New York’s Record Warm Winter: Good for Sunbathing, Bad for Ski Slopes

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. — Imperiled ice castles. Snow-starved ski slopes. Central Park sunbathers, in February.

Such are the sights across balmy New York, as the state continues to experience a warm and wildly erratic winter — a blessing for haters of mittens and blizzards but a potential disaster for many businesses that rely on snow and ice to make the rent.

“This is one of the craziest winters I’ve ever seen,” said Nancy Nichols, a longtime Lake George-area resident and an organizer of an annual winter carnival. “We’ve gone from minus-17 to T-shirt weather.”

After a brutal cold snap at the beginning of February, cities from Lake Ontario and Saranac Lake experienced record high temperatures last week, while Catskills ski resorts reported “springlike conditions” and overworked snow-making machines.

In New York City, the nearly yearlong “snow drought” is over — barely — but the paucity of frozen precipitation still inspires everything from sulky T-shirts to sad memes. Elsewhere, ice fishing derbies are canceling angling and toboggan chutes are screeching to a halt.

Overall, the mild temperatures are threatening or shattering records, with New York recording its second warmest January on record and neighboring states like New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut setting new highs for the month.

Bulky winter coats and hats are not in the way as a school group poses for a photo in Central Park.Credit…Jaclyn Licht for The New York Times

The unseasonable readings have been blamed for several deaths in recent weeks, including those of snowmobilers and fishermen who fell through thin ice on upstate lakes and in neighboring Vermont.

For businesses and civic boosters, the impact of the unusual weather may come into even sharper relief this week, during the weeklong Presidents’ Day school holiday that is typically one of winter’s most lucrative periods.

Not this year, however, for Mark Mayer, the owner of the Big Moose Inn, a popular snowmobiling stop in the Adirondacks.

Mr. Mayer estimated that sales were down 80 to 90 percent from last Presidents’ Day weekend, with only two of 16 rooms booked. Cancellations were becoming more common than bookings.

“When the phone rings,” he said, “It’s that cringe of, ‘Yup, there goes another one.’”

Snowfall has been lacking around much of New York, with many locations seeing dismal accumulations. Rochester recorded less than nine inches of snow in January, its lowest total for the month since 1946.

And at mountains around New York, skiers are finding fewer open trails this season and a lot of machine-made snow. The need for such mechanical precipitation has simply become the norm, according Scott Brandi, the president of Ski Areas of New York, a trade association for what is a $1.1 billion industry in the state.

“We don’t run our business based on expected natural snowfall,” Mr. Brandi said on Monday, when much of New York was again seeing above-average temperatures. “We run our business based on our ability to make snow and keep the snow that we make.”

That said, Mr. Brandi estimated that visits to some of the state’s 50 lift-served ski areas were down 10 to 25 percent from last year because of the weather, although some areas had higher attendance during the pandemic, when outside activities were prized.

“Straight up, this has been a tough winter,” he said.

Meteorologists said there was no single explanation for the warm winter in the Northeast thus far this year, though climate change is a likely culprit.

The popular ice castles event at the Lake George Winter Carnival has only managed to open for seven days this season.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

“Our winters are much warmer than they used to be,” said Art DeGaetano, the director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University. “This is exactly what we should see in a global warming winter. We’re getting precipitation — it’s not like it’s dry — but it’s just not coming in as snow.”

Mr. Brandi of ski association seconded that. “We’re dealing with climate change: we all know that,” he said, adding, “You can’t be a denier.”

A second factor, Mr. DeGaetano added, could be La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that can affect weather worldwide. He said it appeared that this year’s version might potentially be diverting storms up the Ohio Valley and limiting the number of strong coastal storms roaring in from the Atlantic, something he called “not all-too untypical of La Niña winters.”

Curiously, one result of the season’s warmth has been a snowy year in Buffalo, which has gotten more 100 inches and suffered a deadly blizzard in late December that resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people. Part of the reason, said Mr. DeGaetano, may be that Lake Erie has not frozen over this year, leaving warmer water open to colder air above, leading to more of what is known as lake-effect snow.

“If that lake is frozen and it makes ice, it closes off that source of moisture,” he said.

No such snow was on the offing last week. Buffalo’s streets were clear and its lawns melting while temperatures hit 60 degrees, leaving residents warm, but wary.

“I don’t think we’ve earned the weather,” said Aaron Kottke, 41, who lives in nearby Williamsville. “It’ll probably be snowing in June.”

In New York City, where temperatures on Thursday afternoon hovered in the 60s, many people left their winter coats at home, including Celestine Cervantes, 22, who was listening to music, drawing and basking in the sun in Central Park.

Celestine Cervantes enjoying the warm weather in Central Park.Credit…Jaclyn Licht for The New York Times

“I’m not going to wear jeans when it’s in the 60s,” Ms. Cervantes said, wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. “I’m baring some skin while I can.”

Sure enough, the last stretch of February may bring a return to more seasonable weather, with some significant snowfall predicted across upper New York by midweek and colder temperatures returning in many areas next weekend.

Such forecasts are good news in the village of Lake George, a tourist-friendly outpost at the southern tip of the Adirondack lake of same name, where the lack of ice forced a monthlong winter carnival to cancel A.T.V. and motorcycle races on the lake.

Other events — including the annual outhouse races (“where a bathroom stall becomes a cockpit”) — have moved onshore but are delayed in hopes of more snow for the currently grassy field.

Perhaps the hardest-hit attraction was the Ice Castles, a two-acre collection of hundreds of thousands of frosty stalactites that usually entertain visitors who pay to walk through them.High temperatures and rain have left the castles looking like a collection of distressed Popsicles.

Since debuting of Feb. 6, the castles have only managed to open for seven days, according to Roger Allan, the site’s event manager. Closings included the entirety of Presidents’ Day weekend, for which tickets which had been sold out. Refunds were subsequently given.

With colder temperatures forecast, organizers plan to reopen the castles on Wednesday. Still, Mr. Allan, who has lived in the region for 30 years, said such weather-related cancellations were a blow to the local economy.

We rely on a lot of these winter activities that, you know, we just didn’t get,” he said, mentioning ice fishing and snowmobiling, and the hotels and restaurants that cater to such activities. “It hurts the area, there’s no doubt about it.”

On Saturday, however, hundreds of winter-carnival attendees seemed to be enjoying themselves under sunny skies and temperatures in the 30s, despite a biting wind. Several dozen bravehearts took part in a polar plunge while another group took advantage of the lack of ice to float a newly bought boat in the shallows.

“If this is global warming,” said the buyer, Doug Haviland, “I’m all for it.”

At the Lagoon, a waterfront bar, patrons lined up for hot chocolate and cold beer in front of a slowly melting ice-bar. A frozen Ping-Pong table and frozen cornhole set had already liquidfied days before, according to Joe Mondella, the bar’s owner, who said the recent warmth was a mixed blessing.

“It’s actually kind of helped,” he said. “Honestly I wish the lake was frozen, just for more activities. But people are still up here because it’s so nice.”

Michael D. Regan and Judson Jones contributed reporting from New York and Lauren D’Avolio from Buffalo.

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