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The perfect ski weather isn’t guaranteed in Virginia. Here’s how some resorts make it happen.

A snowboarder carves down the Bootlegger trail at Bryce Resort. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi, WMRA)
A snowboarder carves down the Bootlegger trail at Bryce Resort. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi, WMRA)


https://assets.whro.org/WMRA SKI SEASON.mp3

Despite a warming climate, you can still ski the southeast and Virginia’s ski resorts in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains are open for the winter season.

Andrew Devier-Scott is the marketing director at Bryce Resort in Shenandoah County, a small, member-owned mountain that's open to the public with eight runs and a terrain park. 

“November is when we start looking at weather, and trying to determine when we're going to be able to start making snow,” he said. “Our snowmaking crews are prepping all the snowmaking systems. They'll start laying out hoses, checking all the lines, all the snow guns, making sure everything's ready to go so that when we get that opportunity, we can quickly switch over and start making snow.”

Snowmakers perch over the runs, waiting for the nighttime temperatures that allow them to spout a pressurized water mist that freezes into man-made snow. 

Devier-Scott said they typically aim to open by Thanksgiving. This year, opening day was Dec. 2.

“Winters in the southeast can be tricky,” he said. “We work with what we get.”

Massanutten Resort, in Rockingham County, recently opened for daily operations on Dec. 15.

The 50-year average opening date for us is somewhere around December 11th or 12th, so we were able to open for the weekend of December 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. … We're kind of right in that average window,” said Kenny Hess, Massanutten's director of mountain sports and risk management.

Almost all U.S. ski resorts use snowmakers in this day and age – approximately 88% of the 300-plus members of the National Ski Areas Association. 

The NSAA's director of marketing and communications, Adrienne Saia Isaac, told WMRA the ski areas that don't have any snowmaking are primarily small resorts in the Pacific Northwest.

In Virginia, where natural snowfall is inconsistent, the snowmakers literally make the season possible. Hess said the wet bulb temperature – which drops below normal air temperature as humidity drops – has to be below 28 degrees Fahrenheit for them to make snow.

“The lower the humidity, generally the better the snowmaking is. … The drier the air, it kind of evaporates some of the stuff that hasn't frozen, so it's just more efficient,” he said.

Hitting that sweet spot or just freezing temperatures is not a guarantee in Virginia, especially in the face of climate change. 

National Weather Service data show the trend of average December temperatures in two climate areas – Rockingham County down to Roanoke, and the north end of the Shenandoah Valley over to Northern Virginia – has risen 2.8 to 4 degrees per century since 1895.

Kevin Witt is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington office. He said that temperatures are expected to be slightly above average for the next two months or so, and precipitation a bit below average. 

But the end of December,  Witt said, “you're probably looking at lows in the mid- to upper-20s, barely climbing above freezing some time before lunchtime, so you're going to get that cold air in the morning to really make the snow.”

The world changes fast.

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