Warmer winter temperatures are causing snow totals in many areas around the Great Lakes to drop dramatically. Scientists say a warmer climate means less lake effect snow. That leaves snow enthusiasts and businesses that depend on snow scrambling to try to adapt.
Mount Bohemia is a small ski resort in the very northern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It sits on land that juts out into Lake Superior and offers the steepest vertical drop in the state at 900 feet. The views are stunning as you ski between old-growth maple and pine trees covered with snow. Getting more than 300 inches of fresh powder during the winter isn’t uncommon in this part of the U.P.
Some say it’s the best skiing this side of the Rockies.
“It really sets itself apart, honestly,” says Jon Royle, an avid skier who’s been making trips up to Mount Bohemia for the past decade. “It really doesn’t compare to other resorts.”
Royle says he loves the tight glade runs, steeper terrain, and fresh, ungroomed trails.
This year, he planned a trip to the resort with his 10 year-old son Tyler. But when mid-January rolled around, there was no trip to plan because there wasn’t enough snow.
“It’s really really hard for a father to tell his son that we can’t go on a trip … because Mother Nature is not cooperating, he says. “It sucks, it really does.”
According to the Keweenaw County Road Commission, the area is down about 120 inches of snow compared to last year.
“We’re just not getting arctic air coming down from Canada," says Mount Bohemia President Lonie Glieberman.
For decades, the resort has relied on massive lake effect snow dumps to attract skiers and snowboarders from all over the country ― but not this year.
And the thought of buying and deploying snow making machines has never really been a consideration.
But the warm winter this year is forcing Glieberman to think about it. He says most of the feedback he’s gotten so far about manufacturing snow has been negative.
“It’s like if you were the best New York pizzeria and you couldn't serve pizzas so you put on chicken wings on your menu instead, you’re still open for food but that’s not why your customers come to you,” Glieberman says. “So we could be open with snow making runs, but that’s not why the people drive 7-10 hours to ski us.”
Mount Bohemia finally opened some of its runs on Wednesday, but it was the latest opening in the resort’s 21-year history.
Glieberman says they’ll be okay if this year is just a blip on the radar, but he worries it might not be.
“If this became the new normal, that’s a real problem.”
A seven hour drive south in East Jordan, Randy Danforth is facing a similar problem. In a normal winter, he’d now be busy selling and servicing snowmobiles.
But like many in northern Michigan this year, he’s glued to the weather forecast and praying for snow.
“We can have the greatest product in the world,” he says. “If we don’t have snow in our area to sell the sleds, then they just don’t sell.”
Snow is critical not only for his business, but for the entire economy here. Bars, restaurants, motels, and other places depend on mounds of snow to bolster winter tourism.
“The bread and butter months for an average snow community – December, January, February – are huge,” Danforth says.
Some scientists say this year's warm winter in the midwest is something to get used to.
"I think the writing not only is on the wall, I think the writing is here," says Richard Rood, a professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan. "This winter is realizing the warmth of the planet."
Rood says warm, dry air is pushing up into the Great Lakes region, and that’s contributing to the low levels of lake effect snow so far this year. He thinks consistently cold winters with lots of snow as we’ve known them in the past may not be realistic anymore.
“We are not going to be able to have the same relationship to the climate and to the environment that we have had over our lifetimes, and over our parents' and grandparents' lifetimes,” he explains.
Rood says because the planet is historically warm due to high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, a transition from snow to rain as the primary form of precipitation might be expected decades from now.
That means outdoor winter pastimes like ice fishing, or skiing and snowmobiling in the midwest, could melt into memories sooner than later. And the economies depending on consistent snow and freezing temperatures might not be far behind.