Climate Change Impacts Local Economies With Fewer Snow Days

By Katelyn Ivers | Sustainable Living, Urban Design

Snow brings ample pros to any community; including tourism and the opportunity for winter sports, forest biome protection, future inputs for freshwater sources, and a cooling effect from the high reflectivity due to its white pigment. With climate change presenting increased temperatures across the world, many areas that normally flourish with snow are seeing fewer snow-covered days comparing to 100 years ago.


New Hampshire’s average temperatures slowly matching those much further south. Image via

New England, for one, has had an average increase of 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature per decade. These places, with tourism gold mines such as the beautiful mountains in Vermont for skiing and snowboarding, the foliage for sight-seeing in New Hampshire, the beautiful beaches in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, are all becoming negatively affected by climate change and thus the quality of life and the economy in these areas are also being affected. Climatology and both microclimates and macroclimates are extremely important to a community.

Snow as an Insulator

Surprisingly enough, snow can serve to trap heat underneath it. When snow covers forest ground, one of its purposes is to keep tree roots at a fair temperature in order for them to keep up productivity. Forest productivity is imperative for sustaining our logging and tourism industries, and terrestrial habitats. It also prevents erosion and poor water (stream) quality, provides healthy trees to give us oxygen, and supports carbon sequestration to help remove our anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. When snow cover is lessened, trees become less functional. New England and other areas of the United States are seeing snow cover decreasing as we see fewer snow-covered days, we will eventually see the weakened productivity of our forests that will result in greater concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, a hit to our logging industry on which much of our northern economies depend, and less stable habitats for forest biota.

Snowpack is a Source of Freshwater

Snowpack is the amount of snow and ice on the ground. In high mountain ranges and cold places around the world, snowpack piles up in the winter and melts during the spring and summer seasons. As the world gets warmer, rain will occur more often than snow, so the snowpack won’t be as deep and plentiful.

When the snowpack melts in the spring and summer, it provides freshwater for streams, rivers, and ponds. It also replenishes reservoirs for drinking water purposes. Also, more snow will melt earlier in the spring. For instance, this dynamic negatively affects regions such as Washington state because its water supply is stored in snowpack and glaciers that later melt into rivers. When the stored snow shifts to higher elevations, less snow will be available to replenish rivers downstream. Too much melted snow (water runoff) in the early spring season will hurt the ecosystem in the summer months when the snowpack is needed but not available. Some downstream effects include changes in fish migration, timing of peak freshwater flows, and the need for water availability in the dry summer season.

Urban Heat Island effect depicted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Urban Heat Island effect depicted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Albedo and Sunlight Reflectivity

Albedo refers to an object’s amount of reflectivity from sunlight. A high albedo, which is represented as 1.0, correlates to white objects, like snow, and indicates high reflectivity. A low albedo, represented by 0, correlates to black objects, like pavement, and indicates low reflectivity and high sunlight absorption. Most things in nature and in the built environment fall on the spectrum from 0 and 1 in terms of albedo, but snow and ice plainly represent the highest of albedos. Snow cover has a cooling effect on the community in which it lies. By reflecting sunlight and not absorbing it, the region naturally becomes cooler. One example of low albedo can be seen in urban environments with a lot of black pavement and buildings, as well as metal infrastructure that readily absorbs heat. For this, cities often have the “urban heat island” effect within their microclimate. Cities are often warmer than their surrounding suburbs due to the amount of infrastructure with low albedo. Of course, more than just albedo plays a role in the urban heat island effect. Increased traffic and transportation use, population density, and high levels of industry and pollution all contribute to the creation of the urban heat island effect.

Less snowfall equates to darker colored grounds. Green vegetation and brown soil are in the middle of the albedo spectrum. Even though they absorb more sunlight than snow does, areas with more vegetation and soil cover reflect more sunlight back into the atmosphere than dark pavements do. For communities that do not get snow because of their southern latitude, designing lighter-colored or white areas and increasing vegetation and natural ground coverage can increase a community’s albedo.


Percent change in Skier visits dependent on snowfall levels. Image via NRDC. 


Tourism and Economic Development


Most areas with high snow coverage are also home to beautiful landscapes, mountains, and recreation opportunities. It’s said that more than 23 million people participate in winter sporting activities and stay at ski resorts. This adds about $12.2 billion in economic value to the United States economy via tourists spending money at ski resorts, hotels, stores, gas stations, and bars. Also, winter sports and tourism support about 211,900 jobs, earning a total of $7 billion in salaries. Through this, the result is an added $1.4 billion in state and local taxes and $1.7 billion in federal taxes. However, the downhill ski resort industry is estimated to have lost over $1 billion in “aggregated revenue between low and high snow fall years over the last decade (November 1999 – April 2010)” (NRDC).


Employment numbers from winter tourism. Image via NRDC.

The resulting employment change led to a loss of between 13,000 to 27,000 jobs (6 to 13 percent employment change) in 2009 and 2010. The biggest changes in the approximate number of skier visits between high and low snowfall years (over 1 million) happened in: Colorado (-7.7 percent), Washington (-28 percent), Wisconsin (-36 percent), California (-4.7 percent) , Utah (-14 percent), and Oregon (-31 percent). The difference in economic value felt by the state economy ranged from -$117 million to -$38 million. In the Eastern U.S. with the biggest estimated changes in skier visits between low and high snowfall years were: Vermont (-9.5 percent), Pennsylvania (-12 percent), New Hampshire (-17 percent), and New York (-10 percent). The difference in economic value as a result added to the state economy ranged from -$51 million to -$40 million. These values are extremely significant to both states and communities nation-wide.

Read more articles on Climate Change.

About The Author

Katelyn is an undergraduate student at the University of New Hampshire studying Environmental Conservation & Sustainability and Community Planning. Her passions are green urban design and planning, sustainable energy, green real estate, ecotourism, and environmental policy. She hopes to obtain a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning.