Feb 9, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Climate change is crushing winter fun

melted ice in outdoor skating rink arena.

Melted ice in an outdoor skating rink arena in Alberta, Canada, in March 2019. Photo: Todd Korol /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

For many Americans, winter means ice skating, building snowmen and going skiing. But this year, many are missing out on the fun as the temperature stays stubbornly higher than normal.

Why it matters: Warming winters tied to human-caused climate change pose an existential threat to seasonal activities and sports, which require sustained cold temperatures and often snow.

  • In parts of Wyoming and Montana, for instance, the snowmobiling and cross-country skiing seasons are expected to shrink by 20%-60% by the end of the century under one warming scenario, per Sarah Blount, the program director of research and evaluation at the National Environmental Education Foundation.

State of play: Cold-weather communities across the U.S. are finding themselves affected by the unusually warm temperatures, forcing some events and traditions to be modified or canceled.

  • Climate change is warming up winters over the long term, but specific weather patterns, namely El Niño, also contributed to this winter's particularly warm temperatures.

Details: Minneapolis' Loppet Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes outdoor activities for the public, has found itself unable to host its usual array of events — like snowshoeing and tubing, executive director Claire Wilson tells Axios.

  • "People are sad," Wilson says. "They're bereft, really, because it's part of our culture. It's how you get through the long winter, through the dark days."
  • The foundation is slated to help host the Cross-Country World Cup later this month. It's trying to maintain a man-made ski loop until then, as the city experiences its warmest winter in recorded history.
  • When the group has been able to hold winter events this year, "the joy was palpable," Wilson says.

Plus: The ice at Colorado's Evergreen Lake outside of Denver — which describes itself as the "world's largest Zamboni-groomed outdoor ice rink" — wasn't thick enough for skating until late December, and couldn't support the Zamboni for another two weeks beyond that, manager Krista Emrich told Axios' Emma Hurt.

  • Syracuse, New York's annual Pond Hockey Classic had to be moved from Hiawatha Lake to a man-made rink downtown, also due to thin ice.
  • Officials at New Hampshire's Alton Bay Seaplane Base — which boasts the only ice runway in the Lower 48 states — said last week that the ice remained too thin and the runway would likely remain closed to planes this season.

Of note: The Great Lakes have been "unusually ice-free this winter," according to Climate Central.

  • "Long-term records show a 25% decrease in basin-wide ice cover as well as a trend toward fewer frozen days across the Great Lakes since 1973," the group found.

The bottom line: Shrinking winter recreation seasons will have a massive impact on host communities, where winter sports represent multimillion-dollar industries that drive tourism and generate economic revenue, Blount says.

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