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Virginia ski resorts innovate through warming winters

Mallory Noe-Payne
Radio IQ

It’s a 50 degree day in mid-March, but a couple lifts are still running at Massanutten. The snow here isn’t fake, explains snowmaking manager Jesse Reist, but it is man-made.

“So the air and the water mix and then the fan propels it out of the front of the gun and it freezes. Well, we hope, it freezes before it falls,” Reist says with a chuckle.

Last week the world’s leading climate scientists released another grim report: climate change is worsening. In the face of this uncertain future, Virginia ski resorts are working hard to still provide snow in varying conditions.

Getting that air and water combination to freeze before it hits the ground requires temperatures below 30 degrees. In this part of the country those conditions often occur overnight.

“The night crew does most of the production and then the day crew gets ready for the next night,” explains Reist.

Kenny Hess, who’s worked here for 40 years, adds that ski resorts in the Southeast have never really been able to depend on Mother Nature.

“There wouldn’t be skiing in Virginia without snowmaking there never would have been,” Hess says, adding that the biggest change he’s seen over the years isn’t in weather patterns but in technology.

“30 years ago we would make snow on one trail and then we’d take all those snow guns and we’d move them to the next trail… and then you’d move it to the next trail. It’s how you opened up the mountain.”

Mallory Noe-Payne

This resort, as well as nearby Wintergreen, has invested in tech that allows them to take advantage of smaller windows of time to make snow. Even still, Wintergreen had to close the slopes early this year, after zero inches of natural snowfall.

“Once you start to see daffodils and crocuses, it’s not just the snow that melts but I think just the overall desire to ski kind of wanes,” says Lori Zaloga, director of marketing.”

Zaloga says they haven’t noticed a significant shortening of the winter season yet, but maybe that’s because they’ve always had to deal with highly variable weather patterns.

“We happen to go through the peaks and valleys and we’ll take it as it comes,” Zaloga says. “We build, we melt, we build, we melt…and we keep going. So we are pretty resilient in that matter.”

Jeremy Hoffman is a climate scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia. He agrees Virginia’s winter sports industry has always had to contend with uncooperative, and dramatic, shifts in weather year over year.

“We all know that our weather can be very, very, specific in Virginia,” Hoffman says. “You know somebody living two blocks away from you can have a very different rainfall total or snowfall total.”

But hidden underneath that surface level noise a slower bigger trend absolutely does lurk: warming winters. And specifically overnight lows.

“So the minimum of minimum temperatures. The coldest of the coldest nights,” Hoffman says. “Those are even in the near term expected to increase by about 2-degrees Celsius in the next 20 to 40 years.”

And those are the temps Virginia resorts rely on for snowmaking. Hoffman says it’s a testament to the industry’s innovation and grit that skiing exists in the state at all. But whether it continues to exist will take action right now to lower carbon emissions.

“Are we all going to stand up and help an industry that is already challenged by the year to year conditions, already using the tip of the spear of the innovation that’s available to them?” Hoffman asks. “It’s in our hands whether or not ski season continues for Virginians long term.”

Back at Massanutten, Kenny Hess says they’re still banking on ski season being around for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worried.

“I don’t want my kids and my grandkids and their kids to not have the things that we had you know growing up. So you know that’s important to all of us here. We’re a family resort, we’re employee owned.”

And those owners are making decisions with that in mind. They recently added two solar arrays and construction is underway on a third.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.