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Facing warmest winter on record, Minnesota forced to pivot on recreation offerings


(SAINT PAUL, Minn.) — Each year, winter sport enthusiasts flock to cold weather states where higher levels of ice and snow create the ideal environment for activities like skiing, skating, ice fishing and more.

The winter sports industry contributes over $12 billion to the U.S. economy every year, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters.

But as climate change driven by global warming prompts shorter and less predictable winters, winter recreation is changing and places that count winter as part of their tourism strategy, like Minnesota, are having to pivot.

“We have put more money into our winter budget over time, but really, as we saw this winter weather not showing up this year, we have sort of shifted some of our advertising focusing on outdoor activities,” Explore Minnesota executive director Lauren Bennett-McGinty told ABC News.

This winter is the warmest on record for Minnesota and the Twin Cities going back to the earliest records kept in the 1870s.

The state climatology office reported Friday that the “Lost Winter of 2023-24” now includes the longest “January Thaw” on record for the Twin Cities, with daytime high temperatures above freezing from Jan. 22 to Feb. 14.

“What we’re noticing here in Minnesota is that it’s getting warmer, particularly in the wintertime,” Luigi Romolo, State Climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told ABC News. “And so what we’re seeing in the wintertime is an increase in the minimum temperature. So, the coldest temperature of the day is the minimum temperature and those are rising.”

Romolo explained that some other observed climate change impacts in the state are an overall shortening of the winter season and more extreme storms.

“We’ll get calls to our office from people who make a living off winter recreation here in Minnesota, whether it’s through ice fishing, or snowmobiling, or snowshoeing, and they’re calling us like, ‘Where’s winter? What happened to winter? This is how we eat.’ And so winters like this do have a major impact on our economy,” Romolo explained.

Several winter sports and recreational events have been canceled in Minnesota so far this year due to a lack of snow or ice. The Minnesota Ice Festival and the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon were just two such casualties of the unseasonably warm weather.

Romolo said this winter is even more unusual because, in addition to the effects of climate change, the state is also seeing effects from El Nino and drought.

This weekend the COOP FIS Cross-Country World Cup is headed to Minneapolis. A break in the recent warm temperatures means this event should be unaffected, but the colder temperatures and snow are not expected to last.

Jared Shumate, a professional cross-country skier and ski jumper based in Salt Lake City, Utah, told ABC News that more volatile winters are impacting his sport and others that typically take place during the winter months across the country and around the world.

“I started noticing climate changing before I understood it at all, like there were years when I was a little kid, like an early teenager, where the snow just stopped coming as early,” Shumate said. “And then, as an athlete, when I started competing internationally, I started having events and trainings get canceled or delayed or postponed due to lack of snow or warm temperatures.”

Shumate is a member of the Athlete Alliance with the climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters, which brings together athletes, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts to promote action on climate change.

Some events for sports like cross-country skiing can be held with man-made snow, Shumate explained. While he said professional athletes prepare for all sorts of snow conditions, but man-made snow doesn’t always behave the same way natural snow does, adding risk for those competing on it.

As the world moves toward warmer and shorter winters, Shumate said he’s not aware of any long-term plans to address that change.

“I feel like we’re all aware that that’s where we’re headed, but I don’t know if there’s been any like fundamental changes to address that or handle that,” he said. “It’s hard because we’re all experiencing it, and we know — we can see what’s happening, but there doesn’t seem to be like a plan necessarily to adapt to it. It kind of seems like we’re just gonna ride it as long as we can until we can’t anymore and then figure it out, instead of trying to plan accordingly for it.”

In Minnesota, state officials tell ABC News they’re working to adapt to the changes they’re seeing.

“I would say that more unpredictable weather has kind of become more the norm,” Bennett-McGinty said, explaining that last year the state actually saw a lot of snow.

“So yes, [this year] it’s been a really big struggle for a lot of people just not knowing what they were going to do,” she added. “But I think we’ve seen some real good, sort of pull up your bootstraps and make sure that you can make the best of it. But I think what that’s going to lead to is how do we keep having these conversations about making sure you’re covering up on every contingency not knowing what the weather’s gonna be like the following year.”

In 2019, Minnesota created an interagency effort across the state government to drive the state’s response to climate change.

Kate Knuth, Climate Director at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, told ABC News that the state is trying to lead the country in terms of climate change resilience efforts.

“The winter recreation is a sub-component of a bigger thing,” Knuth said. “So we’re taking the chance now before we see even worse impacts of climate change to make sure that Minnesota is leading across the country in terms of preparing for and adapting to climate change.”

“That looks like making sure our stormwater systems can handle bigger rain events. That looks like planting more trees in our communities because it’s hotter in the winters and we need to take care of the urban heat island effect,” she explained. “And that makes sure that we’re supporting them and helping them be adaptable and creative in the face of changing with winter recreation reality. So there’s not one thing we’re doing as a state but I think overall, we are trying to make sure that Minnesota is really leading across our country in terms of addressing the impacts of climate change and preparing for what’s here and what’s to come.”

ABC News’ Max Golembo contributed to this report.

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