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Warmer temperatures force Michigan ski resorts to make more snow

A snow gun blows fake snow onto a mountain.
There are 65 snow guns at Mt. Brighton Ski Area in Brighton. Optimal conditions for making snow are 28 degrees or lower and less than 80 percent humidity. The machines are mostly used at night when temperatures drop, even if only for an hour.
  • Weather conditions have made ski resorts heavily reliant on making their own snow this season 
  • Some resorts have had to close for short periods of time because snow melted and it was too warm to make more 
  • Because it is an El Niño year, this winter has been warmer and drier than usual

The lack of snowfall and unusually warm temperatures have ski resorts across the state working overtime this winter to ensure they have enough snow for people to enjoy skiing, snowboarding and other cold-weather activities. 

The conditions have forced resorts to pause operations, close some slopes or make dramatic changes to their program, creating economic and environmental challenges for a key part of the state’s tourism industry.

About 2.4 inches of snow have fallen so far this season in southeast Michigan. That’s about 3.7 inches below normal for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service. Northern Michigan has seen about 7.1 inches of snow, roughly 3.6 inches below normal for this time of year. 

“If we have 80 percent relative humidity or less and around 28 degrees Fahrenheit or less, we're making snow,” said Mike Giorgio, general manager at Mt. Brighton Ski Area in Livingston County.


There haven't been many days this winter that are ideal for snowmaking, he said, but when cold fronts come through, the resort makes as much snow as possible, especially at night when temperatures are lower.

“We have 65 snow guns and we can pump up to 3,200 gallons per minute through those snow guns,” he said. “We can go from totally green on the hill, bone dry, not a flake of snow, to 100 percent open in really roughly 72 hours of snowmaking.” 

El Niño is a climate phenomenon characterized by the periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. During El Niño years, warm water is pushed east, disrupting normal weather patterns and causing milder and drier conditions in Canada and northern United States.


Mt. Brighton Ski Area opened for the season on Dec. 2 and, just two weeks later, had to close for a couple of days when warm weather began to melt the snow. 

“High temperatures are certainly always concerning. It just might cause us to make decisions about how we operate,” Giorgio said. “If we see a ton of rain … and really high temperatures, we might pause operations.” 

Temperatures in southeast Michigan are expected to be in the low- and mid-40s going into the weekend according to In northern Michigan, temperatures are expected to be in the upper 30s and low 40s. 

Similarly, crews at Crystal Mountain in northern Michigan’s Benzie County have had to strategically plan which of their 59 downhill slopes to open based on how much snow is on each slope and how much snow they need to make. 


“We focus on a certain number of slopes, get those open. That way we can at least open and … start moving to other areas,” said Brittney Primeau, director of communications at the resort. 

The resort needs at least 12 inches of snow in order to open a downhill slope, Primeau said, so only 11 were open as of Monday. Cross-country skiing through the woods at Crystal Mountain is currently unavailable because snowmaking guns can’t reach those areas, making that activity solely dependent on snowfall totals.  

The lack of snowfall has not only kept skiers away early in the season, Primeau said. It has also made them hesitate to plan upcoming trips. 

“People aren't booking or buying their lift tickets as far in advance as they used to,” Primeau said. “They're waiting until they can see what the forecast is, or  waiting to see what the conditions are like out on the slopes.”

Last winter, Challenge Mountain in Boyne City had to completely change its operations to avoid closing for the season, said Elizabeth Gertz, the resort’s executive director. 

“We didn't have adequate snow in our ski area at all the entire season,” Gertz said.

Challenge Mountain is a nonprofit organization that offers adaptive snow sports to children and adults with mental and physical disabilities from January to March. Since Challenge caters to a small demographic, it doesn't have the means to make snow like the larger ski resorts do. 

Challenge Mountain instead worked with nearby Boyne Mountain Resort to provide adaptive services on Boyne’s beginner slope, but that meant Challenge could only provide a fraction of the services it normally does. 

“We only have a small place to operate at Boyne Mountain so we just focus on downhill skiing now,” Gertz said. “We don't have snowboarding or cross country skiing or snowshoeing or sledding. We just can do skiing now because of lack of space, and so that's the biggest change.” 

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