Maine’s storied ski resort bets on the future to rein in high costs of warmer winters

BRIDGTON, Maine – Billy Dolliver’s blue eyes sparkled against the mountain snow. Temperatures in the mid 20’s kept the ski trail from getting muddy. The sun was warm enough not to freeze in the elevator.

The 72-year-old has been skiing the slopes of Shawnee Peak since he was 12, when his father, a boat builder, made his first pair of skis from flukes. He has noticed that the winters are getting warmer with less snow, but the skiing is better than ever thanks to modern grooming and artificial snowmaking.

“It’s really amazing that I can sit here and tell you that the quality of skiing is better now than it was 40 years ago with the temperatures rising,” he said.

Billy Dolliver, 72, stands silent on a bend at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton on Wednesday February 16, 2022. Dolliver has been skiing the mountain since he was 12 and said that despite climate change conditions are better than ever, thanks to modern snow-making techniques. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Poor snow conditions have put pressure on small ski runs across the country. Unable to meet the costs of adjusting to warmer winters, many New Englanders became less competitive or closed off. To stay in business, ski resorts have had to produce more snow while investing millions of dollars in energy-efficient equipment to minimize their environmental impact. This balance will decide the fate of the industry.

“Climate change is arguably the biggest and most detrimental issue facing winter outdoor activity,” said Nick Sargent, president of national trade association Snowsports Industries America.

Temperatures are rising globally as pollution traps more heat, affecting the amount of snow that falls on ski areas and resorts nationwide. Although climate change generally means less snowfall overall, parts of Maine’s interior have been among the regions that have seen increases recently, with storms pulling in more moisture from the warming Atlantic Ocean.

But winter rains have become more common since the mid-1970s, eroding snow packs. The average minimum temperature in the Shawnee Peak region in winter has increased nearly 6 degrees since 1975, while average snowfall rates have decreased in the spring, according to data from the North Conway, New Hampshire, weather station.

Unreliable snow conditions affect ski resorts and activities around the world. The use of artificial snow for the Winter Olympics has increased since the 1980s, with this year’s Beijing Games taking place in an arid climate that required it to be the first to use all artificial snow to ensure uniform conditions of competition.

A skier carves a turn at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Modern advancements in snowmaking technology are helping ski areas in Maine stay open despite global warming. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

At Shawnee Peak and other ski areas in Maine, a big challenge is freeze-thaw events, where snowfall is quickly followed by rain, then a cold snap that turns slush into ice. . These occurrences have become more frequent over the past 15 years, so more aggressive snowmaking is a necessity, said Ralph Lewis, general manager of Shawnee Peak. The resort devotes half of its budget to artificial snowmaking.

“We will see more precipitation in the future, and more of it will fall as rain,” said Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist with the Maine Geological Survey. “But I think places like Shawnee Peak and other big mountains that have invested in snowmaking technology are going to do well.”

So far, Shawnee Peak and other major ski resorts in Maine have been able to keep pace with the snowfall necessary for business to thrive. Skiing and related hotel and restaurant operations for the state’s 18 downhill ski resorts contribute $1 billion and 5,000 jobs to Maine’s economy, said Dirk Gouwens, executive director of Ski Maine. Association. Nationally, snowboarders, skiers and snowmobilers contribute tens of billions of dollars to the economy each year, according to an analysis by the University of New Hampshire.

“As the efficiency of the equipment increased, we were able to produce more snow to compensate for any gaps we might have in the weather,” Gouwens said. “The ski industry in Maine has been remarkably consistent and has seen increased demand over the years.”

Shawnee Peak, the oldest large alpine ski area in the state which opened in 1937, ranks third among the most visited ski areas in the state with 40 runs. It was the premier place to ski in Maine until the 1980s when it fell behind other ski resorts due to lack of snowmaking equipment.

A skier zooms between two large snow machines at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Modern advancements in snowmaking technology are helping ski areas in Maine stay open despite global warming. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

The ski resort installed its first snowmaking system in 1981, but the mountain was revived in 1997, when a new owner invested $1.2 million to upgrade the resort, including the chairlifts. Since then, millions of dollars have been invested in more efficient snowmaking machines and snow groomers. The resort regularly spends $600,000 a year on new equipment, with snow guns taking priority.

The inability to make large investments has reduced ski areas and led to consolidation in recent decades in Maine and across the country. Nationally, 462 resorts operated during the 2020 to 2021 winter season, down 15% from nearly 30 years ago, according to the National Association of Ski Resorts.

Maine has lost 79 ski areas in its history, most of them family runs where skiers were introduced to the sport, according to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project. That compares to 525 in the other five New England states. Not all closures were due to the inability to make snow. High liability insurance premiums were factors, Gouwens said.

Artificial snow forms just below freezing, when the weather is 28 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Water is pumped to the snow machine and then forced at high speed through a nozzle by pressurized air. The snow machine ejects a fine mist of water, some of which evaporates and cools the remaining droplets, which fall to the ground as snow.

Clockwise from left: A skier carves a turn at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton on Wednesday, February 16, 2022. Modern advancements in snowmaking technology are helping ski areas in Maine stay open despite global warming; A car speeds past Moose Pond and Shawnee Peak; Skiers descend the mountain while others ascend by chairlift. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

This process, called ‘evaporative cooling’, is similar to how evaporation of sweat cools a person. Evaporation is a natural process, so snowmobiles don’t need energy to freeze water. Pumps and air compressors consume the most electricity at the ski resort, along with ski lifts. Newer snowmobiles use less compressed air, which is one way to reduce the amount of electricity needed. Using less air reduced Shawnee Peak’s energy costs by a third or more.

The resort uses between 35 million and 50 million gallons of water per season to make snow, which melts into nearby lakes and streams in the spring. Lewis said the new snow machines can be turned on and off faster than older equipment, allowing him to make snow faster and using less energy to do so.

Artificial snow is denser than natural snow and melts more slowly, so Shawnee Peak only produces snow for about 30 days for a four-month ski season. Due to warming temperatures, it snows around late November or early December, two weeks later than five years ago.

“We have shorter cold weather windows to make snow, so we need to get in quick and stop quick,” Lewis said.

Two people walk past a solar panel at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Adapting to climate change is a major strategy for its new owner, Boyne Resorts, which bought Shawnee Peak in October. Boyne also has two other major Maine ski resorts, Sunday River and Sugarloaf.

Shawnee Peak has installed solar panels on two buildings and is experimenting with new LED lights to reduce energy consumption, the first steps towards more climate-friendly operations, with Boyne aiming to release net zero emissions at its 10 ski resorts in North America. North by 2030.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry who would tell you they’re unaware of the climate and the changes we’ve seen,” Lewis said. “It’s certainly at the forefront of our minds.”

This story was produced through a partnership with Climate Central, a non-activist science and news group. Jen Brady and Kaitlyn Weber of Climate Central contributed data reporting.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the environmental conditions causing the lack of snowfall in Beijing.