sport athletes allied with advocates at POW, or Protect Our Winters.
For the state authority that hosts her training and New York’s biggest alpine ski resorts, it means shifting to cleaner energy.
The Olympic Regional Development Authority operates Whiteface and Gore mountains for downhill skiers in the Adirondacks. It also runs Mount Van Hoevenberg, home to Nordic skiers in training, like Phaneuf. ORDA started buying solar power as a way of reducing its footprint (and protecting its winters) five years ago.
“It’s a commitment to the lifestyle,” ORDA President & CEO Mike Pratt said.
Rather than installing its own solar panels on Gore Mountain, ORDA committed to using the power from a developer’s 5.3-megawatt solar farm in Washington County. Technically, the power doesn’t flow directly to the mountain, but Gore gets credits for power when its share enters the grid. Last year, ORDA made a similar commitment for Whiteface, accounting for 2.6 megawatts at another solar array near Plattsburgh. The result is that Gore offsets 80% of the power to run its snowmakers, lifts and lights, while Whiteface offsets 40%. The rates for such bulk use made the investment roughly a break-even proposition, Pratt said, and the authority has the right to buy out other partners in the solar farms if it wants more.
“We wanted to be renewable,” Pratt said. “We wanted to sustain the business as much as possible.”
Globally speaking, carbon reduction is the goal. Locally, though, adaptation is part of the plan.
Whiteface and Gore have smoothed out their seasons with technically advanced snowmaking and grooming equipment. The new guns are water- and energy-efficient and can make snow in a wider range of weather conditions. The result is a nearly five-month season that wouldn’t be possible in today’s Adirondacks if ORDA hadn’t upgraded its technology since the turn of the century.
The ski runs stay open through dramatic swings and freeze-thaw cycles. Storms dumping an inch of rain on the winter slopes were unusual decades ago but now happen a few times a year, Pratt said. Two such storms struck in December, and the skiing went on.
A brutal season
Likewise, snowmaking at Van Hoevenberg is a boon to Nordic skiers. The trails there were the East’s only outside of northern Maine to open by Thanksgiving last fall.
About that winter of 2015-2016, though. It shows up in Whiteface and Gore lift pass numbers as surely as in Old Forge’s snow accumulation records. The mountains have combined to attract at least 386,000 skiers in seven of the last eight seasons. The eighth was 2015-2016, off by more than 100,000 skiers.
Cross-country conditions around the park also sagged. A National Weather Service station in Tupper Lake recorded less than 3 feet throughout that winter—none of it until Dec. 20, the latest ever.
Out there on the forest, it’s not just skiers who suffer. The trees themselves sustain root damage when brutal cold penetrates snowless soils. One surprising result is a springtime blast of nitrogen oozing across the landscape to pollute streams and lakes.
That’s what happened in 1990, a Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies scientist said, and research on Northeastern forests suggests it’s a problem that’s worsening as the climate warms. The combination of fewer snow days and warmer waters could supercharge the park’s emerging problem with harmful algal blooms.
“If you dump a bunch of nutrients into the lake, you’re going to get an algal bloom,” said Peter Groffman, a soil ecologist with the Cary Institute and the City University of New York.
Scientists around the Northeast noted a spike in waterborne nitrogen in the spring and summer of 1990. One of them, at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, suggested it was because of a deep freeze that occurred over winter when there was little or no snow to insulate the soil.
Here’s what National Weather Service data from Newcomb have to say about that winter: On Nov. 28, 1989, it was 47 degrees, the fourth day in a row that topped out above the melting point. The next three days brought about a quarter-inch of snow before the temperature plunged to -20 on Dec. 1, a record for that date. Further snowfalls added about three-quarters of an inch over the next few weeks, until Newcomb’s low temperature hit -31.
Such low temperatures penetrate deep into soils when they lack a cozy snow blanket. The cold damages or kills roots, which then suck up less of the nitrogen that decomposing leaf litter had deposited in the soil. That nitrogen instead washes into streams.
Roots of change
Groffman became intrigued with that winter’s apparent connection to nitrogen seepage. In 1997, he set up a plot at Hubbard Brook, a U.S. Forest Service research forest in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Honor students from the University of New Hampshire snowmobiled to the study site and shoveled 900-square-foot clearings to expose soil. Instruments in the soil there and under adjacent snow-covered plots measured the temperature gradient.
“It worked perfectly,” Groffman said, and through the years the site has documented both major root damage and significant phosphorus and nitrogen leaching from the uncovered plots.
The surprise, Groffman said, was how little it took to kill roots. In a lab, it took temperatures colder than 10 degrees below zero. On the ground, mortality started at 3 below.
The findings raised concern for the region’s ecology and economy, starting with maple trees. As with much of the Adirondacks, the Hubbard Brook site is a northern hardwood forest, and maples are taking a hit.
Like the Adirondacks, the New Hampshire site is mountainous, with more snow tending to fall the farther up one looks for it. The result, Groffman said, is that even the lower-elevation areas that the students don’t shovel endure more frozen soil than the uphill areas do. That suggests that as the region warms further and snowfall becomes less consistent, trees will suffer more damage—possibly leading to a shift in forest composition.
And Hubbard Brook statistics confirm what many Northerners understand intuitively: The snow season is shrinking. Continuous tracking since the 1950s has found snow cover’s annual duration has declined by more than two weeks on average.
It still snows a lot in the Northeast, Groffman noted, and some of the biggest storms are actually turbocharged by warming and the resulting air moisture. But there are and will continue to be fewer days with snow on the ground.
Making it work
In response, snow-dependent businesses and recreationists that researchers at Hubbard Brook have surveyed are changing their approach. Now ski areas tend to have longer seasons—not shorter—because they embrace snowmaking, Groffman said. Snowmobilers remove rocks and sometimes groom trails to enable sledding on a thinner base.
“It’s an impressive adaption to climate change,” he said.
It’s happening in Old Forge. There, the Town of Webb grooms 36 snowmobile trails that loop through 500 square miles.
Old Forge is on the side of the park that sometimes cashes in on the wealth of snow that warm air rising off of Lake Ontario deposits. The nearby Tug Hill Plateau gets more of that lake-effect snow, Webb tourism and publicity director Mike Farmer acknowledged. But Tug Hill’s doesn’t last because it’s not groomed. “A week later, their snow has completely dissipated and we are still packing it in, grooming it down,” he said.
Still, there’s no denying the foreboding trendline, even for a hometown booster like Farmer.
“At times it’s just as intense as it ever was, but overall it feels like the season is shorter and snow totals are less,” he said.
“I don’t know whether it’s a seven-year cycle, a 70-year cycle or 700.”
Judging from the handwritten numbers on his visitor center’s chart, the change is beyond year 50 and counting.
Don’t miss a thing
This article is in the March/April 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer.
Sign up to get the magazine delivered 7 times a year to your mailbox!