Mild winter taking toll on Pittsburgh region's skiers, resorts
December 31, 2015 12:00 AM
A snowboarder makes his way down the front slopes Wednesday at Seven Spring Mountain resort.
Skiers take the lift to the slopes Wednesday at Seven Spring Mountain resort.
By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At the height of the holiday ski season, resorts in the region are waiting impatiently for sub-freezing temperatures with the hot spell making it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain snow cover.
The impact has led to mass cancellations, lower numbers of seasonal staff and pent-up anxiety for skiers and snowboarders.
“This is the worst season I’ve seen here in years, and I’ve been here for 40 years,” said Brad Gravink, director of operations at Peek’n Peak in Clymer, N.Y., which had only three of 27 slopes open. “We need to get back on the slopes and make more snow with temperatures good tonight and the rest of the week.”
Things were not much better Wednesday at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County, where only four of its 33 slopes were open. All the slopes and trails were closed at Hidden Valley Resort, also in Somerset County; Snowshoe Mountain Resort in Snowshoe, W.Va.; and Canaan Valley Resort in Davis, W.Va. Canaan won’t open until Jan. 6.
“It’s bad and obviously not optimal,” said Alex Moser, director of marketing and communications for Seven Springs and Hidden Valley. Seven Springs opened Dec. 23 and has managed to remain open.
Snowshoe opened Dec. 11, shut down Dec. 14, then reopened on the 18th, before shutting down yet again on Sunday, the day before the peak days (Dec. 28 and 29) for resorts.
“It’s painful,” said Dave Dekema, Snowshoe’s vice president of marketing. “We’re in the same boat as pretty much all skiers on the East Coast. We haven’t had natural snow to any extent and temperatures are now cooperating with snow-making. We were late opening and couldn’t keep open so we’ve shut down and reopened. But we’ll be opening very shortly and anticipate the slopes will be back open this weekend.”
The impact also means many seasonal employees have not yet been called to work at resorts with peak employment exceeding 4,000 people. Mr. Moser at Seven Springs said it remained open only because they made lots of snow two weeks ago. “It’s going to be interesting to see what’s going to happen,” he said, “But we’re staying positive, and we’ll make a ton of snow tonight and through the weekend.”
Staying positive could be a challenge.
A gradual cool-down to normal winter temperatures will occur Friday through Monday, with highs in the 30s and lows in the 20s. By Wednesday, temperatures could rebound into the 40s with lows in the upper 20s and low 30s, said Bill Modzelewski, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
The average temperature this December has been 44.9 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest since 1889, when temperatures averaged 45.6. The historic average for December is 32.4 degrees, which means this month has 12.5 degrees above average, he said.
While total precipitation is slightly higher than average, the mere 0.3 inches of snow this winter is well below the 10.8-inch average. “The outlook is for above-normal temperatures and slightly below normal precipitation for the rest of the winter,” Mr. Modzelewski said.
Climate change and El Nino have conspired to warm things to a point where people were wearing T-shirts, short pants and sandals and playing golf in December.
“I do think this is a historic event, which underscores just how dramatic the impacts of climate change are becoming and how we’re seeing it play out in the form of unprecedented weather events,” said Michael Mann, the noted Penn State University climatologist.
There even was a report in The Atlantic magazine that North Pole temperatures were expected to rise Wednesday above freezing — a rarity in the dead of winter — but Penn State University meteorologists said any melting ice at the North Pole was unlikely.
There’s no way to prove that temperatures Wednesday climbed above freezing, although Arctic temperatures are 40 to 45 degrees higher than typical temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit.
David W. Titley, director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, said the storm that brought warm weather over Christmas throughout the Eastern United States now has delivered warm air to Arctic latitudes, which “is consistent with a rapidly changing, warming and melting Arctic.”
“It is very warm relative to what we normally see this time of year but I’m cautious about saying the North Pole is melting,” he said.
But he, too, predicted a tough winter for skiers.
”You can be the best-run ski resort in the world but if temperatures are in the 40s there’s nothing you can do about it,“ said Mr. Titley, who holds a Ph.D. “I hope I’m wrong. I like to ski but it looks like a tough, tough season unless they get actual, no-kidding cold weather.”
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.
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