Minnesota Businesses Adapt to Warmer Winters

As Minnesota winters get warmer, some businesses struggle while others adapt the state’s snowy identity

Photo by Chris Costes/Flickr

We’ve all heard those stories that begin with “Back in my day,” and usually include anecdotes such as walking uphill to school (both ways) in a raging Minnesota blizzard, the likes of which we just don’t see nowadays. More recently, Eric Dayton was credited with for bringing the idea of “North” back to Minnesota, a pushback against the hatred of Minnesota winters and a call to action to embrace the cold.

But recent climate data shows that Minnesota’s winters are actually warming up. And they’re warming up disproportionately fast compared to the rest of the nation. Can we really call ourselves the “North” if we are quickly losing the blizzard climate our grandparents endured?

According to a recent Climate Central report, Minnesota’s winter temperatures have risen by as much as 7.5 degrees since 1970, a rate of 1.66 degrees per decade. In contrast, the average winter temperature of the continental US has risen only 2.4 degrees since 1970. The upper Midwest region has the fastest warming rates, with the South and West being the slowest to warm their winters. Overall, winter is the fastest-warming season nationwide.

Why the discrepancy? Differences in landscape, elevation, waterways, precipitation, and pollution levels all create unique climate situations for each region, affecting how quickly they are impacted by climate change. Minnesota’s treasured snow is a big influencer: snow is cold, and large quantities of cold things covering the ground make things, well, colder. But when there’s less snow (due to larger changes in precipitation patterns nationwide, and also because snow turns to rain in above-freezing temperatures), there’s less to keep temperatures from rising. Less snow means less cold, creating a cycle that just keeps warming.  And from a physics standpoint, it simply takes less energy to warm up something cold than to increase the temperature of something already warm, making Minnesota prime warming territory.

What does this mean for a state that prides itself on being the “True North” of the country, a state that embraces the winter with ski resorts, ice fishing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, winter festivals, and more?

According to John Edman, director of the tourism promotion office Explore Minnesota, nearly a quarter of the state’s tourism income can be attributed to winter travel and activities. The loss of winter could be a big hit to the state’s economy.

As it turns out, though, Minnesotan hardiness turns into resourcefulness when we aren’t forced to weather harsh winters. Instead of closing resorts and calling it quits, Minnesotans are doing what we do best: adapting.

A Boost for Business

Take, for example, ski resorts, one of our most prominent winter tourism attractions. Tom Schulz, director of Buck Hill’s ski and snowboard schools, reported little to no change in skier turnout. “The best advertisement we get is fresh snow,” he admits, but went on to point out that much of the hill’s snow is human-made anyway. Buck Hill depends on human-made snow early in the season, and hopes for natural snow as a supplement throughout the season. “I don’t see [the warmer weather] being an issue,” he remarks, arguing that it may actually become an asset. After all, most people would rather go skiing in 30-degree weather than 0-degree weather.

Regardless of the weather, Buck Hill is already prepared for a year-round ski and snowboard season. In 2016, the resort introduced Neveplast, a synthetic plastic surface with a honeycomb texture that is installed directly onto a grassy hill. The surface allows for year-round skiing, mimicking the sliding feeling of real snow without any frozen water. Leave your snowpants and winter jacket at home: this past summer, the resort used this surface on three runs. Schulz says that the artificial snow takes a little getting used to, but that it’s largely the same skiing experience once you get back into practice. He describes a small crowd of dedicated skiers that now come in year-round. The only difference, he says, is that “instead of hot chocolate, you’re coming in for a Gatorade or something.”

Another Minnesota company has taken the artificial snow idea one step further. The Alpine Factory, located in Arden Hills, is an indoor facility that serves as a “ski treadmill,” with a rotating artificial snow surface that lets skiers practice indoors any time of year. The facility brands itself more as a workout opportunity than a replacement for the outdoor experience, but as its website points out, you can fit an entire day’s worth of ski runs into an hour on the “infinite run,” since chairlifts and lines take up a considerable amount of time on a real slope. It’s also a new way to learn to ski, since instructors can give tips and corrections in real-time instead of waiting until the end of a run.

Other businesses are also benefiting from the warmer temperatures. Last February, several Minnesota golf courses opened for play during an unseasonable 60-degree weekend, according to a WCCO report. The novelty of golfing in February was not lost on people: the course was booked solid that weekend.

A more recent report describes construction workers who enjoyed our mild November for the simple reason that it made working outside safer and more pleasant (and also that the weather didn’t require several pairs of gloves, which can make delicate work difficult). Some businesses are just adjusting their inventory, switching out their snowblower displays for lawn mowers and potting soil earlier in the year. And, of course, anytime Minnesota hits an unusually warm period in winter, you’ll always see those people wearing shorts and flip-flops, even though they’d never dream of it in a 40-degree summer.

On Thin Ice

Not everyone has fared as well, though. Last January, the popular ice castles in Stillwater were forced to temporarily close as temperatures rose well above freezing. While the castle itself remained stable, organizers worried that melting would result in wet walking surfaces. The castles allowed visitors to refund their tickets, but refunding usually isn’t good for business.

In February, warm temperatures made lake ice unsafe for driving, causing traffic jams and low turnout for the annual Eelpout Festival in Walker. The festival, which celebrates a typically undesirable catfish-like fish, typically draws ice anglers who park near their fishing spots. A parking ban on the lake (for the second year in a row) contributed to this year’s low turnout. While reduced eelpout fishing doesn’t seem like an economic burden at first glance, it turns into a blow when you consider the $800,000 that this festival generates annually for the town.

Thin ice is no joke: a few weeks earlier, a pickup truck fell through the ice on Pelican Lake. While this particular driver was uninjured, the Minnesota DNR reports two fatalities related to other thin ice driving incidents in 2017. Then again, driving on ice is always a risk, regardless of weather conditions. Warm weather only makes ice thickness more unpredictable. Just last year, an ice fishing house fell through and sank into Cedar Lake, sending participants of Aitkin’s annual fish house festival home early.

Maybe it’s too soon to tell how the warming winters will affect Minnesota’s winter-based identity, as the economic impact of changing temperatures seems to depend on an individual business’ ability to adapt. Business aside, though, Climate Central’s data shows no end to Minnesota’s warming trend. This is only one piece of the changing global climate, which could endanger species, disrupt oceans and other natural resources, and create catastrophic natural disasters if these trends continue. It’s a bigger issue than a shortened ice fishing season.

A joke I’ve heard from Minnesota residents goes something like: “Don’t like the weather here? Wait five minutes.” While the warming trends are difficult to dispute, there’s a deeper point hidden here: maybe being a Minnesotan is less about being able to endure the cold, and more about being able to endure whatever hardships come your way. And, after all, our snow isn’t gone yet.

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