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Warm weather in the Northeast is hurting businesses that count on snow

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Snowmobilers in the Northeast are having a disappointing winter. The multibillion-dollar industry relies on snow, and warmer winter temperatures mean less of that. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Big Moose, N.Y., is the kind of place that has one speed limit for cars and another just for snowmobiles. This tiny community in the Adirondack Mountains is big into snowmobiling. But it's been pretty quiet here lately.

MARK MAYER: We should be hearing snowmobiles, at least a couple this time of year.

RUSSELL: That's Mark Mayer. He lives in Big Moose and loves to snowmobile.

MAYER: As a matter of fact, if it were snowing, you would find me out on the trails instead of here giving an interview on how bad it is.

RUSSELL: And it is really bad right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

RUSSELL: We walk through wet slush to see one of the main trails. This one still has some snow, but most are bare right now. That's a big deal in a place that sells itself as the snowmobile capital of the East. Mayer owns the Big Moose Inn and says snowmobile tourism has changed.

MAYER: Twenty, 30 years ago, you booked your reservation a year ahead. And if it snowed, it was great. If it didn't, you were still here. Now we're in that cycle of if it's rideable, we'll come. If not, we'll chase the snow.

RUSSELL: Mayer says he could lose up to $100,000 in a bad snow year, usually cuts back hours and hopes to make the money back in the summer. But not everyone can do that. Sara Shanahan runs the Big Moose Station, a bar and restaurant right next to a trail really popular with snowmobilers.

SARA SHANAHAN: On an average winter day, they're probably 98% of our clientele. You're far more likely to see sleds in the parking lot than we are to see cars in the parking lot.

RUSSELL: Winter is changing in northern New York, though. It's literally the writing on the wall inside the visitors center in nearby Old Forge. A big board lists the annual snowfall totals since the 1960s.

MIKE FARMER: Up until about 2005, we were running an average of 200 inches per year.

RUSSELL: Mike Farmer is the director of tourism for the area.

FARMER: Now that has dropped, as you can see. But we are doing more with less.

RUSSELL: With just 80 to 150 inches of snow, they groom in a way that makes less snow last longer. But climate change doesn't mean just less snow in parts of the U.S. It also means warmer winters. Curt Stager is a professor at Paul Smith's College and a leading climate scientist in the Adirondacks.

CURT STAGER: We're going to have more thaws in the middle of winter and longer ones. We're in the middle of one right now. And it'll take away layers that would otherwise have built up. So we're going to see less and less reliable snowpack.

RUSSELL: Erica Murray owns a hardware and souvenir shop in Old Forge.

ERICA MURRAY: It's on our minds all of the time because both my husband and I, we moved back here. So he is a ski coach, and our kids are skiers. And that's a very huge part of why we live here are winters.

RUSSELL: This area is adapting. It's selling itself as a year-round destination for hikers, bikers and paddlers. But there is still a lot of winter left. Sara Shanahan from the Big Moose Station says she's cautiously optimistic.

SHANAHAN: Right now, the forecast doesn't look fabulous. But when it does come back, my feeling is it will come back with a vengeance.

RUSSELL: Shanahan and others say they'll be ready for when that happens.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Big Moose, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "LOST MY MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell