The lack of snowfall during the winter of 2011-12 proved to be the biggest weather-related story of the year, and one that had repercussions long after winter ended.
The relatively warm temperatures from January through March made for a challenging season for many of the area's downhill and cross-country ski centers, some of which got a late start, struggled to stay open and closed early. Local hotels, motels, ski shops, private snowplow drivers and other winter-weather-dependent businesses also took a big hit from the lack of snow.
But the mild winter also had some positive impacts. Among other things, it created a windfall in savings for local governments, which weren't nearly as busy plowing and sanding roads and sidewalks as they had been the prior winter, when the region was hammered by a series of major snowstorms.
Snow barely covers the ground beneath the Cloudsplitter Gondola at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington, seen here in early February.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Across the Northeast, the winter of 2011-12 was one of the warmest and least snowy on record, with most of the region's temperatures averaging 5 degrees warmer than normal, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University. Snow totals were also down significantly.
By mid February, some two-and-a-half months into the ski season, Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington was still struggling to get 100 percent of its terrain open, largely because snowmaking crews had to re-coat the mountain's primary trails after a series of January thaws. Whiteface ended up closing on March 24, three weeks sooner than the prior winter. Total visitors to all of the winter venues managed by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, including Whiteface, were down more than 16 percent compared to the 2010-11 winter season, and revenues declined by nearly 15 percent.
Revenue and skier visits also took a nosedive at Mount Pisgah Ski Center in Saranac Lake, which didn't open until Jan. 12. The mountain had a roughly two-month season, closing on March 15.
The Big Tupper Ski Area in Tupper Lake, which has no snowmaking and has been run by volunteers, was only open 11 days all winter. A Winterfest event planned in March had to be canceled.
Other events were affected by the lack of winter. The rain and warm temperatures prior to the start of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival hampered construction of the Ice Palace, which had to be repaired several times. Organizers described snowshoe volleyball as more of a summer volleyball tournament due to the weather.
Businesses that depend on winter tourism suffered. Arthur Lussi of the Crowne Plaza Resort in Lake Placid said two of the hotel's biggest weekends of the winter were "considerably off" due to the weather: the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, and the Empire State Games weekend in early February.
Maggie Ernenwein, who owns the Park Motel in Tupper Lake, said business was "way down.
"I think a lot of it is the economy, but the weather certainly isn't helping," she said.
When an overnight snowstorm dumped at least half a foot of wet, heavy snow on the area in late February, it was the first significant snowfall in weeks.
"Let me put it this way: We were long overdue," Bob Durham said as he shoveled snow outside Stewart's Shop on Bloomingdale Avenue in Saranac Lake, where he works. "For retail, I think, (the lack of snow this winter) has been a bad thing."
Private plow drivers like Gerald Macey were also affected, as the lack of snow meant less money in his pocket.
"It's not been good for plowing," Macey said. "It hurts the economy all the way around."
However, local governments saved money due to the lack of snow this winter.
"Our overtime is hardly existent this year," said village Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall.
The short winter continued to impact the area throughout the rest of the year, in ways both good and bad. Seventy-degree temperatures in late March melted the ice on lakes and ponds earlier than normal, meaning more waterways were open when trout fishing season started on April 1.
That early heat wave, however, made things challenging for the region's maple syrup producers, who need conditions to fluctuate between freezing and thawing in order for sap to flow. The warmer temperatures disrupted that freeze-thaw cycle, and Richard Gast of Cornell Cooperative Extension said in late March that most producers were expecting production of about one-third to one-half of an average season's crop.
The warm spring and the lack of snow-fed runoff also contributed to a longer than normal forest fire season, which started in March and kept forest rangers and volunteer firefighters busy into midsummer.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.