Some UMN winter sports struggle with Minnesota’s warmer winters

Minnesota winters have warmed an average of 5 degrees since 1970.

Jordan Willauer

Two years ago, the University of Minnesota’s Nordic Ski Team experienced one of the worst winters for cross country skiers in memory because of the season’s warmer temperatures.

The cancellation of the Birkebeiner, one of the largest cross-country ski races in the country, impacted the team, while many other cross-country ski races had standing water on their courses.

As winter rolls out, the University’s winter sports are off to a better start than the 2016-17 season. However, the team is still experiencing the effects of warmer winters. Winters in Minnesota are warming faster than any other season due to climate change, with average winter temperatures warming over 5 degrees since 1970, according to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information.

“Now we have more occasions [in Minnesota] where the temperatures get closer to 32 degrees,” said Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University. This causes more snow melt and shorter ski seasons.

Grant Halvorson, president of the University’s Nordic Ski Team, said because of light-snow winters, cross country courses have to make more artificial snow. This increases the cost for group members who want to race.

“Most of the fees come from buying the artificial snow equipment, so that usually gets reflected in the race fees,” Halvorson said. While the club dues haven’t increased, individuals who want to race have had to pay more, he said.

“These price hikes have challenged us in meeting our goal of providing inexpensive cross-country skiing opportunities to students,” Halvorsen wrote in an email. “Utilizing grants and proactively searching for team discounts goes a long way to reduce these costs.”

As Minnesota winters get warmer, ski courses are adapting and learning how to better prepare for warmer conditions.

“Lots of the courses around the cities have artificial snow, and that’s pretty recent for the cross country community,” Halvorson said.

The Alpine Ski Team at the University is faring better. Jack Nermyr, the president of the downhill skiing team, said climate change is not concerning him much this season.

“With the [ski] resorts’ ability to make artificial snow, I’m not too worried.”

Nermyr said his team starts practicing around winter break and the actual season is short. “The no-snow thing isn’t the biggest issue,” Nermyr said.

The biggest issue would be warm winters, he said. “If it’s mid- to upper-30 or higher, [ski resorts] can’t make snow, [so we] can’t practice,” Nermyr said. He said higher temperatures in December and early January would be his team’s worst-case scenario.

But, climate change doesn’t result in a nationwide disaster for skiing because it doesn’t necessarily cause less snow, Hellmann said. In higher mountainous regions, a warmer winter could mean a shorter ski season with more snow. “But in Minnesota that’s not the case. We don’t get a ton of snow, relatively speaking,” Hellmann said.

A skier herself, Hellmann said she hopes winters flourish for the next couple of years, as she’s trying to raise her 11-year-old daughter to be a skier.

Despite the increased race fees, Halvorson is staying positive. “This season seems to be off to a good start so far — knock on wood. We are hoping that our off-season training and snow-dances will pay off so we can ski to our heart’s desire,” he said.