Snowmobiling must adapt to climate change

NORTH COUNTRY – Snowmobiling will have to adapt to the impacts of climate change, using new technologies and land management techniques to remain a mainstay of New Hampshire's economy according to a recent white paper on the issue.
The paper said two recent winters illustrate the importance of snowmobiling to the state's economy and the fragility of the sport in the face of changing winter conditions.
In the winter of 2010-11, snowmobiling had a total impact of $586 million on the state's economy, factoring in equipment sales and rentals, food and lodging receipts, sales and gas taxes, registration, etc. But the following winter the economic impact dropped to $265 million because of unfavorable snow conditions according to figures by Plymouth State University Professors Mark Okrant and Daniel Lee.
At the beginning of the past winter, the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation brought together 18 people from New Hampshire, Maine, and, Vermont to discuss snowmobiling and climate change. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the group included ecosystem scientists, state and federal land managers, and representatives of snowmobiling clubs and associations.
In 'Riding Winter's Trails' the white paper that grew out of the project, author David Sleeper said the scientific numbers coming out of the 8,000-acre Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest only confirm what the snowmobiling community has suspected for years – that the mean annual winter temperatures have markedly increased since 1955 while annual maximum snow depth has declined. The amount of mixed precipitation has increased while the amount falling as snow has dropped. Ice-out dates on Mirror Lake are occurring earlier in the spring.
For the snowmobiling community, those numbers can mean periods of patchy or no snow cover, dangerous icing of trails, freeze-thaw cycles that create frost heaves and make trail maintenance difficult, an increase in severe weather such as ice storms and spring flooding that wreak havoc on trail systems.
The changing winter conditions make it hard for the private snowmobile clubs, which maintain most of the 7,200 miles of trails in New Hampshire and 14,000 miles in Maine. To buy equipment and maintain trails, the clubs depend on money that comes to them from registration fees collected by state agencies.
"All these changes to the winter landscape are expected to occur with greater variability, meaning it will become harder to predict conditions from one snowmobiling season to the next. For public land managers trying to plan and budget for the future, or snowmobilers considering investing in a new $15,000 sled, this represents a perfect storm of uncertainty," Sleeper wrote.
But all is not doom and gloom.
"The report doesn't say we're going to lose all our winter," said Chris Gamache, head of the N.H. Trails Bureau and one of the participants in the discussion. 
In fact, Sleeper notes the snowmobile community has proven resilient in the face of discouraging climate news and is using new technologies and management practices to adapt to changing winter conditions.
While snowmobile clubs can't make artificial snow like ski areas, they now operate with less snow by building smoother trails that require as little as six to eight inches of snow. Gamache said the days when snowmobile clubs needed two to five feet of snow before grooming trails are long gone.
Trail managers also have developed better ways of dealing with water including oversized culverts and better bridges. In some cases trails have been re-routed to avoid thawing conditions on ponds and lakes.
The Internet allows updated trail conditions and riders can plan trips with greater certainty of trail conditions.
One the other side, snowmobiles are quieter and more fuel-efficient and riders can travel longer distances per day. As the climate changes, riders may find it difficult to just get on their machine and go.
Sleeper recommends snowmobilers work to keep the trail system already in place, noting that it represents "an enormous expenditure of human capital". Snowmobilers are urged to look at new models such as sharing trails with ATVs and using management practices to build trails that can accommodate ATVs. The report notes scarce dollars could go twice as far by sharing trails. Gamache said he agrees that whenever possible trails should accommodate both ATV and snowmobile use.
"It's a no brainer for clubs to work together on projects," he said.
The report suggests trails and recreational activities should be planned and managed with climate change in mind. The report suggests snowmobilers can help researchers by providing vital data on temperature, snowfall, soil frost, and other winter conditions to help monitor changing conditions across the landscape.