Dreaming of Snow: A Climate Change Dilemma

By Phoebe C. Godfrey

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…
—Irving Berlin, 1942

It is the last day of December 2023 and I am in Vermont to ski, but instead of skiing I am writing this piece. This is not a testimony to my dedication to the Neighbors paper, as much as I support it not just as a writer and a reader but also as one firmly committed to all the different ways it helps to create community across and through multiple modalities. Rather, my writing of this piece instead of skiing speaks to the fact that in Vermont, and across New England (and, I have heard, in many other ski areas across the country, including in Connecticut), there is almost no snow, and the only available snow to ski on is artificial. Furthermore, even the artificial snow is limited, as for almost a week temperatures have not been below freezing and it has done nothing but rain.
The ski resort we have passes to, Mad River Glen (MRG), located just outside of Waitsfield, Vermont, and next door to Sugarbush, has in the past prided itself on not making snow on more than a few runs. Its slogan, “Ski It If You Can,” includes the understanding that what you ski on is what nature has provided, and therefore the conditions are both better when it does snow and much more unpredictable and varied when it does not, as opposed to other resorts. MRG is also a skiers-owned mountain, in that it is the only co-operative mountain in the country and the only one to have voted, years ago, to not allow snowboarders, as their style of riding changes the contours of the snow to the detriment of skiing. MRG’s other slogan, or mission, is for its members to act as “stewards of the mountain” rather than owners of a for-profit ski resort. This mission, along with its being member-owned, has kept MRG from allowing itself to be sold to Sugarbush, which itself—along with Stratton and many other ski resorts around the country—is now owned by Alterra Mountain Company, based in Denver, Colorado.
However, as much as I and the other members support this mission, it poses a problem for the future of MRG, in that the climate will continue to warm. In fact, one study suggests that “virtually all [U.S. ski] locations are projected to see reductions in winter recreation season lengths, exceeding 50% by 2050 and 80% in 2090” if nothing changes in global carbon emissions.1 Thus, this year when listening to “White Christmas” in the many shops in which I found myself, the line “Just like the ones I used to know” took on a whole new meaning, making it not only a Christmas song written by the famous Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin in Russia, 1888), but also the first climate change Christmas song.
As avid supporters of co-operatives (such as the Willimantic Food Co-op and CLiCK, the nonprofit we co-founded that is based on co-operative values), my wife and I have become shareholders of MRG and have bought our season ski passes there, as opposed to somewhere else like Sugarbush. Upon our arrival on December 27 we were disappointed to find that MRG had only one short run open, and my first thought was that they should invest in more snowmaking “so we can ski,” “so we can get our money’s worth,” “so we don’t have to go ski elsewhere,” and, for the long term, “so they can financially survive.” However, in returning to MRG’s mission that we are “stewards of the mountain” rather than owners of a for-profit ski resort, a serious dilemma and contradiction arises, as how can one be a mountain steward and advocate for an increase in snowmaking?
It should be no surprise that snowmaking requires extensive energy inputs, as well as water, machinery, and labor. According to a new study from Canada, that nation’s current annual snowmaking demands the same energy required to power 17,000 homes,2 while other studies from Europe have recognized the impact that artificial snow, which is denser, can have on the flow of oxygen to the plant life below, therefore negatively affecting the ecology and biodiversity.3 Furthermore, artificial snow products such as Snomax contain “proteins from a bacteria” whose impact on environmental and human health “are not yet well understood.”4 On the other hand, one argument in favor of more artificial snowmaking is that it keeps skiers from getting on planes and looking for snow elsewhere, such as Northeast skiers flying to the higher altitudes of, say, Colorado or Utah. Still, given that hospitality companies are now offering passes that give skiers access to all their mountain resorts across the country (such as Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon pass), this kind of ski travel is ever more likely. And so, corporate monopolies, the search for snow, and the making of snow all combine into a vicious cycle to increase climate change and thus, tragically, the loss of snow. Of course, this is true of everything we do, including my using a computer to write this piece…
I am not writing this piece to offer any concrete answers, rather merely to muse on the ever increasing predicaments in which we are finding ourselves ensnared. These were illustrated in a cartoon I saw in a local Vermont paper which had a person looking through binoculars at a ship labeled “2023” and saying, “Goodbye to a year of fires, floods, terrorism, and wars.” The person next to them also had binoculars and was looking at the next ship coming into shore, labeled “2024,” and their remark was, “I’m not so sure…” I second that comment on this last day of 2023. In fact, I am sure that 2024 will not be better—not globally, not nationally, and certainly not in terms of climate change. As painful as it may be to our culture and as antithetical to our economic system, the fact remains that unlimited growth on a finite planet does not bode well for all life on Earth, let alone for skiing or the future of “white Christmases.” Thus, all the choices we make, the values we uphold, the truths we defend, the community and love we build matter more than ever.
So, on that note I am going to continue to dream, not just of the future return of more snow (probably not in my lifetime), but of the more equitable and ecologically and socially sustainable world we know is possible. And, more than this, I am not going to merely dream, I am going to find ways to collectively build, even if it means continuing to ski on just one short slope in support of the very values we need now more than ever.

1 Dave Zook, “Climate Study Suggests Grim Scenario for Ski Resorts,” Protect Our Winters, https://protectourwinters.org/climate-study-suggests-grim-scenario-for-ski-resorts/.
2 Tyler Hatch, “New Study Reveals Harmful Environmental Effects of Snowmaking,” Snow Brains, June 16, 2023, https://snowbrains.com/new-study-reveals-harmful-effects-of-snowmaking/.
3 Federico La Bruna, “Expensive Snow: The Environmental Cost of Fake Snow,” Ecobnb, Feb. 28, 2020, https://ecobnb.com/blog/2020/02/expensive-artificial-snow/.
4 Adrian Dingle, “Artificial Snow: A Slippery Slope,” ChemMatters, Dec. 2018/Jan. 2019, https://www.acs.org/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2018-2019/december-2018/artificial-snow-a-slippery-slope.html/.

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