Winter biking at Crystal Mountain | Crystal Mountain photo
Jim Rudicil says West Michigan winters have been fickle since 1984 — the year he helped open the winter sports complex inside Muskegon State Park.
The longtime executive director of the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park, formerly known as Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, and his team have made do with Mother Nature’s handiwork. But it’s growing increasingly difficult. So much so that he’s shifted focus to year-round adventure activities at the park.
“It takes an optimistic soul to be in the winter sports business,” Rudicil said.
Winter brings in big tourism dollars to the state, generating $3.6 billion in traveler spending in 2020, according to TravelUSA. The rebooted Still Pure Michigan campaign will spend $3 million on this winter’s seasonal ad campaign.
But warmer winters due to climate change are jeopardizing businesses that rely on cold-weather tourism and are threatening the state’s reputation as a Water-Winter Wonderland, a historic slogan being revived through a new license plate.
Muskegon Luge has always relied on natural snowfall and sustained below freezing temps to keep the park open. None of the facilities are refrigerated, including the natural-ice luge track designed by Olympian Frank Masley that draws thrill seekers from across the state and nation.
In the last five years, Muskegon Luge hasn’t opened for the busy holiday break due to a lack of snow.
“We’ve always been subject to the weather, but we don’t even think about Christmas break anymore,” Rudicil said. “We feel that we are seeing our seasons get shorter every year. We plan for a six- to eight-week season instead of the 12 weeks it used to be.”
A similar trend is unfolding across Michigan, especially for many winter businesses, activities and facilities that rely on snow and cold temperatures. Snowmobile races and rides, winter festivals and ice fishing tournaments have been postponed or canceled due to warm weather in recent years. The state’s ski resorts remain busy, but they increasingly rely on snowmaking to sustain operations.
“The cycles and the rhythms of snow and ice and water are changing, and it’s changing quite rapidly at this point,” said Richard Rood, a professor of climate and space science and engineering at the University of Michigan. “It’s all a consequence of it getting warmer. We really anticipate that to be the case for the coming decades.”
Winters warming faster than other seasons
A four-season playground, Michigan boasts 6,500 miles of snowmobile trails, 3,000 miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails along with designated fat-tire bike trails. The state is home to 40 ski areas ranging from family-friendly beginner and tubing hills to the tallest vertical drop in the Midwest at Mt. Bohemia.
The Pure Michigan tourism campaign relaunched in December 2020 with a winter travel campaign after a hiatus due to budget cuts. The state’s largest promotional effort received $15 million in appropriations for fiscal year 2021. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state legislators agreed to $30 million for the state’s 2022 fiscal year budget, rolling out the $3 million Still Pure Michigan winter campaign focused on recreation and shopping.
In a state that touts winter tourism as much as warm-weather recreation, the weather shifts are becoming more noticeable. Most of the state saw above-average temperatures in October, causing leaves to linger on trees well into mid-November.
The Grand Rapids area had the warmest start to October on record, and northeast Michigan saw the second warmest October on record, according to the National Weather Service. Tornadoes ravaged southern states on Dec. 10, followed by another potent winter storm Dec. 15 to 16 that downed trees and knocked out power across the Midwest. Michigan also experienced record-setting temperatures and high winds.
In the northern hemisphere, meteorological winter runs from Dec. 1 through the end of February. According to a recent report by The Weather Channel, winter is the fastest warming season in much of the United States. The biggest jump was in the Great Lakes and northeastern regions of the country.
“Winter is warming more quickly than summer, and that’s not just in Michigan; that happens in many places that are outside of the tropics,” Rood said.
Rood also serves as co-principal investigator at Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA). In particular, winter and spring are warming faster. There have been “pretty big changes over the last 50 to 60 years, and it’s been accelerating in the last decade,” Rood said.
Rising temperatures also cause changes to precipitation patterns. Some parts of Michigan are seeing more rain or freezing rain in December and January as the freeze-snow boundary inches northward.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that Michigan’s “small lakes are freezing later and thawing earlier than a century ago, which shortens the season for ice fishing and ice skating.” Since the early 1970s, winter ice coverage in the Great Lakes has decreased by 63%, according to the EPA.
That said, GLISA points out that annual snowfall has increased around Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, though the amount of time that snow covers the ground is shortening.
A decrease in lake ice cover coupled with increases in lake water temperature due to warmer air temperatures set up the right conditions for more lake-effect snowfall.
“In any particular winter, it depends on whether or not the lakes are freezing,” Rood said. “If they are not freezing, water can evaporate. Once they freeze, they cut off the evaporation.”
However, those snowfall averages play out differently in Michigan. Warmer air can also cause drier periods, like some parts of Michigan experienced last winter, Rood said. Benzie County, located along Lake Michigan in northwest lower Michigan, for example, saw one of its lowest natural snowfall totals in history last winter, according to the Benzie County Road Commission.
What that means is more weather extremes.
“When you get a snowstorm, it’s likely to be bigger, which is a little counterintuitive,” Rood said. “When it’s cold enough to snow, you’re likely to see big snowstorms.”
Rood’s assessment is in line with Rudicil’s observations at Muskegon Luge, nestled in the woods near Lake Michigan.
“I could honestly say over the last decade we have seen more extreme variables from polar vortexes to seeing more well above average temperatures,” Rudicil said.
Warm weather threatens winter recreation
For facilities like Muskegon Luge, and cross-country ski and snowshoe trails in county and state parks that rely on natural snow, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain viable.
“Businesses and organizations that rely on it being cold, you see them struggling more,” Rood said. “Their season is shortening. In some cases, it’s disappearing.”
Rudicil, after noticing the warming trend and snow-thaw-snow cycles, responded with the “Many Reasons for All Seasons” campaign in 2017. As executive director, he works behind-the-scenes to secure grants and raise funds for year-round adventure activities at the park.
“For our particular nonprofit, looking ahead and making an assumption the global warming trend will continue, we do not see long-term sustainability for our organization,” Rudicil said. “Our plan for Many Reasons for All Seasons was to provide a go-to outside of those winter months and provide reliable outdoor recreation to Muskegon County residents and visitors regardless of the weather.”
Businesses and organizations that rely on it being cold, you see them struggling more. Their season is shortening. In some cases, it’s disappearing.
– Richard Rood, University of Michigan professor of climate and space science and engineering
New attractions include a wheel luge track that’s accessible to individuals with disabilities, a 1,400-foot dual zip line, an archery range, and a rock/ice climbing wall. Future plans include a new lodge and 20,000-square-foot multi-purpose sports pavilion. Rudicil also is exploring the feasibility of refrigeration for the pavilion’s new ice rink as well as some snowmaking infrastructure.
Rudicil remembers monstrous snow banks in his youth. Being near Lake Michigan, Muskegon Luge still benefits from lake-effect snow, dense forest and dune protection. The sports park now relies on January and February for the bulk of its business. If the park opens for the holidays, it’s a bonus season, Rudicil explained.
The climate changes that those involved in winter tourism face also impact local economies, Rudicil noted.
During a good winter, Muskegon Luge is a popular tourist draw for Muskegon County. The Luge Experience books up months in advance, and the park offers lighted and groomed cross-country ski trails, snowshoe trails, a quarter-mile ice skating trail through the woods, 2-acres of natural ice rinks, sledding hills and more.
Ninety percent of luge tickets are purchased by people who live an hour or more away, and many people stay overnight in local hotels, Rudicil said. The park tries to give 72-hour notice if the luge is canceled, but it has a trickle effect.
“It definitely hurts the local economy,” Rudicil said. “At the end of the day, climate change, it’s not a fast process. It’s incremental. You can definitely feel the change. And I would say for us specifically, if we don’t have snow, our friends at the local hotels are not real happy when they start getting room cancellations because we’re not open.”
Ski resorts making more snow
Michigan’s ski resorts are feeling the effects of warming winters but in a different way. Both Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville and Caberfae Peaks near Cadillac report busy winter seasons despite less natural snow.
Ski resorts have invested in additional snowmaking equipment and infrastructure to increase their snowmaking capacity.
“We are seeing resorts in the area, particularly in northern Michigan, make pretty significant investments in snowmaking,” said Pete Meyer, general manager of business operations at Caberfae.
“No doubt that it’s a result of climate change,” Meyer noted. “The difference is we still get the snow we had 30 years ago, but we get warm spells where it all melts. With the freeze-thaw cycle, we need to be able to make more snow.”
“Every ski resort in Michigan would not be in business without snowmaking,” Meyer continued. “It’s a must. There are some that don’t have it, but they are rarely open.”
Snowmaking allows resorts to extend the season by opening earlier and staying open longer. At Caberfae, they’ve added additional snow machines along with increasing water, well and pump capacity, plus underground piping and new electrical systems.
“You can’t just purchase more guns,” Meyer said. “You need more water and electricity to use them. We can pump a lot more water at once. We can make a lot more snow in shorter windows and take advantage of any cold temperatures that we get.”
We’ve always been subject to the weather, but we don’t even think about Christmas break anymore. We feel that we are seeing our seasons get shorter every year. We plan for a six- to eight-week season instead of the 12 weeks it used to be.
– Jim Rudicil, executive director of the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park
Over the last five winters, Crystal Mountain’s ski season has ranged from 104 days (Nov. 12 to March 16) in 2019-20 to 121 days in 2018-19 (Nov. 22 to April 7). Snowfall totals in Benzie County, where Crystal Mountain is located, have ranged from 167.75 inches in 2017-18 to 68.25 inches in 2020-21.
Crystal Mountain added 14 new snow guns this year, bringing the total to 167 snowmaking machines. The resort installed 3,500 feet of snowmaking pipe this year, which carries more water, more efficiently to the snowmaking machines.
“It’s hard to deny that climate change has played a part in warmer winters and shortened ski seasons, but that has only increased demand for a spot on the mountain,” said Brittney Buti, Crystal Mountain’s manager of public relations. “It has also allowed us to invest in our guest experience to get skiers and riders on the slopes quicker and for a longer amount of time.”
The resort also uses snow sticks, tower-mounted and mobile snow guns to adjust to Michigan conditions and best cover the slopes. Other resources include high-efficiency motors with variable frequency drives that match horsepower to flow when they are making snow.
“With that said, natural snow is always appreciated, but it’s not necessarily needed,” Buti said. “The only thing that is needed is snowmaking conditions: 28 degrees or less, low humidity, easterly or northerly winds and high barometric pressure.”
Both ski resorts have diversified and invested in other guest amenities. Crystal Mountain is a four-season operation with a variety of lodging, two golf courses, the Michigan Legacy Art Park and scenic chair rides in the fall. Other winter activities include a winter archery range, ice skating, snowshoe trails and a spa.
Caberfae also offers golf, hosts banquets and weddings, and operates a year-round lodge. Many people have traded winter hobbies like cross-country skiing or snowmobiling for downhill skiing because the conditions are more reliable, Meyer explained.
“I think there has been a push for more and more people to ski,” Meyer said. “Those who depend on natural snow, like snowmobiling, are struggling. People know they can rely on resorts being open and conditions being good as a result of snowmaking.”
Shorter snowmobile season
With 6,500 miles of designated snowmobile trails, Michigan has one of the most interconnected trail systems in the nation. The trails stretch from the Michigan-Indiana line in the Lower Peninsula to the western edge of the Upper Peninsula.
The motorized snowsport is also feeling the effects of changing weather. Besides a price hike for a 2021-22 snowmobile trail permit, the number of permits sold has steadily declined in the last decade. Trail permits dropped from 200,530 in 2007 to 139,098 in 2020.
The trails are officially open from Dec. 1 to March 31, and the season is growing increasingly shorter in the Lower Peninsula. For instance, last winter, Harbor Springs Snowmobile Club, which grooms the Moosejaw Trails from Harbor Springs to Mackinaw City, groomed from Jan. 30 until Feb. 26 and shut the gates on March 13, according to Facebook reports. They also posted several reports of vehicles stuck on the trails.
“I think climate is having an effect on the snowmobile season itself, not the dates on the calendar, but the riding time available in the state of Michigan due to temperature and snowfall,” said Jessica Holley-Roehrs, a statewide motorized trails program specialist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In partnership with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Snowmobile and ORV Association, local snowmobile clubs across the state brush, sign, groom and maintain snowmobile trails. ORV stands for off-road vehicle, and ORV riders use some of the same trails during the warmer months.
Snowmobile groomers like Dan Wilson and Mark Coe deal with other headaches besides a lack of snow. Growing issues for snowmobilers and clubs that maintain the trails include flooding and erosion, trespassing and vandalism. Groomers encounter people riding ORVs and driving vehicles on the trails during snowmobile season.
“Dealing with Mother Nature you never know what to expect,” said Coe, president of the Benzie Manistee Snowbirds Club. “We haven’t had a lasting winter since 2012 or 2013.”
Wilson serves as vice president of Trail Riders Snowmobile Club and has been a groomer for 13 years. The club maintains 160 miles of trails in the Huron-Manistee National Forest in the Lake County area.
“We have good years and bad years,” Wilson said. “We are in the lake-effect snow belt. We get a fair amount of lake effect. They are calling for a decent year. You never know; it’s snow.”
Michigan’s trail system runs through six state forests, three national forests and thousands of acres of privately owned lands. Land leases administered through the DNR and local snowmobile clubs connect the trails across public and private property. Roughly 50% of Michigan’s snowmobile trails are on private property, Holley-Roehrs said.
The Upper Peninsula, which offers 3,000 miles of trails, draws snowmobilers from across the Midwest and nation to ride the expansive trail system. Many small businesses rely on snowmobile tourism to sustain them from December to April.
“The importance of snowmobiling in the state is huge,” Holley-Roehrs said. “In my travels, I have seen a good season can make or break a small mom-and-pop business. There are so many of them who love the snowmobilers, and they love the season, and they cater to these people.”
ORVs have become increasingly popular in recent years and people continue to ride in the winter, especially if there isn’t snow on the trails or it’s a dual-use trail. Besides being a safety issue for all riders, ORVs and vehicles create ruts in the trail that make it hard to groom.
“We’re a short season,” Coe said. “If we’re out there grooming the trail, we ask that people respect the groomed trail and don’t go out there and make ruts in it. Once they are rutted and freeze, we can’t get them out.”
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