The winter season doesn’t officially start for another month and a half, but the snow is already flying in some parts of the country.
This time of year a lot of those flakes are man made in the Northeast, where the region’s ski resorts rely on snowmaking to keep customers on the slopes longer than ever.
The largest ski area east of the Rocky Mountains is in western Maine; in the last two years Sugarloaf Resort has spent almost $2 million dollars on the latest snowmaking technology. "When you have your season stretching from mid-November to mid-May, your guests start to expect that from you no matter what the weather is," says Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin.
The resort spends another 5 to 10 percent of its winter operating budget on the energy to make snow, Austin adds. "It’s a big number. It all depends on what the energy costs are at any given time, and those fluctuate on a daily basis."
Ski resorts have supplemented Mother Nature for decades, but today’s snow guns make flakes more efficiently and in warmer weather.
So now, that’s how they compete, says Greg Sweetser, head of the Ski Maine Association. "It has truly been an arms race of who can make the most snow with the least amount of dollars."
Resorts also claim it’s harder to tell the difference from the real stuff.
But sometimes even the best technology falls short. "Insulating yourself from fluctuations of weather has become crucial over the last five years," says J.J. Toland, spokesman for Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont, which recently built a 60-thousand square foot indoor water park. "We invented the weatherproof ski vacation, so to speak."
Now if there’s not enough snow, real or fake, skiers can pass the time surfing.