When it comes to the state economy, tourism has always been something West Virginia could point to as a plus, aside from the state’s heavy reliance on extraction industries like coal and natural gas.
It is something of a paradox. While the state has been ravaged body and soul by the byproducts of industry, it also continues to offer natural splendor that attracts outdoor enthusiasts from all over.
While hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, plunging off the New River Bridge and the luxury of The Greenbrier resort are reliable draws, West Virginia’s unique topography has also allowed the state to offer skiing, snowboarding and ice-climbing. This brings in border state tourists and allows in-state enthusiasts to enjoy winter sports without having to travel further east or hop on a plane to the Rocky Mountains.
But the winter industries are starting to suffer from climate change. Artificially produced snow has always been a part of winter sports at the resorts in the Mountain State because the snowfall in West Virginia just isn’t the same as Colorado or Vermont. And getting that snow made has always depended on cycles of freezing weather versus periods of thawing out. Just this week a few resorts had to shut down some slopes and trails because of recent warm weather.
Periods of thawing and freezing in the West Virginia mountains aren’t necessarily the result of climate change. But how often those freezing periods arrive and last is. And they’re getting shorter.
A recent report from West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was published in the Gazette-Mail cited an ice-climber who said the window for thick enough ice to engage in the activity has steadily shrunk, and, in some recent years, not arrived at all. Ski resorts are having to adapt by investing millions in snow-manufacturing technology that can get the stuff on the ground quicker before a thaw makes it impossible. Some of those resorts have also made investments to offer outdoor activities year round, as the skiing season becomes more unpredictable.
Climate change isn’t expected to kill the industry overnight, but it can’t be stopped by the same measure of time, either. West Virginia needs to preserve and grow the things that boost the economy that aren’t related to taking stuff out of the ground. The state can’t do it alone, but it could start by more closely examining pipeline and industrial projects instead of bending rules to give a green light to everything that comes through. The state’s delegation to Congress should also shoulder some responsibility and embrace renewable energy initiatives, instead of supporting rollbacks that do nothing for the economy and only make the environment more toxic.
A lot gets said in political circles about diversifying the state’s economy. Tourism is one way in which West Virginia actually is diverse. It’d be nice to keep it.