Michigan winters, as generations have known them, may be coming to an end
Karl Schwartz wishes he was simply chasing glory on the snowmobile racing track. Instead, in recent years, he has been forced to chase increasingly elusive cold weather.
Schwartz, of Freeland, is president of the Midwest International Racing Association, a snowmobile racing circuit operating primarily in Michigan for more than 40 years. Their weekend races draw about 100 teams, hundreds of racers and crew members, and thousands more fans, usually as part of a local community's winter festival.
But each year, as Michigan's climate changes, it's getting harder to do.
"We race on ice, not snow," he said. "We don't need snow—we need cold temperatures."
The racers often compete on fairground horse tracks, flooded with hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to try to build a base of frozen ground that the racers' machines will chew up over a weekend of competition. They need about two weeks of temperatures in the teens to create the proper conditions. With increasing frequency, that's becoming near-impossible to find, Schwartz said.
"In spite of our best efforts to move our calendar around, and water these race tracks weeks in advance, we're still having to move dates, cancel dates and race in less than perfect conditions because of the warm weather," he said.
"This has been a consistent problem for us, especially the past few years. It's been going on longer than that, but especially the past five years, it's been really, really problematic."
The racing association's board has held meetings in recent years to talk about what it can do, including moving more races farther north.
"(But) we're already at Sault Ste. Marie," in the eastern Upper Peninsula at the Canadian border, Schwartz said. "Two races there, and they can't even get cold enough. Our race at Ironwood (in the far western U.P.) had problems, too.
"When you can't get ice at the Canadian border, how much farther north can you go?"
Michigan's cold, snowy winters, and a way of life built around them, are being disrupted by climate change. And for winter festivals reliant on cold, snow and ice—and communities reliant on the economic boost at a slow time that those festivals bring—it's causing some scrambling to adapt, and even to survive.
The Great Lakes region has seen a larger increase in annual average temperatures than the rest of the continental U.S. And "winters are getting warmer more quickly than the summers are," said Richard Rood, a professor in climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan.
"The planet overall is warming, but states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois are getting warmer, faster," said Don Wuebbles, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois.
Snowfall in the Great Lakes Basin decreased 2.25% from 1984 to 2013 as compared with 1954 to 1983. Researchers project snowfall could decline by almost 48% by 2080 under a business-as-usual scenario without reduced human carbon emissions. But even under a more optimistic scenario, where greenhouse gas emissions are significantly curtailed, winter snowfall in the Great Lakes Basin is expected to decline by more than 28% by 2080.
The number of days where the low temperature dips below freezing, 32 degrees Fahrenheit, in the Great Lakes region is projected by scientists to decrease by more than a month per year in the higher-emissions scenario, and by three weeks in the lower-emissions scenario. And days where the high temperature stays below freezing—the kind of consistently cold winter days needed for activities such as snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross-country skiing and more—are projected to decrease by 56 days a year under higher carbon emissions, and by 31 days under lower emissions.
Michigan winters, as generations have known them and relied upon them, appear to be coming to an end. Cold snaps and heavy lake-effect snow will still happen, but happen in less and less frequent bursts over time.
"While in certain regions it's still snowing a lot, how it's behaving once it is on the ground is quite a bit different," Rood said. "It's not lasting as long, and it gets sloppy as rain falls on it.
"It doesn't have to be that much warmer that you get lake-effect rain rather than lake-effect snow."
By the end of the century, under a scenario of continued high carbon emissions, scientists project that Michigan's annual average temperature could increase by 9 or 10 degrees Fahrenheit, Wuebbles said.
"That's a much, much different climate," he said. "For comparison, the last Ice Age, which brought ice 2 miles thick here, the temperature was 11 degrees cooler than today."
Winter Fest is canceled—again
Michigan's winter festivals face a different challenge this year—the COVID-19 pandemic. But over recent years, disruption has come from a lack of traditional winter conditions.
The Caro Winter Fest, in the Thumb region of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, canceled events for the second straight winter in January. The festival is built around the Midwest International Racing Association's snowmobile races.
"The past few years, the temperatures have not cooperated whatsoever before the event," said Kris Reinelt, Caro Winter Fest board president.
Festival staff usually begin flooding the Tuscola County Fairgrounds to build ice layers for the snowmobile racing track after the holidays, in preparation for the Winter Fest races, usually held around the third weekend of January.
"We need at least a week of consistent, low temperatures," Reinelt said. "We would be able to build up 1 or 2 inches of ice a night, but then in the daytime, it would warm up and take it away.
"We have to pay for the water, we have to pay for the time. It doesn't become cost-effective to fight that battle."
The lost festivals over back-to-back years, and threatened again in 2021 by the coronavirus, cause a painful economic hit for the community.
"The racing teams bring in 300 people just among the racers, their families and friends who follow them," Reinelt said. "In Caro, we draw another 3,000 people. Those are 3,300 people who may never come to Caro, and they are coming in the middle of winter, which is a slow time. That's so helpful to the hotels, restaurants, grocery stores."
At Tip-Up Town U.S., Michigan's longest-running winter festival, established in 1953 and built around ice fishing on Houghton Lake, nearly a dozen people fell through the ice last January, their snowmobiles, four-wheelers and other vehicles breaking through thin ice that was open water less than a week earlier.
The Kalkaska Winterfest, in northern Lower Michigan, features one of the Midwest's largest dog-sledding sprint races, going back to 1965—longer-running than the famed Iditarod in Alaska.
In 2017, the races scheduled for January were postponed until the first week of March because of a lack of wintry conditions. When it was more of the same in March, the races were canceled.
In 2018, the races were postponed in January, then canceled in February. The next year, the January dates were again moved to February, when the latter half of the racing schedule that weekend was canceled because "everything had just melted," said Shannon Moore, a race marshal and board secretary for the Winterfest.
"That was something I'd never seen at a dog race, ever," she said.
At the local hotel sponsoring the event and hosting race teams and their families, the All Season Resort, "they go from being completely booked to 5% occupancy when we cancel," Moore said.
Many of the dog-sledding teams come from out of state, as much as 10 hours away, and bring kennels and trucks, crews and families. Though 2020's races went off without a hitch in mid-February, the more races that get postponed, canceled or happen in poor conditions, the more worry that teams won't bother coming, Moore said.
"I think we'll have to keep aiming for February and hoping we get lucky," she said. "When we do it later in March, that's not going to work. And the January dates haven't been working, either."
Snowmobile sales plummet 70%
Carl Gerstacker was a snowmobiling fanatic.
"From the mid-'90s until about '05-'06, there was a solid 10 years where we put on just a ton of miles and had fun with it," he said.
But the pastime got more expensive. And the right conditions became harder to find.
"The winters are hit-or-miss now," he said. "We've had some really good winters, where the guys are up there (in northern Michigan) feasting on perfect conditions. But when you're making payments on a $15,000 machine, you need some consistency."
Gerstacker and his friends were "weekend warriors"—"get off work a little early on Friday, head north, spend the weekend riding the trails, head back home Sunday and go to work on Monday." But needing to go ever farther north to find the best, most consistent riding became a time-consuming, costly effort.
"If you're chasing snow into the U.P., that's not an option anymore," the Brighton-area resident said. "You're talking eight to 10 hours of driving to get up into the good snow and the best trails."
Gerstacker in recent years has changed out the sleds for a side-by-side, a four-wheeled recreational vehicle featuring two rows of seating that his wife and two children can enjoy with him.
"There's always dirt, there's not always snow," he said. "I'm watching my buddies making payments on these (snowmobiles), and they are going to ride two months this year. And these quick little shots Up North are expensive, too.
"I don't look back. I enjoy the side-by-side more than I ever did snowmobiling."
Gerstacker isn't alone in leaving snowmobiles behind. Snowmobile sales in the U.S. are down 70% from their 1997 peak, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, a Haslett-based trade organization representing North America's four major snowmobile manufacturers: Arctic Cat; Ski-Doo/Bombardier; Polaris and Yamaha.
The Michigan Snowmobile Association, a Wyoming, Michigan-based nonprofit organization promoting and preserving the sport, also saw the changing reality. In May 2019, its board—over the protests of some sledding die-hards—voted to become the Michigan Snowmobile and ORV Association, adding off-road vehicles under its canopy.
"They are motorized, we are motorized, and very often we have the same goals and objectives," such as promoting trail access, said Karen Middendorp, the association's executive director.
Changing weather is unquestionably a factor in snowmobiling's decline, she said.
"You can't ride every weekend, especially for the down-staters," she said. "There's not enough snow."
Snowmobiling exploded in popularity in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, bringing $321 million in sales, $187 million in income, and more than 6,000 jobs to Michigan's economy, according to a 1998 Michigan State University study. It was primarily driven by baby boomers who had reached a more comfortable point in their lives and had the disposable income to afford, and the time to enjoy, snowmobiling. But now that population cohort is waning in the sport, said Edward Klim, executive director of the snowmobile manufacturers association.
"We have started to really look at millennials and Generation X. Are they recreating in the snow? Are they riding snowmobiles?" he said. "How does the next generation want to recreate? Some people will buy an ATV or UTV (utility terrain vehicle) and use it nine or 10 months a year."
It's a reality snowmobile dealers have been forced to confront: change or die.
"The writing was on the wall 10-plus years ago," said Mike Nord, owner of Nord-Ride Motorsports in Mount Morris Township.
Around 2000, there were as many as 10 snowmobile dealerships in the greater Genesee County area. Nord's is now the only one left.
"There are two negative things against it: The cost of it now, and the weather," he said. "The dealers had to look at it and say, 'This isn't a good business decision any longer.'"
Nord has survived by diversifying his vehicles, adding ATVs, side-by-sides and more. But even that comes with risks.
"If you look at some of the dealers that have fallen by the wayside, they fell into this trap," he said. "You have to be able to accommodate (these diverse recreational vehicles), so you have to get bigger on your buildings, and that means bigger on your overheads. You finance that to increase the size of your building, and all of a sudden, we have an economic downturn. There is no Plan B."
In contrast, ski resorts have stayed relatively unscathed by warming weather because of their ability to make snow, said Amy Reents, executive director of the Midwest Ski Areas Association based in Hastings, Minnesota, a nonprofit trade group promoting skiing and ski resort interests in Michigan and surrounding states.
"We're not growing by leaps and bounds, but there haven't been any great fall-offs," she said.
During a few days of cold weather, a ski resort can lay down several feet of manufactured snow, she said. It's then packed and groomed and provides a base with its own refrigeration.
"They can withstand several days in the 40s—it will do much better than the snow in your front yard," Reents said.
"The changes in snow-making technology over the years have made it so much easier to make snow in warmer temperatures. If anything has changed for the ski industry, it's that (resorts) have decided that capital investing in snow-making technology is hugely important."
Adaptation is essential
Adaptation and diversification will become increasingly essential for Michigan's winter festivals to continue and thrive. Many have already figured that out.
From long-ago years where many of Tip-Up Town U.S.'s events were held on the thick ice of Houghton Lake, the festival now largely operates under large tents on the shore, featuring family fun, food, music and merchants, said Jay Jacobs, executive director of the Houghton Lake Chamber of Commerce and a lead organizer of the festival.
Tip-Up Town typically draws about 10,000 visitors over its two weekends of events at the end of January.
"It's very essential to us," he said. "We rely on tourism—we don't have an industrial park; Houghton Lake doesn't have a defined downtown, a hospital, a university. These two weekends in the winter are a nice little shot in the arm for the community."
But even with diverse events not reliant on snow, ice or cold, a psychological deterrent can keep potential festival-goers home when it's warm out.
"It does affect the number of people who show up," said Jacobs. "We've had a few years where it's been rainy, and people just don't hang around."
The Caro Winter Fest is so intricately tied to snowmobile races, it can't happen without them right now, Reinelt said. She wants to ask residents how they feel about changing that, in the wake of the recent, weather-related cancelations.
"I want to do polls on our Facebook: Would you come out in the middle of winter to watch a chainsaw ice competition, a warming tent with live entertainment, and a beer and wine bar?" she said.
A larger adaptation is needed, Rood said: a reduction in human-caused carbon emissions that are fueling climate change.
"These big changes should be major motivators to take on that carbon dioxide reduction problem," he said.
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