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Climate change is creating shorter winters, challenges for local businesses

West Michigan is experiencing warmer winters, along with lessening snowfall on the bookends of the season. It’s being felt at local businesses.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Winter is an identity of the Great Lakes, with a range of outdoor businesses dependent on snowfall and cold air. A sampling of these outdoor businesses in West Michigan are the Muskegon Luge Adventure Park and Cannonsburg Ski Area.

Climate change, however, is disrupting and shifting this identity in West Michigan. The full season of sustained snow and cold is shrinking.

“Yeah, it's the sort of the shoulder seasons months of November and March, where we have seen a decreasing amount of snowfall because those months are now warmer than they used to be,” says Dr. Marty Baxter, associate professor of meteorology at Central Michigan University. “And now what used to fall as snowfall falls as rain."

The shortening of winter weather is being felt at local businesses.

“First or second week of January, all the way through February. Those six to eight weeks are kind of our key period and anything that happens in December or March is a bonus at this point. That's how we look at our business model,” says Jim Rudicil, executive director at Muskegon Luge. 

"I say for the last you know seven to eight years we've had to open later than when we want to just because temperatures don't drop cold enough,” says Danielle Musto, marketing director at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

According to Dr. Baxter, we're seeing more stretches of days where the high temperatures are greater than 50 degrees in the winter months 


This is too warm for winter activities to be sustained. There has been nearly a five degree increase in average temperature during the winter months since 1970. This correlates with shorter cold snaps and less extreme cold over the past several decades.


Additionally, more frequent thawing leads to additional cost both for the business and consumer.

“The more warm ups we have during the season, the more staff we have back on to rebuild those and then so we do have to pass it on, you know and reflect that on the prices,” Rudicil says.

Contrary, West Michigan has seen a trend of increasing snowfall when totaling December, January, and February, but less snowfall and late fall and early spring. 


This is in large part due to warmer air containing more moisture, with a greater opportunity for more precipitation events, including snowfall. Additionally, a warmer winter season allows lake effect processes to be a factor longer into the season. The season in total, however, feels the impact, with both businesses pivoting to other seasons.

“The winter season just gradually getting squished from either side,” Dr. Baxter says.


Both businesses are pivoting other seasons to make up any losses in winter.

“So Cannonsburg is constantly pivoting and one thing that we do is we're open year-round for people to be able to come and hike on our trails and bike on our trails,” Musto mentions. “And we're constantly creating new events throughout the other three seasons.”

It’s a similar story at the Muskegon Luge. “You'll go to rock climbing facility, an archery range and additional canopy tour elements to our zip line. And those all will be things that will allow us to remain viable,” Rudicil says.

Winter isn't vanishing in West Michigan, but impacts to the local businesses will continue if climate change isn't addressed.

“It's still going to get cold and it's still going to snow but when you average everything out over multiple years, multiple decades, the trend will be to less snowfall, warmer temperatures in a shorter winter season,” Dr. Baxter notes.

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