The Last Gasp of Winter Sports
Skiers, snowboarders, and cross-country athletes are in mourning for snow.
On January 15, as the first major winter storm of the season screeched across the U.S., Minneapolis’ Theodore Wirth Regional Park remained cold, hard, and — most stubbornly — brown. “We continue to be denied any measurable amount of snow,” read the park’s trail report for the day. “Frozen dandruff-covered dirt is our destiny for the time being.”
In a few weeks, over Presidents Day weekend, the park is scheduled to host the United States’ first cross country skiing World Cup in more than 20 years. For an event like that, “dandruff-covered dirt” simply will not cut it. “We’re really excited to have a great event there with tons of friends and family,” Gus Schumacher, a 2022 Winter Olympian in skiathlon, told me. While he still has hope, the Twin Cities’ snow deficit remains around 18 inches for the season. “We have to cross our fingers for some winter in the next month,” he said.
For the 30 million Americans who enjoy snow sports every year, this sort of finger-crossing has become as much of a pre-season ritual as tightening bindings and waxing skis. While scientists have long taken note of dwindling snowpack — the Fifth National Climate Assessment, released last year, specifically cited winter recreation as a pending cultural and economic victim of climate change — data had only shakily linked snow level to human-driven warming until recently. This month, a study published in Nature confirmed that it’s not all in our heads: Some parts of the U.S. are losing 10% to 20% of their snowpack per decade because of anthropogenic climate change.
Perhaps even more concerning, the study’s authors found that snow loss has a tipping point: Once the average winter temperature in a region warms beyond 17 degrees Fahrenheit (-8 degrees Celsius), snow loss rapidly accelerates, even with small temperature rises.
In spite of headlines about arctic blasts and photos of buried football fields, snow levels in many parts of the country have remained worryingly low at the midpoint of this year’s meteorological winter — and temperatures, on average, remain high. In early January, most ski areas in the U.S. were only operating half of their lifts, “which is unusual for this time of year,” Chance Keso, a senior news producer for On the Snow, which tracks ski conditions, told me. “Typically,” he explained, “we would see most resorts almost all completely open by this time of year.”
The recent storm systems have helped somewhat, Keso said — Alyeska, a ski area in Alaska, “passed the 400 inches mark a few weeks ago.” But even Buffalo, which received record snow in January, is tracking behind average when the whole season is considered. In California, where the ski industry is a $1.6 billion business, snowpack is only 57% of normal.
Likewise, meteorologist Sven Sundgaard wrote for Minneapolis’ Bring Me the News that this winter has been “pretty weak” in Minnesota. It has been cold, no doubt, and yet “nowhere in the state reached 25 [degrees Fahrenheit] below zero, which should EASILY happen in a January cold snap in northern Minnesota, even in our much warmer climate,” he said. (This week, temperatures are expected to be 10 to 15 degrees above normal across the state.) On the Snow reported that, as of Monday, “snowpack levels across Minnesota are currently 73% of normal.”
Counterintuitive as it may be, researchers expect climate change to bring more snow to certain places, as extremely cold parts of the world warm to more snow-friendly temperatures and increased precipitation from a warmer atmosphere results in more flurries. Parts of Siberia and the northern Great Plains appear to be experiencing a deepening snowpack of over 20% per decade, Justin Mankin and Alexander Gottlieb, the co-authors of the Nature paper, found in their research. But just because snow loss hasn’t hit an area yet doesn’t mean it won’t soon; “basins that are hovering right at the edge of that cliff, for whom major snow losses have not yet emerged, are about to see the snow losses emerge,” Mankin said.
Despite the worries about Minnesota’s upcoming World Cup, Susanna Sieff — the sustainability director for the Switzerland-based International Ski and Snowboard Federation (known by its French initials, FIS) — told me that event cancellations for the six Olympic snow sport disciplines this season have so far “been on par with previous seasons.” A spate of foiled World Cups in Zermatt, Italy, Beaver Creek, Colorado, and the French Alps in late 2023, she said, was “due to inclement weather and not lack of snowfall.”
Still, Sieff admitted that “for those that needed a wake-up call, the last few years have certainly provided it.” 2022 was especially bad for competitive ski and snowboarding — the organization canceled seven of its eight early-season World Cups for lack of snow. This month, FIS released an updated sustainability action plan that runs through the 2026 season and includes a particular focus on mitigation, environmental justice, and responsible stewardship. (Protect Our Winters, an environmental advocacy group that put me in touch with Schumacher, the ski athlete who serves as one of their ambassadors, has pressured FIS to be more transparent given the existential crisis facing competitive snow sports. My father is a longtime FIS event volunteer.)
Resort operators are increasingly using machine-made snow as a fall-back plan — as Schumacher told me, in cross-country, “we ski on warm, manmade snow far more than was the case 10 years ago.” It’s also common for XC events to move to alternate venues where snow can be stretched further. For example, Lillehammer, Norway has hosted a World Cup race in nine of the past 10 years. But “since I came on the World Cup in 2020, we haven’t been able to use the marquee trails built for the 1994 Olympics,” Schumacher said.
It’s also expensive. Snowmaking can eat up to 15% of a ski area’s operating budget, draining the pockets of small and independent resorts. The consequence is yet another illustration of how climate change hits “the most vulnerable system and the most vulnerable people in that system,” Mankin said. “The ski industry is a really clear example of where you’re going to see consolidation onto better resourced, higher, more exclusive mountains that have the ability to produce human-made snow — and which are more difficult for the general population to access.”
Since the 1970s, ski areas in the U.S. have dwindled from roughly 1,000 locations to only about 470, according to SnowBrains, a ski and snowboard publication. It’s a trend climate change is helping to accelerate. That, of course, means fewer areas for athletes to compete and practice, as well as fewer local hills and trails for would-be athletes to fall in love with the sport.
For those in the snow sports world, this is nothing short of heartbreaking. The average American already doesn’t watch snow sports and “shouldn’t really care” whether cross-country or downhill skiing competitions survive, Schumacher told me. But the consequences are bigger than just competitive and recreational snow sports having shorter seasons of poorer quality or becoming more exclusive. A lack of snow is also about critical watersheds that are strained when snow doesn’t fall in the mountains, leaving ecosystems damaged and agriculture unirrigated. Heck, it’s about hardy, stoic Minnesotans losing what it means to be hardy, stoic Minnesotans. “What they should care about,” Schumacher said of his fellow Americans, “is the effects of climate change that come after the death of snow sport as we know it.”
Mankin told me something similar. “What happens in winter,” he warned, “doesn’t stay in winter.”