Vermont’s great outdoors attracts visitors seeking ample snowfall, swimmable lakes, and stunning fall colors. As climate change alters temperature and precipitation patterns, Vermont businesses that depend on tourism and recreation are starting to rethink their long term plans, anticipating a warmer and wetter state.
Changes in Vermont’s winter playground
Winter weather varies from year to year, but Vermonters and visitors to the state can usually count on five to six solid months of cold, snow, and ice for winter sports. The Vermont businesses that fuel our bustling winter tourism and recreation economy generate over $1 billion in revenue each year.
Since weather systems are bringing more precipitation to the Green Mountain State and average winter temperatures are still below freezing, some Vermont ski areas may experience a boon of winter snow in the next twenty years. In the short term, ski areas and other businesses that depend on snow and ice may benefit.
Variability in temperature is increasing though, and this may introduce more variability to snow cover and ice over on lakes and ponds. Low snowfall winters like the 2015-2016 season require ski resorts to manufacture and maintain snow, an extremely expensive endeavor.
Long term projections of average temperatures in the northeast create a sobering picture for winter-based industries in Vermont. In thirty to forty years, average temperatures will have risen to the point where winter precipitation may fall more often as rain rather than as snow. Ice over will become rarer on some lakes, affecting the snowpack at ski areas and on snowmobile trails.
Data courtesy of Vermont Ski Areas Association
Skiers and riders adapt to the new normal
Ski areas are beginning to diversify and are investing in new recreation alternatives that can be enjoyed year-round and that can extend their season to include the summer and shoulder seasons. Zip lines, water parks, adventure courses, mountain bike trails and lift serve downhill mountain biking are popping up around the state as resorts try to meet the demands of a changing climate as well as the changing demographics of Vermont visitors.
The brilliant fall colors of New England are a result of two environmental factors: changes in light availability and changes in temperature.
As climate change delays colder autumn temperatures, fall foliage will peak later. While warmer temperatures will result in an earlier color change for some trees, others will not be able to adapt. Fall colors may become less synchronized, producing a more muted color peak. Increases in rainfall may also result in a shorter season as heavy rain brings down leaves and the cloudier days can make it harder to view the fall foliage.
Shorter and milder winters may threaten Vermont’s winter sports economy, but warmer springs and falls could potentially lengthen the seasons for recreational activities such as camping, fishing, hiking, and bike touring. These activities don’t generate as much economic activity as winter skiing, but they do bring many visitors to Vermont.
More extreme heat in southern states and countries may also result in more visits to Vermont as travelers seek summer destinations with cooler climates.
A recent survey of state park visitors conducted by the Park Studies Laboratory at the University of Vermont revealed that park visits may increase as daytime and nighttime temperatures rise.
However, longer summers may increase the number of mosquitoes and incidents of deer ticks carrying Lyme disease. Warmer waters and increased runoff may also threaten water quality, reducing fish populations and discouraging tourists who read about toxic blue-green algae blooms in the news.
The changing face of the Vermont brand
New opportunities for growing tourism in Vermont could spring from our climate leadership. The Vermont Climate Change Economy Initiative and Vermont Climate Cabinet are each ensuring that clean energy, green design and strategic land conservation play important roles in creating the new Vermont brand.