Climate Change is Making It Hard to Ski in Wisconsin

In many areas of Wisconsin, downhill and cross-country skiing are winter past-times. They also fuel the local economy between November and March.

After all, North America’s largest cross-country race (American Birkebeiner, or “Birkie” for short) spans 50 kilometers between Cable and Hayward every February. About 15,000 skiers arrive from around the world for this race, which dates back to 1973, contributing a $20 million economic impact to the region.

But what if there’s no snow? In 2017, the race was outright cancelled. This year, due to minimal snow, the point-to-point route’s modification looped around a 12-kilometer track.

While snowfall levels in Wisconsin’s Southern cities like Madison and Milwaukee often come up short against their Northern counterparts—destinations likened to winter playgrounds: Minocqua, Cable, Wausau, Phelps and Manitowish Waters—the current winter season is unprecedented. El Niño is mostly to blame, say meteorologists. This is when the Pacific Ocean surface’s temperature warms to above average. It’s also the warmest Wisconsin winter on record with some cities hitting 70 degrees F, including Green Bay on February 27, which set an all-time record.

According to the Midwest Regional Climate Center’s data, most of the state accumulated half of the snow it normally would in February. In Milwaukee, average snowfall by Feb. 12 would normally be 30.5 inches and this year it plummeted to 16.2 inches, Wisconsin-based National Weather Meteorologist Andy Boxell declared on Feb. 13.

In some communities, snowmaking equipment helps fill in the gap, adding fresh “snow” to the ground, like at Lapham Peak in Delafield or Alpine Valley Resort in Elkhorn. This is particularly important when trails and runs at other Wisconsin parks are closed due to a lack of snow. The Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, was forced to cancel all five of their ski trips during the 2023-24 winter season. These were scheduled in Wisconsin, Michigan and Vermont between late December and early March. Normally the intentional spacing out of trip dates—and variety of destinations—provides flexibility, ensuring snow needs will be met. But not this year.

According to a report released by on Feb. 29, there’s a 50% to 60% probability that temperatures in March will record warmer than average. This could add more hiking days in Wisconsin as trails will be dry but, without snow, the ski season can’t continue.