Our Opinion: Vermont needs to prepare for climate change challenges

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It's difficult, quite sad even, to envision a Vermont without a prominent winter sports industry, or the Green Mountains without their trademark blanket of white several months out of the year. These sports and these images are central to our tourism economy and integral to our culture here as New England's winter playground.

Unfortunately, some climate change scenarios paint a pretty grim picture for our winter sports industry. A new study from the University of Vermont says snowmobile riders in Vermont are taking notice that fewer days are good for riding. The number of days with more than an inch of snow in Vermont has dropped from 130 in 1960 to 75 today.

An estimated 30.7 percent of survey respondents have already decreased their amount of snowmobiling in response, and this trend will likely get worse as time goes on. Warmer temperatures in New York and New England are projected to reduce the average number of days with snow cover by 50 percent under a low emissions scenario and 75 percent under a higher emissions scenario.

For some recreation activities, temporary technological "fixes" may help to stave off the impacts of climate change. Use of snowmaking will mean most of the alpine ski industry is likely to remain viable into at least the 2050s. Other winter recreation activities are potentially more vulnerable, however. Negative effects on ice fishing, skating, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling will occur due to reductions in, and unreliability of, natural ice and snow cover.

"Given the climate change sensitivity of snowmobiling found in this study, along with the predictions of climate models for Vermont, snowmobiling may ultimately be unsustainable," according to the report's authors.

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In fact, the study says that under higher emissions scenarios, reliable snowmobiling seasons of 50 or more days in the Northeast are expected to be completely eliminated by 2100.

Some manifestations of climate change affect snowmobiling in unanticipated and indirect ways, the study notes. For example, the large network of more than 5,000 miles of snowmobile trails in Vermont allows for extended trips throughout the state. This is a highly valued attribute of snowmobiling in Vermont. However, large portions of this trail network are at lower elevations and in the southern portion of the state where adequate snow cover is likely to be more substantially threatened by climate change. Study data suggest that loss of the integrity of this trail network is likely to lead to relatively steep declines in participation.

Clearly, a continuing decline in snowmobiling and other winter sports in Vermont will have drastic economic consequences for our state, particularly here in southern Vermont where the impact will be felt sooner.

Undoubtedly, there will be some positive effects of climate change on outdoor recreation as well. For example, as snowmobiling declines, participation in other, substitute recreation activities is likely to grow, creating opportunities. Enterprising entrepreneurs are sure to respond and public park and outdoor recreation agencies should plan for this alternative future.

In the meantime, Vermont needs to take steps now to diversity its economic portfolio so we aren't overly dependent on industries such as tourism and agriculture that are directly affected by environmental challenges.


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