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News from the Keweenaw Peninsula

June 30, 2007  Updated July 15, 2007

Businesses feel the heat: Lake Superior warms up, part 3 

By Katie Alvord*

HOUGHTON -- This year, Nelson Sommerfeldt and Melanie Johnson joined friends to celebrate New Year’s Day by hitting the trails near Copper Harbor -- on mountain bikes.

The Copper Country natives had expected to snowshoe on the first of January, but warmth and lack of snow over the 2006-07 holiday season changed their plans. 


With only a few inches of snow on Jan. 1, 2007, local mountain bikers hit the trails near Copper Harbor. (Photo © 2007 Melanie Johnson. Reprinted with permission)

Near Copper Harbor on Jan. 1, 2007, bikers, from left, Nelson Sommerfeldt, Tony Schwenn and Caleb Wendel  joined Melanie Johnson to mountain bike on trails that were otherwise mostly empty. Much of Copper Harbor had bare ground Christmas week until a fresh snowfall left a few inches on New Year's Day. (Photo © 2007 Melanie Johnson. Reprinted with permission.) 

Biking is not a usual winter sport for the normally snowy Keweenaw Peninsula; but, if predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) bear out, it might become more common. IPCC reports issued this year state that an observed rise in global average surface temperature, which parallels recent warmer winters around Lake Superior, will likely continue as human activities add more greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

This global warming is leading researchers both internationally and in Michigan to look at how climate change might affect the economy. At the same time, some Copper Country businesses -- especially those based on winter tourism -- are wondering how climate change might affect their future and how it might be affecting them already.

Winter woes hurt economy, spark innovation

Last winter’s early warmth hit winter tourism hard enough that the Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce looked into economic disaster assistance on behalf of affected businesses, says Richard Baker, the Chamber’s executive director.

According to Baker, snowmobile trails north of Houghton remained without rideable snow until about mid-January, and the ski hills didn’t get 100 percent of their runs open until February.

Ice fishing was also affected, as it has been for a few seasons now, says Steve Koski, owner of Indian Country Sports in L’Anse.

"People want to ice fish, but they have had a tough time in the last many years," says Koski. "The ice is getting less predictable."

That observation is consistent with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (NOAA’s GLERL). The agency has documented a decline in ice cover on all the Great Lakes over the last few decades, though there is still significant variation in ice from year to year.

"Ice fishing used to be a very stable, predictable business," Koski notes. "Usually by about Christmas time people were ice fishing the inland lakes and doing well, and by January they were fishing the big lake. Now it’s like February before you can even consider the big lake."

Recent warmer winters have also been hard on snowmobile rentals and sales, says Ed Markham, sales manager for Dan’s Polaris in Atlantic Mine. He estimates sales have dropped about 15 or 20 percent since 20 years ago. Markham points out that others who rely on "the white gold" -- snow’s economic benefits -- have been hurt as well.

"People aren’t commercial snowplowing, shoveling roofs, anything like that," he says. "I know a friend of mine used to stay continually busy shoveling roofs all winter. I think he did two last year."

At the Mariner North in Copper Harbor, warmth over the 2006-07 holiday meant major schedule adjustments due to lack of business, says Peg Kauppi, co-owner of the motel. Kauppi says the Mariner has had slow Decembers before, but never one as extreme as the season just past.

"This last winter was such an eye-opener for us," she says. "If this is a real deal and if it is connected with global warming and things like that, I think everybody’s going to have to rethink some automatic assumptions that we’ve had over the years, that wintertime up here means snow, which means snowmobilers, skiers, cross-country skiers. We’re just going to have to rethink what our winter tourism can be about."

The Mariner North motel and restaurant in Copper Harbor on Dec. 29, 2006, with almost no snow and few if any tourists. (Photo © 2007 Kraig Klungness)

The Mariner North motel and restaurant in Copper Harbor is seen here on December 29, 2006, with almost no snow and few if any tourists. The week between Christmas and New Year's Day is normally the busiest of the Keweenaw winter season. Scientists say climate change is contributing to recent warmer winters. (Photo © 2007 Kraig Klungness)

Kauppi says the Mariner has recently expanded its gift shop, and is thinking about bottling its salsa and barbecue sauce. The employees like that idea, she adds, because slow seasons are tough on them economically.

"We have this health-department approved kitchen, and so we’re thinking, okay, we’ll put it to work in other ways," she notes. "We’re pretty innovative people up here in the Keweenaw. We’re kind of masters of improvisation." 

Some of the Mariner’s guests have improvised already -- like the group including Nelson Sommerfeldt and Melanie Johnson who decided to bike instead of snowshoeing on New Year’s Day.

"Leading up to New Year’s, there was no snow on the ground," Sommerfeldt reports.

Snowless landscape in Copper Harbor: Dec. 29, 2007. (Photo © 2007 Kraig Klungness.)

On Dec. 29, 2006, the entrance to Copper Harbor on U.S. 41 offers a landscape more conducive to mountain biking than to snowmobiling or skiing. (Photo © 2007 Kraig Klungness.)

On December 31, it rained and sleeted, then began snowing overnight, leaving a few inches of the white stuff over Copper Harbor’s higher elevations by the next morning. But that snow was too meager for snowshoeing and not deep enough to stop a bike.

Johnson grew up in the Copper Country and remembers winters with much more snow.

"You’d go sledding off the rooftops because the snow banks were so high that there was just a continual pile all the way down," she recalls. "To go from that to a year where you’re out mountain biking on New Year’s -- it’s crazy. It is a big change."

Countering winter warmth by making and moving snow

Warmer winters mean less snow if temperatures are above freezing more often, but there are conditions where climate warming could actually bring more snow instead of less, says Brent Lofgren of NOAA’s GLERL.

"I think there’s a lot of legitimacy to the claim that the very high amounts of snowfall in western New York State near Lake Ontario last winter were in effect due to warming," Lofgren says. "It was largely caused by the amount of open water that was on Lake Ontario that late in the season."

A February cold snap moving over the lake, Lofgren explains, encountered a larger and warmer expanse of open water than normal. That month in parts of upstate New York, over 100 inches of snow fell in 10 days.

This kind of heavy lake effect snow event is also possible in the Keweenaw, he says. However, if the cold snap isn’t cold enough -- i.e., not below freezing -- then lake effect precipitation might fall as rain instead of snow, leading to less snow overall. 

If warmer winters do mean less snow for the Keweenaw, Mt. Ripley’s snowmaking equipment will help ensure continuing ski seasons, says Nick Sirdenis, general manager of the ski hill. Mt. Ripley has nine snow guns and is getting eight more, Sirdenis reports. With more snowmaking equipment, the ski area won’t need as much time at colder temperatures to make enough snow to cover its runs. 

Making snow at Mont Ripley Ski Hill near Hancock with newer, more energy-efficient snowmaking equipment. (Photo © 2007 and courtesy Mont Ripley.)

Making snow at Mont Ripley Ski Hill near Hancock. In warmer winters, ski areas rely more on artificial snow. The tall, slanted pipe in left foreground is newer, more energy-efficient snowmaking equipment. (Photo © 2007 and courtesy Mont Ripley.)

Last winter, Mt. Ripley was open 100 days, the shortest season in the seven years Sirdenis has managed the hill. However, he figures last winter’s season would have lasted only 27 days without snowmaking equipment.

Sirdenis says he’s learned to expect mild weather any time El Niño conditions are in effect, as they were much of last winter. El Niño is the name given to a particular pattern of warming in the Pacific Ocean, and it has a wide effect on weather around the world.

"Last year, the El Niño winter that we had was by far the worst I’ve ever seen in my 29 years in the business," Sirdenis says.

He adds, "If it was global warming that caused El Niño to be that warm, then that looks really bad."

Both factors could have played a role in last winter’s warmth, explains meteorologist Robert Henson, a writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and author of The Rough Guide to Climate Change.

"There’s never just one cause for something like a warm winter," Henson states. "El Niño tends to shift the odds in a certain direction, but it’s just one of many ingredients that make a season what it is." 

However, he explains, in the Upper Midwest, El Niño is very important.

"In the U.S., one of the strongest effects of El Niño is warmth along the northern tier of states," Henson says. "Winters in general are getting milder in the northern hemisphere up at your latitude." 

Long-term climate change is another variable affecting a season’s weather, Henson adds. 

Like Henson, climatologist Julie Winkler, a professor at Michigan State University (MSU), points out that year-to-year weather variability also complicates the picture.

"We have a considerable record and output from climate models that do suggest that anthropogenic climate change is likely," says Winkler. "But we probably don’t have a long enough record yet to be able to slice out how much of the climate variability we’re seeing is due to climate change and how much is due to natural climate variability."

Winkler is part of an interdisciplinary team called the Pileus Project, which is studying effects of climate change on sectors of Michigan’s economy, particularly tourism and agriculture. The Pileus Project website forecasts trouble for winter sports as the climate continues to warm.

That website states, "Snowmobiling and cross country skiing may be particularly vulnerable because these sports have not been traditionally supported using machine-made snow. There are just too many miles of trails to cover."

Covering trails was exactly what had to be done for last winter’s U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships, held at the Michigan Tech Trails from January 1 to 7, 2007. When December didn’t supply enough snow for the trails, MTU Sports and Recreation Director Mike Abbott recruited help from the community to bring in snow from other locations.

"There had to be well over 200 dump trucks of snow," Abbott reports. "They harvested from athletic fields throughout the area."

More than 150 volunteers pitched in to help with the effort, he estimates. 

"We shoveled in a one-kilometer sprint course; and then, for the longer races, we brought in lots of snow on a five-kilometer course," he says. "We knew there were going to be 460 skiers here for that event, and so we had to do it."

Fortunately, Abbott reports, the cost of bringing in snow proved low, given all the help from the community. He adds that by helping to make the championships successful, the area benefited from hotel, restaurant and other business generated by the ski racers, coaches and spectators who attended.

Renewables to the rescue?

Burning fossil fuels in the process of hauling snow to cover the Tech Trails, says Mike Abbott, raised the subject of how MTU might cut greenhouse gas emissions in the future.

"We understand where this comes from," says Abbott, referring to the suspected connection between greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and warmer winters with less snow on the trails. "We can’t just sit back and burn our fossil fuels."

Instead, Abbott reports, MTU is looking into running the Tech Trails groomer on bio-diesel. "We’re looking forward to trying to do that, next year, we hope," he says.

Tech also uses a cleaner-burning four-stroke snowmobile for trail maintenance, though it does still own a couple of older, two-stroke machines as back-up.

Similarly, Mt. Ripley is incorporating energy efficiency into its decisions as it adds eight new snowguns.

"We bought what we call the green snowguns," says Nick Sirdenis.

These "snow sticks," he explains, use much less energy to make snow. And that also saves money.

Around the Copper Country, interest in renewable power and energy conservation has surged, if high attendance at several recent seminars on the topic is any indication. In April, over 100 people attended a meeting on renewable energy held by the Keweenaw Sustainability Project in Hancock, and other similar meetings have seen high attendance as well.**

Frank Underdown, owner of Laurium-based Superior Alternative Energies, is one who has witnessed this. His company works with renewable energy systems -- including solar, wind and fuel cells for homes and businesses.

"We recently attended a seminar on alternative energy at Michigan Tech, over in the Forestry building; and the theater there was pretty packed out," says Underdown. "So there is an interest there." He adds, “Right now, it’s probably more of a cost thing.” 

Businesses dealing with higher fuel costs can potentially save money by switching to renewable power, Underdown says.

"As climate change continues to happen and as we start seeing larger effects up here, I think that will end up being an impetus to drive more people to do something,” he adds.

We need more businesses like Underdown’s, and we need them soon, judging from remarks by Nathan Lewis, a chemistry professor from California Institute of Technology, who spoke at Michigan Tech earlier this year. Lewis believes more investment in renewable energy is desperately needed to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide from surpassing what some consider to be dangerous levels, which could further destabilize climate.

Lewis believes that, in the long run, solar energy is the only form of renewable power that can meet predicted world energy demand. Bio-fuels and wind can help, he says, but only for a small percentage of total global demand. His calculations also show that nuclear power plants can’t be built cost-effectively enough to solve the greenhouse gas problem. Lewis hopes to see much more funding for solar research and development.

Already, a few Keweenaw-area households use solar, wind and water power for some of their energy needs. So far, though, this is a small percentage, with most power coming from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal.

Climatologists thus expect more greenhouse gas emissions in coming years -- and more warming.

"Most of the last several [winters] have been pretty warm up your way," comments Robert Henson. "I think it’s fair to say that you can expect a lot of winters like that to come."

So far, weather predictions agree. As of mid-June, long-range forecasts from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center indicate that higher than normal temperatures are again likely for the Keweenaw this coming fall and winter.

Editor's notes:
* This is the third in a series of recent articles on climate change by Keweenaw Now guest writer Katie Alvord. See "Lake Superior warming fast: Researchers surprised by strong trends" and  "Lake Superior Basin feeling heat: Part 2." 

** See also Katie Alvord's recent article, "Renewable energy events draw local crowds."

Read about Keweenaw Now guest writer Katie Alvord on her contributor page.

Update: Visit Keweenaw Now's new blog: to comment on this article or to express your views.

Check out National Public Radio's new series, "Climate Connections," from NPR and National Geographic, on the NPR Web site.

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