PORTLAND, Maine — A national study released today argues that climate change, if left unaddressed, will have “severe negative impacts” on winter tourism economies, including Maine’s.

But some winter tourism experts in Maine question the conclusions of the study.

The study — titled “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States” — claims that without steps to slow climate change, “winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall, and shorter snow season.” It predicts that “the length of the snow season in the northeast will be cut in half.”

Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson, both Ph.D. candidates at the University of New Hampshire, authored the study, which was commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and a California-based group called Protect Our Winters.

As for the economic impact of climate change on winter tourism, a press release claims the study shows that the nation’s $12.2 billion winter tourism industry “has experienced an estimated $1 billion loss and up to 27,000 fewer jobs over the last decade due to diminished snowfall patterns and the resulting changes in the outdoor habits of Americans.”

In a conference call with journalists on Thursday, Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters, called for stricter climate change legislation, which he said wasn’t the “job killer.” “As you see in this report, climate change is a job killer,” he said.

However, the study’s analysis actually shows the difference between revenue and employment in the ski and snowmobile industries during winter seasons with the highest snowfall and those with the lowest snowfall. It does not necessarily show those losses over time.

Temperatures have been rising, though, according to the study. Winter temperatures have already warmed 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1895, and last winter was the fourth warmest winter on record since 1896, the study says.

“In the many U.S. states that rely on winter tourism, climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall and shorter snow seasons,” Burakowski said in a statement. “This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall.”

However, Maine’s snowfall has never been predictable, according to Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Maine Ski Association, who questioned the political nature of the study.

As an example, Sweetser recalls the birth of the modern ski industry in Maine, which is considered to be in 1936 when Maine’s first mechanical ski lift was built at Jockey Cap, a long-forgotten ski hill in Fryeburg.

“The winter of 1937 it never snowed,” he said. “We have dealt with the vagaries of snow for all these years and in some ways that formula hasn’t changed.”

Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, admits warm weather has a negative impact on Maine’s snowmobile industry, which pumps an estimated $350 million into the state’s economy. In fact, last winter’s warmer temperatures led to a 30 percent decrease in the number of snowmobile licenses issued in Maine, he said.

But he does question studies such as this one.

“I’m always a little skeptical when these groups come out and make sweeping generalizations about this,” Meyers said. “Obviously they have an agenda and this is one of the ways they advance it. There’s not too many times I see them concerned about the business community.”

He’s also not sold on the causal relationship that the study makes between “so-called climate change” and warm winters.

“As far as pointing the finger and saying it’s climate change,” he said. “For every group that says that’s what it is, there’s a group out there that says there’s no such thing.”

Antonia Herzog, assistant director of the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air Program, addressed opinions such as Meyers’ in the conference call with journalists.

“Denial is easy,” she said. “But the trend is clear for the longer term. Less snow, shorter seasons.”

Sweetser said Maine’s ski areas “are conscious of climate change.”

He said advances in snow making technology mean ski resorts are able to produce more faux snow while also reducing energy usage. In fact, Maine’s ski seasons have grown longer over the past decade rather than shorter, he said, due to advances in snow making.

On the snowmobiling front, Meyers said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the snowmobile industry’s estimated $350 million economic impact would be preserved for at least another winter. Attendance at the organization’s annual snowmobile show in October was up 19 percent, he said.

“People were buying,” he said. “There’s some optimism out there.”


Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.