On the eve of opening day at Mount Hood Meadows, the ski resort sounded like a construction site.
A front-end loader scooped snow from the parking lot, its over-sized tire chains chinking as it crossed the pavement and emptied its load into a rubber-tracked dump truck. After a few more scoops, both machines rumbled toward a nearby chairlift to drop their haul.
In the ski industry, they call this "snow harvesting": Moving snow from the parking lots to the lower lifts and slopes so people can start skiing sooner.
"We can get 2 to 4 inches of snow on this parking lot and have enough snow to build the ramps we need in the lower base area," said Meadows communications director Dave Tragethon. "That connects people to the upper mountain where we have more than enough snow."
In recent weeks, there’s been no shortage of snow at Meadows – it just keeps coming. But after several years of warm winters and low snow, the resort no longer counts on big storms to launch the ski season. It’s spent big bucks on snow harvesting equipment and even built a giant trailer for towing snow up the slopes on a snowcat.
"Last year, had we not harvested the November snow, we wouldn't have been able to be open for Christmas," Tragethon said. "We're literally talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in our ability to snow harvest, but if that's what's required to get our season underway – and to actually make our season, like last year – it's a very good investment."
Ski resorts across the Northwest are adopting business practices that make them better prepared for the low-snow years predicted to come with climate change.
In addition to snow harvesting, they've added snow-making equipment, redesigned their lifts and cleared brush from the slopes so they don't need as much snow cover. They've also broadened year-round offerings like mountain biking to make up for shorter ski seasons.
"Are they so worried they're getting out of the business? No," said John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association. "Are they looking at ways of harvesting or making snow? Yes. If they don't have snow, they don't have operations."
A dress rehearsal
Climate scientists say recent years have been a "dress rehearsal" for the warmer winters to come with climate change.
Across the Northwest, Gifford says, ski resorts have adapted. Many, including Washington’s Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass and Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, started offering off-season mountain biking within the last five years.
"The first thing people are looking at as well as being creative in moving snow around is they want to figure out how to keep their business going," he said.
At Mt. Ashland ski area in Southern Oregon, sparse snowfall in 2013 dealt a crushing blow to the resort’s 50th anniversary celebration. Then the ski area didn't open at all that year.
But general manager Hiram Towle said instead of admitting defeat, the resort took out a small business loan, added snow harvesting capacity and built a deck on its chairlift that allows skiers to board with only an inch of snow. Last year the resort managed to keep its slopes open for 38 days – despite seeing even less snowfall than it did in 2013.
"We worked extra hard," Towle said. "We pulled out a lot more resources and were able to get through it. We're ready to do it again. We don't want to, but we're fully prepared to weather the storm – or lack thereof."
Towle says people in the ski industry don't want to talk about the harsh reality of climate change. But he's taking it seriously.
"I'm not a denier, so I'm going to be an adapter," he said. "We're in the snow business. We're in the weather business. The message is stark. We're looking at what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. We're also preparing for the eventuality of more low-snow years."
Not all ski area operators agree the recent warm spell is a preview of climate change – as opposed to just another cyclical weather pattern they've seen in the past.
"There's some debate about climate change," Gifford said. "I don't think anybody believes the climate isn't changing. It's just to what degree: How and when is it happening."
Last year, the Stevens Pass ski area bought its very first snow gun — a machine that makes snow and blows it onto the slopes.
"We've never had snow guns in the past," said spokeswoman Alysa Hetz. "We're looking at ways to adapt to lower snowfall in the beginning of the year."
Hetz said her resort has also beefed up its "grooming team" to clear its slopes of brush so they don’t need as much snow coverage.
"In some areas we've had to wait for three feet of snow to accumulate before we can open," she said. "This year we've been able to open with less snowfall because we've removed brush."
Snow is falling as John Stevenson steps out of his car at Little Nash Sno-Park in Willamette National Forest.
Stevenson works for the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. He's also an avid backcountry skier.
In the past, Stevenson says, Little Nash has been a convenient ski spot because it's not too far from his home in Corvallis, and it's close to the highway that crosses the Cascades at Santiam Pass.
But in warmer winters, he says, the snowfall here is at risk of turning into rain. Last year, when temperatures were 4-5 degrees above average, the area simply didn't have enough snow for skiing.
"I haven't skied here in about three years," he said. "We're at about 3,500 feet, and that's well below the snow line for the last two years. It's 32 degrees right now, so it's just barely falling as snow. So you can imagine if you add five degrees onto that, we'd just be standing here in the rain."
Stevenson says this is just one place among many in the Cascade Mountains with what scientists call "at-risk snow." That is, the snow is at risk of turning to rain with a couple degrees of warming, making it more vulnerable to climate change.
"It's definitely not a place that's likely to be skied a number of decades from now," he said. "So I guess you have to savor the moment when you're out here. As we go into a warming world, we're going to lose these areas – at least for consistent winter access."
With so little snow at lower elevations the past few years, Stevenson has had to make longer treks to find backcountry ski areas.
"I'm always a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but my wife and I bought a snowmobile," he said. "The thing is it allows us to access some of the higher terrain."
Elevation is key
Finding higher terrain may be the key to future snow sports, according to Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.
At higher elevations, he says, temperatures are cold enough that a couple degrees of warming doesn't change snow into rain. That means ski resorts could experience different effects of climate change depending on their elevation.
Last year, warmer winter temperatures meant there was very little snow below 5,000 feet. He says that's what climate models predict for the average winter by the 2040s.
"So ski resorts like Bachelor with a very high base elevation were relatively fine because most of the precipitation was falling as snow up that high, but at lower elevations most of the precipitation was falling as rain," he said.
Mote hasn't given up on skiing in the future – even though he recognizes that some areas likely won't have as much snow as they used to.
"In a warming climate, we are getting less snow, and some ski resorts are in trouble," he said. "However, even in the warmer climate we expect 30-40 years from now, there will still be skiing and snowboarding. We will have to go farther to find it in some cases."
In really cold locations like the top of Mount Hood, he says, global warming could actually mean more snow because the atmosphere will have more moisture and the snow will fall heavier. But for most locations – particularly in the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest – more moisture will mean less snow.
Mote is currently updating a study that found declining mountain snow pack in 70 percent of the Western U.S. locations scientists observed from 1916-1997.
"The largest decreases are at lower elevations at very mild temperatures where you'd expect a transition from snowfall to rainfall with a little bit of warming," he said.
‘We're not just counting on mother nature.’
The base of Mt. Hood Skibowl resort sits at about 3,600 feet. So it doesn't have elevation on its side.
Instead, it has eight snow guns and a variety of year-round activities for people to enjoy regardless how much snow falls.
"We've invested in snowmaking heavily in the last several years," said spokesman Hans Wipper. "We're not just counting on Mother Nature. We have people who are on call and ready on a moment's notice. As soon as it gets cold enough, they turn on the snow guns."
This year, the resort turned on five of its snow guns during a cold spell before Thanksgiving and made 10 feet of snow in three days. It wasn't enough snow to open the ski slopes, but it was plenty for tubing.
"We opened up our tubing hill completely on man-made snow," he said. "There's a very large portion of the population that just loves to go play in the snow. Tubing requires absolutely zero skill, and it's really fun."
With a summer adventure park offering mountain biking trails, an alpine slide, go carts, bungee jumping, disc golf, batting cages, a climbing wall, miniature golf and horseback rides, Wipper says his resort is ready if the weather delivers more summer than winter, as it did last year when the snow disappeared before spring break.
"Normally, we'd like to be skiing or snowboarding then, but we couldn't," Wipper said. "So, looking at the glass as half-full, we opened our alpine slide and bungee tower and rolled right into our summer activities. So we had our longest, best summer. There's a silver lining to every cloud."
Wipper says it's unclear exactly what climate change will bring for his resort. This year’s snow levels are a world away from last year's. They're above average so far across the region.
"I think it's a waiting game to see what happens," Wipper said. "But while we're waiting, we'll continue to expand our summer activities."