A winter carnival, other tourism threatened by warming weather
By Tim Jones
Originally published January 12, 2007
HOUGHTON, Mich. // In the land of big snow, where college students jump harmlessly out of third-story dormitory windows into snow banks, the longest season of the year sure isn't what it used to be.
Snow that was dependable as a sunrise - and last year tallied higher than 20 feet - is being rationed in the city of Houghton, which this week canceled a downtown inner tube race - the Yooper Luge - to save snow for the annual winter carnival, the biggest tourist attraction of the year.
Barely a few inches cover the ground now. Trucks are hauling in snow from outside the city and onto the campus of Michigan Technological University, where the late January carnival is held.
"And we're struggling to find it," said Houghton's city manager, Scott MacInnes. "It's scary. There's not a lot of it."
Mount Bohemia, a popular ski slope about 40 miles north of here, has been closed for weeks. Restaurants that depend on ski traffic are shut; snowmobile rentals have gone into the tank. As the temperatures climbed toward 40 degrees yesterday, people openly wished for a two-foot dumper.
"Like right now," MacInnes said.
Things are changing in one of the snowiest parts of the eastern United States, according to weather data and scientists. The winter trend in Michigan has been taking shape since the 1980s, according state climatologist Jeff Andresen - warmer winters, more volatility in temperatures, longer growing seasons, less ice on lakes, higher minimum temperatures at night and a change in the frost schedule: The first one comes later and the last one comes earlier.
Unusual birds sightings have been reported in the Upper Peninsula - pelicans and magpies. It rained heavily on New Year's Eve, which is practically unheard of. So far in this decade, the average January temperature in the Houghton area has risen almost 7 degrees since the decade of the 1970s. It's up almost 8 degrees in Marquette, during the same period. Lake Superior is at a record low level.
And the chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Marquette played golf a few days before Christmas.
"There's no question that winters are milder than in the past," Andresen said.
All of this has shaken the predictability of weather in this region of the country that depends on skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing to drive the winter economy. Jim Aho has run a snowmobile rental shop in neighboring Hancock since the 1970s. He has three dozen parked in his front lot; normally the lot would be empty. His shop is crammed with new jackets, gloves, helmets and other gear - that aren't moving.
"It's terrible," Aho said.
Dawn Greene, who works at a local bank and is a hostess at a downtown restaurant, said she saw crocuses sprout up last week. David Menominee tends a bar with a black bear's head mounted to the wall and keeps watch over a closed restaurant near Mount Bohemia. Drooping dollar bills are tacked to the knotty pine ceiling. None is a recent addition.
"This is survival of the fittest time," said Menominee, who noted some snowmobilers are so desperate for snow that they'll bring their vehicles and ride in the mud.
Earlier this month the city of Houghton - with help from volunteers - manufactured and trucked in snow for Olympic cross-country ski time trials. The paucity of snow in areas to the east has raised concerns about major cross-country ski and snowmobile races.
In Marquette, which five years ago set a snowfall record of 319 inches, the ground is brown only two weeks before a popular tourist event, a 50-km cross-country ski race.
John Anderton, a geography professor at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, worries that the weather patterns are changing to the extent that conditions common in south central Michigan will eventually become the norm in much of the Upper Peninsula. Only time will tell.
Anderton is also worried about the cross-country race because he'll be in it - if there's snow. Lakes have already swallowed up ice fishing shanties and Anderton isn't sure about the ponds he and other racers will have to cross.
"Clearly something is wrong with the temperature trend," he said.
Last year was one of the warmest in the UP's history, and while this winter is an anomaly, even a freakish one, Andresen said there is nothing on the horizon to suggest the warming trend is ending. Temperatures from 1900 through the 1930s were warm, he said. From the 1940s through the 1970s there was a cooling trend.
The warming that began in the 1980s, causing annual seasonal warm-ups that begin seven to 10 days earlier than normal, "shows no sign of stopping," he said.
A few inches of snow fell Tuesday on the western UP. Houghton has only had about 50 inches or so, and nearly all of it has been washed away by rain or warm temperatures.
Normally they would have had close to 200 inches. But nobody is sure what normal is anymore.
"A few inches is nothing up here," said MacInnes. "We need a big one, and fast."
Tim Jones writes for Chicago Tribune.
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