Around the Nation
3:00 pm
Sun January 15, 2012

Ski Resorts Blow Fake Snow For A 'Brown' Winter

Originally published on Sun January 15, 2012 4:37 pm

Across the Midwest and northeast this weekend, ski resort towns are celebrating the arrival of winter for the first time this season.

Terry Hill has been renting out cabins near Baxter State Park in Maine in 30 years, where she says they only received about four to five inches of snow on Saturday.

She usually rents her cabins to those who like to snowmobile, but those cabins are empty right now. She says Maine needs a couple more big storms to make up lost ground for what's been a brown winter.

"It doesn't feel right at all," Hill says. "We normally would have good snow in December."

In Homewood, Calif., 3,200 miles away, Rachel Woods, spokesperson at Homewood Mountain says a lack of snow means only beginner runs are open — and even then, only on the weekends.

There was some snowfall early on in the season, but since then it's been dry. Fortunately for the snow-making team at Homewood it has been cold.

"They've definitely been taking advantage of every chance possible to make snow," Woods says.

But making your own snow can be expensive, especially for smaller resorts, says Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, the largest winter resort company in the U.S.

"We've invested huge dollars in the most efficient snow-making equipment," Katz says. "And the good news is that snow-making equipment actually is getting more and more energy efficient, which is both good for the environment and reduces costs."

Meterologist Paul Douglas, founder of the Minneapolis-based weather company Broadcast Weather, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that Katz is getting his money's worth this year.

"First 10 days of January, warmest, driest in U.S. history," Douglas says. "Ninety-five percent of the country [is] experiencing below-average snow conditions."

Douglas says Minneapolis is finally getting "typical January weather," at 11 degrees and wind-chill dipping below zero, but earlier this week, it was 52 degrees.

"What's weird is that 15 to 20 cities set all-time rainfall records last year, seven states had the wettest year on record," Douglas says. "We've had crazy extremes, Texas in the midst of a historic drought while it's incredibly wet east of the Mississippi."

Last year's La Nina followed on the heels of a moderate El Nino and because we are now going from La Nina to La Nina, Douglas says, we should expect a shorter, tamer winter.

"As enjoyable as this is, it is disorienting," Douglas says. "Here in Minnesota, it's part of the ritual. [We ask], 'how many winters have you been here', not 'how many years have you been here'."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Across the Midwest and Northeast this weekend, ski resort towns are celebrating the arrival of winter for the first time all season. A woman named Terry Hill has been renting cabins for 30 years near Baxter State Park in Maine where yesterday...

TERRY HILL: We only got about four to five inches of snow, so it's pretty and white. Still not enough to get going yet, but it is a start.

RAZ: She usually rents her cabins to snowmobilers, but right now, they're empty. She says Maine needs a couple more big storms to make up for what's been a brown winter.

HILL: It doesn't feel right at all. This is - we normally would have good snow in December.

RAZ: Thirty-two hundred miles away in Homewood, California...

RACHEL WOODS: Today is sunny and cold. We had very cold temperatures overnight.

RAZ: Rachel Woods is the spokesperson at Homewood Mountain Ski Resort on Lake Tahoe. She says right now, only the beginner runs are open, and even then, only on the weekends.

WOODS: You know, it - we had some snowfall early in the season.

RAZ: Since then, it's been dry, but thankfully for the snowmaking team at Homewood, it's been cold.

WOODS: Yeah. They've definitely been taking advantage of every chance possible to make snow.

RAZ: And at Vail, one of the largest winter resorts in the country, CEO Rob Katz says they've been making artificial snow at an unprecedented pace this season.

ROB KATZ: We've invested huge dollars into the most efficient snowmaking equipment. And the good news is snowmaking equipment actually is getting more and more energy efficient, which is both good for the environment and lower costs.

RAZ: But why such a lack of snow this year? We called up meteorologist Paul Douglas, president of Broadcast Weather, to find out more.

PAUL DOUGLAS: First 10 days of January, warmest, driest in U.S. history.

RAZ: Wow.

DOUGLAS: Ninety-five percent of the country experiencing below average snow conditions.

RAZ: That's incredible.

DOUGLAS: So a lot of this is La Nina, the cooling phase of the Pacific, coupled with this nagging drought, and that drought is now expanding northward across the Plains towards the Upper Midwest.

RAZ: Hmm. You briefly mentioned La Nina. Can you explain that? Because I thought that La Nina was also responsible for last year's winter, which was, like, one of the snowiest on record.

DOUGLAS: Last year was probably the most extreme year in America's history.

RAZ: But 99 federal weather disasters in 2011.

DOUGLAS: Second only to 2010. I mean, I'm seeing things that I've never seen as a meteorologist. Just now, it looks like we're heading back into a more typical January pattern.

RAZ: If this was summertime and we were talking about such an absence of moisture - we would be talking about drought, of course - is there cause for concern? The fact that there has not been very much moisture in the country?

DOUGLAS: I think there's a lot of cause for concern. I think drought is going to be one of the big stories of 2012. And what happened in Texas last year - driest year on record, drier than the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s - that drought is now creeping northward across the Plains states. And if you don't have significant snow, you don't have any moisture to recharge the soil moisture for spring planting.

And so I'm very concerned if we don't get significant snow here in the next 60 days, we could be faced with a very significant drought in the nation's breadbasket.

RAZ: Well, that's my question: Where is the winter - I mean, should we expect a normal winter to come any time soon?

DOUGLAS: I think it would be premature to write off winter. There will be snow, there will be ice, there will be winter in February and March, but there's no question that even for the Northeast, the Great Lakes and the Upper Midwest, I still think this is going to wind up being one of the tamer Januarys in recent memory.

RAZ: That's meteorologist Paul Douglas. He's the founder of Broadcast Weather. It's a company with a new 24-hour weather channel. It's called Weather Nation. Paul, thanks so much.

DOUGLAS: Good to join you, Guy. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.