For many people the holidays signal the start of a joyous time — snow season. It means strapping on skis or hopping onto a sled to tear into soft, fluffy powder.
That’s the case for Greg Corio, who for almost two decades has been an avid ice climber.
"The only way to describe it is it’s magical," said Corio. "There’s so many features, and so many details and little knobs and little pieces and dripping water as you’re climbing up it. It’s like climbing up the side of Magic Kingdom’s castle.”
Ice climbing is a fickle sport. Prolonged bouts of cool temperatures are required in order for ice to form into thick enough layers to support climbing. In temperate West Virginia, there has traditionally been just a small window of time where climbers can get out on the ice. Enthusiasts are ready to drop everything when the opportunity presents itself, Corio said.
But in recent years, as temperatures have warmed, Corio said the window for ice climbing seems to be shrinking.
"We had several years in a row where we didn’t have any ice climbing at all," he said. "And it’s kind of sad, like 'wow, okay — that whole season, it never formed up.'"
He's not the only one who is concerned. West Virginia’s ski industry, which generates an estimated $250 million in economic benefits annually, has long relied on snowmaking to help it keep reliable powder on the ground. But in the face of climate change, one resort is investing in new technology, in part to prepare for a warmer future.
The ‘Art’ of Making Snow
During a recent visit to Snowshoe Mountain Resort, nestled high on West Virginia’s second-tallest peak, the air is thick with falling snow and the tell-tale whir of snowmaking machines.
"Basically, if we didn't have snowmaking here, we might not be able to open until February, maybe a couple of weeks in February," said Ty Tagmeyer, snowmaking manager at the resort. "We generally don't get a nice, a good heavy snow until late January, February. We will get dustings in, you know, a foot at a time, but to be able to open a ski trail, we need four to five feet of natural snow."
Snowshoe aims to open Thanksgiving week, the first of the state’s five resorts to open each year. In its more than 40 years of operation, it has always relied on snowmaking to supplement mother nature.
To replicate what nature does, Taymeyer’s snowmaking team takes highly-pressurized water and air and pipe it into a snow making machine, often called a snow gun. When the two elements collide, the water breaks into tiny particles. When they are blown into below freezing air they turn to snow. It’s a process he calls an "art" more than a science.
"It usually takes a season of making snow to learn how to make snow," he said. "Every gun is different and a lot of the older style ground guns, it’s more of an art to figure out how to make snow with those."
In recent years, warming temperatures, driven by climate change, is impacting the amount of time available for for snowmaking at Snowshoe, according to Shawn Cassell, the resort’s public relations manager.
"The snowmaking windows that we see — the windows of time when the temperature is low enough to make snow — have gotten shorter over the years," he said.
To hedge against future warming and to reduce its own electricity use, Snowshoe has invested more than $4 million in newer, more efficient snowmaking machines.
"We have to make as much snow as we used to, but in shorter buckets of time and the technology is keeping pace with that, and so continuing to invest in that technology is critical," he said.
Newer and Nimbler
Cassell takes me to see some of the new snowmaking machines. We head to Cupp Run, a long steep trail on the mountain’s western facing slope.
The run is outfitted with 75 stick guns. Snow flies out of these 30-foot high metal poles, no thicker than a pipe you might find under your kitchen sink. They’re quiet enough that we can have a conversation standing right underneath them.
"I think we've had these on since Monday afternoon and it was grass before that. So, it's Thursday and there's almost enough snow to open it," Cassell said.
Enough snow is an understatement. As we walk out on the run, we drop mid-thigh deep in icy powder.
The stick guns use eight percent of the energy some of the older machines use. In total, the equipment upgrades at Snowshoe save an estimated 5 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, or enough to power 500 homes. Some of the resort’s snow making machines have been automated to shut off when temperatures get too warm to make quality snow. The goal, Cassell said, is to be nimbler as snowmaking becomes an ever-increasingly important.
But boosting climate resilience isn't the top problem for everyone who works with West Virginia’s ski industry.
Joe Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Ski Areas Association, said the state’s variable topography has always meant West Virginia ski resorts have had to rely on snowmaking to provide that reliable product that skiers and snowboarders want.
"Traditionally in West Virginia, we have numerous freeze thaw cycles throughout the winter," he said. "That's just because of the situation and that's not a change from years past."
Over the years, one thing that has changed, Stevens said, is the amount of resorts offering summertime activities.
Many resorts across West Virginia and the country, including Snowshoe, have also boosted summer offerings to include mountain biking, hiking, swimming, ziplining and more.
While it makes financial sense to diversify, the move also serves as another hedge against climate change, especially warming temperatures.
Warmer and Wetter
Data from the last 50 years shows West Virginia is warmer than it once was, said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Compared to much of the rest of the United States, temperatures in West Virginia have not risen as much, but that is expected to change.
"So, we're kind of in a sweet spot right now where temperatures are warming, but they're not warming that fast for West Virginia yet," the Beckley native said. "That is expected to change in the coming decade."
Already, the data show temperature variability has changed.
"One thing we are seeing is that the really warm years are getting warmer and the really cold years are also getting warmer," Crouch said.
As a result of climate change, West Virginia is also getting more precipitation. This has increased flooding, and in the near term it could mean more snowfall for parts of West Virginia, he said, "until the temperatures increase to a point where that precipitation changes from snow to rain."
Nicolas Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology and director of the Mountain Hydrology Lab at West Virginia University, said in many ways how the Mountain State is experiencing climate change is unique, driven largely because West Virginia is impacted by weather patterns from multiple surrounding regions, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.
"The different weather systems combined with the complex topography means that we have a lot of variability in precipitation and streamflow and forest type and so on and so forth," he said.
And because West Virginia receives precipitation year-round, predicting how climate change will manifest in West Virginia gets tricky.
"The really the important thing is the system as we know it is changing because it's becoming more variable," he said.
Back at Snowshoe, Cassell said the increasing variability due to climate change is an important reason the company is investing in new, more efficient snowmaking equipment.
"I think that it's something that's always on our minds," he said. "I think with things like the snowmaking investment, we want everybody to try to lighten their carbon footprint, but we can't expect anybody else to if we're not. So, I think we're trying to really walk the walk and not just talk the talk."