Experts on Camera

Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski: Climate change and winter sports

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Warmer, less snowy winters can mean less opportunity for cold-weather activities like skiing and ice climbing–with significant economic consequences for winter sports and tourism industries.

On Wednesday, February 7, 2024, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, a research assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of New Hampshire. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: My name is Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski. I’m a research scientist here at the University of New Hampshire. I study winter climate change, primarily in the northeastern United States, but also more broadly across the U.S. I want to understand how it’s changed in the past, how it’s going to change in the future, and also what impacts it has on ecosystems and society.

Interview with SciLine

What can you tell us about recent winter temperature trends in the United States?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: What we know about winter temperature trends is that winter is the fastest-warming season across most of the United States—and particularly so east of the Mississippi River. New England and the Upper Midwest are winter warming hotspots. We’ve seen some of the fastest winter warming trends in Burlington, Vermont, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Concord, New Hampshire, for example. And that’s concerning. This means that those areas of the United States are also more susceptible to snow loss. And that is also consistent with what we’ve seen.

Can you tell us more about trends in snowfall and snow cover?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: With snowfall, what we know is that the ratio of precipitation that’s falling as snow versus rain has been shifting over time. And as we get warmer temperatures, we’re going to be seeing more of our winter precipitation falling as rain instead of snow. This was particularly a situation that we saw in December of 2023 in the northeastern United States—in particular in New England. We had a very heavy rainfall event that fell on a snowpack, and in turn also on frozen ground. And that led to some really devastating flooding. And we’re also looking at changes in snow coverage. So, how much snow was on the ground, and how much area is it covering? Right now in the United States, we’re looking at a snow cover deficit, and the Northeast and in the Midwest, we see that snowpack is well below normal in terms of snow depth and how much area is covered.

Can you tell us more about trends in the amount of time when snow is on the ground?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: Not only is the area of snow cover and the depth of the snow cover is shrinking, we’re also seeing a shortening of the winter season itself. So, the number of days that we see, for example, that are extreme cold temperatures or below freezing and staying below freezing. That, too, has shortened, and the duration of snow cover has also shortened. So we’re seeing in northeast for example, about two to three weeks less of snow cover compared to what we saw 100 years ago.

What are scientists’ predictions for how winter conditions will change in future years?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: The research that my colleagues and I have done in the northeastern United States indicates that snow loss can be expected in the future. If we continue to emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases, we’re going to continue to see winters warm, and that could mean further loss of snowpack. This means that our deepest snow packs, ones that are six inches or deeper, the ones that support subnivean habitat—or the habitat or critters are living under the snow and benefiting from its protection and installation—that is going to be shorter, as well, in terms of how long that deep snowpack is on the ground. That also has implications for winter recreation. If you’re snowmobiling or cross country skiing, a deep snowpack is necessary to protect the trails and prevent erosion. It’s also just safer for the types of vehicles and equipment that you’re using on those trails. And so the loss of deep snowpack is a really grave concern.

How are changing winters affecting ski resorts and communities that depend on them?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: What we know is that when we see decreases in snow cover and warmer winter temperatures, that really puts a limit on how many skier visits we see. So, a skier visit is defined as any one person visiting a ski resort for all or part of a day. And the correlations in many states, especially in the Northeastern United States and some states out west, is that the more snow you have on the ground, the more snowfall you see, the more skier visits you’re gonna get. And when the winter temperatures get warmer, that means there are challenges that even snow-making faces. So, snow-making has been a really great adaptation strategy. And the technology has come a really long way—like snow-making machines today can make more snow in a shorter amount of time using less energy and less water than they could even a decade ago. But ultimately, physics wins. You have days when you can make snow at any temperature you want, but it’s going to melt at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. And when we see daytime temperatures getting well above 32, that means that even that unnatural machine-made snowpack is going to start to melt, and that’s going to put some limits on how many skiers can safely recreate on the trails.

Are there winter activities for which snow-making cannot mitigate the challenges of warmer winters?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: Not all winter outdoor recreation opportunities in winter can benefit from an adaptation strategy like snow-making. Ice fishing, for example, there’s no strategy to make ice on a pond in the absence of cold temperatures, and so the strategy there instead is that usually ice fishing tournaments have to be moved to a smaller pond. If you have a large lake—like Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, for example, typically host an ice fishing derby every winter, and in recent years, that’s had to be moved to a smaller lake nearby where the ice is just simply safer and thicker. We also look at impacts on pond hockey tournaments, so that, too, also this year in New Hampshire had to be moved from Lake Winnipesaukee to a smaller lake nearby because the ice conditions simply weren’t safe. Snowmobiling, similarly—snow-making is not possible on hundreds of miles, thousands of miles of trails across the northeastern United States and Midwest and other parts of the U.S. And instead, they’re much more beholden to what natural snowfall can happen in nature in wintertime. And when we don’t see that snowfall, you know, it really means that you’re going to have limited recreational opportunities with a sport like snowmobiling. We’ve also looked at ice climbing in the Northeast United States. The Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire—it’s arguably the birthplace of modern day ice climbing—we’ve noticed the changes, and largely it’s becoming unsafe ice conditions and ice that melts out in the middle of winter during a thaw event and has to reform if you get cold conditions. And looking into the future, we’re looking at a shortening of the ice climbing season from what on average historically had been about 100 days to maybe something like 65 days if we have climate policies in place that we have today. But if we had no climate policies, it could be as short as a month.

What can you tell us about the psychological impacts of winter warming?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: When I experienced winter warming in my own environment, my own hometown, in my backyard, it’s a personal level of change. And part of that includes feeling a sense of loss. And I embrace that sense of loss. I acknowledge it. I recognize that it’s happening. And some scientists have argued that there is a name for that type of ecosystem and environmental anxiety. They call it solastalgia, and it’s a combination of the word solace and algia, which is like grief or suffering. So, when you have that loss of comfort, that can that can really hit home. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that and recognize that this is a real sort of feeling that you can have. But it’s also important to turn that apathy into action. And so part of the work that I do is through advocacy and activism. I’m often visiting folks in D.C. and advocating for policy changes that are going to make a difference—not just in fossil fuel emissions and reduction of heat trapping gases, but also make sense economically, ones that are going to improve the lives of people that maybe are suffering disproportionate effects of climate change.

What can you tell us about the economic importance of winter recreation in your home state of New Hampshire?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: One of the first studies I did as a graduate student was back in 2006. And we were comparing the warm winters to our colder snowy winters and wanted to look at what the effect was on visitor spending and meal and tax revenue. And the take home number that came out of that study back in 2006, was $13 million. And it was surprising. And when you look more broadly across the state in terms of how much money is being spent in winter tourism and recreation, it ends up adding up to several hundred million dollars. So, it’s not an insignificant portion of our economy, in wintertime. And when you look broadly across the United States, I mean, some states are really in top notch condition. You look at a state like Colorado, and there’s billions of dollars and, you know, tens of thousands of jobs being supported by outdoor recreation. And I think it’s really important to acknowledge that part of our economy. They’ve disproportionately not had a very strong voice in Congress and in policymaking. And we’ve seen a shift in that. And I think there’s a lot of great organizations out there that are advocating on behalf of the outdoor industry. Now, one of the ones that I’ve been working with and for over 10 years now is Protect Our Winters. And it’s really been a great way to connect the professional athletes, the brands, the resorts that are seeing these changes and being impacted by them and giving them voice and a place to speak out and say we need to change this.

El Niño has contributed to this year’s warm winter. How do you contextualize that in long-term climate trends?


ELIZABETH BURAKOWSKI: The last time northern New Hampshire had a cooler than average winter relative to the 20th century mean was in 2015. And that was over nine years ago. And you look back in time and you wonder, like, is that going to be the last time we see that? Are our children going to see a winter that was cooler than 20th century average? And sometimes I have my doubts. So, I think it’s really important to put that into context that El Niño is not going to explain everything. And we know that global warming and the trapping of heat through greenhouse gas emissions is responsible for what we’re seeing in winters.

What advice do you have for reporters covering winter sports?

[Posted February 7, 2024 | Download video]