On President’s Day 2015, Woods Valley Ski Area was poised for a banner weekend. After several drought years, the 25-acre, two-lift ski resort in Westernville, New York, finally had great snow for what is traditionally one of the ski industry’s biggest weekends. Except that with an arctic air mass descending and wind chill figures expected to drop to minus 20, weather reporters across the Northeast cranked up the hype, warning residents of “brutal” and “dangerous” cold. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit, officially warning citizens to “stay indoors wherever possible.”
Tim Woods, owner of Woods Valley, had been railing against such sensationalized reporting for years, writing to local broadcasters and imploring them not to label snow forecasts of more than six inches “warnings” or “threats” and wetter storms as “heart-attack snow.”
On the resort’s Facebook page, Woods posted Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of General Washington crossing the Delaware River amid chunks of ice. “Imagine if George Washington had watched the local weather and decided the 'Real Feel' temp was just too cold to cross the Delaware on a frigid Christmas night in 1776,” he wrote. “The battle of Trenton was a pivotal battle that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. Stop believing the hype, dress for the weather outside, and come enjoy the best snow conditions we’ve seen in years.”
Despite a sunny day with winds just four to six miles per hour and temps that rose to zero—pretty decent conditions for Northeastern skiing—Woods' business was down 95 percent that day four years ago.
This January, with similarly good snow but another approaching polar vortex, Woods reposted his Washington Crossing the Delaware rant, but again, skier visits plunged.
Woods is one of several Northeastern ski area operators mobilizing against negative winter-weather reporting, both because of its percieved impacts on their businesses as well as on the general population’s well-being. Local stations, they say, seldom report the actual winter temperature any more, relying instead on more dramatic wind chill or “RealFeel” (a method developed by AccuWeather using factors including temperature, wind, humidity and others to describe how it feels outside) figures. Normal winter weather is treated like a crisis. The Vermont Ski Areas Association has begun hosting “weather summits” for meteorologists, lobbying them to frame winter weather positively. Modern clothing is capable of making people comfortable in the worst possible conditions, the resort operators point out, and when time outdoors in any season is being proved to have tremendous health benefits, the last thing we should be doing is discouraging anyone from going outside.
Last year, we all laughed when footage went viral of a Weather Channel reporter dramatically bracing himself against allegedly ferocious winds during Hurricane Florence as two dudes wearing shorts casually strolled by. That kind of over-dramatization is the norm in snow country, says Eric Friedman, marketing director at Vermont’s Mad River Glenn. “Reporters are dressing up in parkas in the studio and telling people to go outside only as a last resort. It’s like they’ve all been exiled to Vermont from some tropical paradise. Lots of them really seem to hate winter.”
“Negative weather reporting absolutely has an effect on ski area attendance,” says Kelly Pawlak, president of the National Ski Areas Association. It’s especially true, she says, for smaller resorts near population centers that rely on the casual, two- or three-times-per-year skier. “A negative report on Thursday can scrap a lot of upcoming weekend ski plans for a resort that relies on day trips.”
Last year, when Northeastern resorts experienced 45 days of below zero temperatures between Christmas and February, visits were significantly down. While it’s difficult to parse which days correlate to particularly alarmist weather reporting, every resort representative I spoke with believed it was a significant compounding factor.
Most say the biggest culprit is extensive reliance on wind-chill figures, which can generate numbers 20 to 30 degrees colder than the actual temperature. The problem, many have pointed out, is that not only is wind chill a flawed measurement, it also correlates very poorly to human experience. The formula to determine wind chill is based on a single study that measures the effects of a 3.1-mile-per-hour breeze in a wind tunnel on the faces of a small sample size of people.
According to meteorologist Russ Murley, who generates forecasts for dozens of resorts, from Sugarloaf to Telluride, for Precision Weather Service, wind chill doesn’t take into account direct sunlight and is typically based on the highest forecasted wind gusts. Most of the time, he says, the wind only achieves its maximum gusts for a few minutes at a time. Plus, wind chill is only capable of estimating the effects of weather on bare skin. Apart from the occasional closing-day bash in the spring, almost no one is skiing around naked. Modern gear like Gore-Tex, goggles, and helmets are well equipped to brush off cold and wind. “It’s not mittens made by mom and cotton long johns,” says Murley, a Maine resident and a lifelong skier.
In his own forecasting, Murley never emphasizes wind chill. He too believes that weather reporting has become increasingly dramatic for the sake of ratings. “When I started, we delivered the weather without a lot of hype,” he says. Now even winter storms have hurricane-style names. “Last night here in Maine we had an ordinary winter storm, but millions of people in the Northeast are under weather advisories.”
In December, at one of its summits combat negative winter-weather reporting, the North American Snowsports Journalist Association organized an event for a dozen broadcast meteorologists at Stratton Mountain Resort. The three-day event featured technical climate presentations, but also a discussion, led by a North Face employee, on layering, windproofing, and other snowsports dress techniques. There was plenty of time for skiing and snowshoeing, too. The idea, says organizer Adam White, is to make weather journalists more comfortable with winter conditions and so reduce their bias on-air or even Instagram. “Meteorologists are surprisingly popular on social media,” says White. “Everyone wants to know about the weather.”
There are plenty of discussions about how ironic it is that people are being scared away by cold weather reports in the short term, when in the long run, says White, the real threat to the ski business is loss of snow due to climate change. “Sustainability is a big push in the ski business,” he says.
It’s not just about business and profit, either, says Woods. Ski areas are all about having fun outdoors and exercising. Their owners loathe any influences that drive an increasingly inert population deeper indoors. As he wrote to one local weatherman, “Negative opinion and commentary will keep people in a hibernated state, inside and inactive.”
When I spoke with Denis Esbaugh, president of Holiday Valley Ski Resort in Ellicotvile, New York, last month, schools in his region happened to be closed because of cold. “Twenty years ago that never would have happened,” he said. “We are far more risk averse today than we used to be.” Twenty years ago, if schools were closed for any reason, he said, his resort would be full of kids skiing. Instead, four of his resort’s 12 lifts were closed for lack of business.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited Adam White as Adam Scott and that the weather summit was hosted by the Vermont Ski Areas Association rather than organized by the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and hosted by Stratton Mountain Resort. The story has been updated with the correct attribution. Outside regrets the error.