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The Retired Investor: How Ski Resorts Are Surviving Climate Change
By Bill Schmick, iBerkshires columnist
04:34PM / Thursday, December 28, 2023

Numerous studies have predicted that climate change will be the death knoll of skiing. That may be true, but year after year, ski resorts large and small seem to eke out one difficult season after another. And not every year has been a disaster.
No one is denying that the weather is changing, and winters are getting warmer. This week, which kicks off the 2023-2024 ski season, for example, most of the country is experiencing warm weather, disappointing skiers and resorts alike in the Midwest and New England.  And yet, during the 2022-2023 ski season, there had been mammoth snowfalls in some areas of the country. Climate change can do that, dumping extraordinary amounts of precipitation in some places while causing drought in others.
Record snowfall totals at western ski areas, for example, contributed to the number of skier visits, while overall average snowfall at ski areas across the country totaled 224 inches. That was a 30 percent increase above the 10-year average, which contributed to an increase of six days for the season, above the average of 116 days. 
New England winters, where I live, have been warming faster than the national average. Over the past 50 years, the temperatures have increased by 4.5 degrees and as the weather gets warmer, nature is producing less snow. For the entirety of New England, January 2023 was the warmest it has been since record-keeping began in 1895. New Hampshire had its third warmest winter on record.
As such, snowmaking has become the saving grace for the ski industry. Ski resorts have become increasingly reliant on snowmaking to combat climate change. Today, more than 90 percent of resorts depend on some system of artificial snow production.
Some may be surprised to know that investment by the ski industry hit a record high last year at $812.4 million and is expected to be even higher this season. The lion's share of spending was on upgrading lifts, but snowmaking has also taken an increasing share of expenditures. Climate change has made that a vital area for continued improvement. Overall, resorts reinvested $26 per skier visit back into their operations last year.
As the winter temperatures get warmer, companies are coming up with technology to counter the temperature changes. Back in the day, making snow required temperatures around 14 to 10 degrees below freezing. Today, new snow-making machines can make snow with temperatures as high as 80 degrees — if you are willing to spend the money to do so. Improvements in snow guns, for example, can make copious amounts of snow much faster, and at higher temperatures. Unfortunately, snowmaking is an energy-expensive process, especially in compressing the air needed to spread the artificial snow.
Most local utilities limit the amount of energy resorts can consume. However, both hardware and software breakthroughs have allowed energy cost-savings and efficiencies in the snowmaking systems that encompass everything from hydrants to fan snowmakers, and computer systems that can automate and analyze the entire process. 
One of the challenges many resorts face is drought in many regions. The amount of water needed to make snow doesn't change. Areas that are experiencing decreases in their water supplies due to climate change or resort expansion are scrambling to come up with ways to conserve and/or increase their water supply. 
Last season (2022-2023), the $50 billion U.S. ski industry saw an estimated 65.4 million skiers and snowboard riders hit the slopes. That was a jump of almost 5 million skier visits from the previous season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.  Factors that boosted industry performance were heavy snowfall in ski areas on the Pacific Southwest and the Rockies. The number of working ski areas also increased a bit from 473 to 481.
In 2024, the arrival of the El Nino cycle is set to bring a warm dry winter to this part of the world. The impact of climate change colliding with the El Nino event has a 54 percent chance of being one of the top five events since 1950, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mild and wet with a cooler drier end to winter, is the NOAA prediction. However, The Old Farmer's Almanac is predicting a banner ski season for 2024. 
No matter what forecast proves accurate, snowmaking will continue to be the difference between a good and a bad year for the ski industry overall.

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.


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