Winter Recreation and Climate Change

At Three Rivers Park District, we offer numerous winter recreation opportunities for those who love snow. In recent years, however, rising temperatures and less snowfall have made it difficult to sustain these activities.

If this trend continues, Nature Communications has predicted that average winters in the Twin Cities could be 16 degrees warmer and nearly 40 percent wetter by the year 2080 – a climate similar to present-day Kansas City. Learn what challenges we've faced because of these changes and how we're adapting.

Why Is There Less Snow on the Ground?

Winter recreation depends on having a solid snowpack. Without it, it's difficult or impossible to go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or downhill skiing and snowboarding. Two main trends are leaving us waiting longer for a reliable snowpack:

  • A downward trend in total snowfall in the Twin Cities since 1970
  • Warmer winter temperatures

How is Recreation Impacted?

At Three Rivers, we need 4-6 inches of snow on the ground before we can pack it for cross-country skiing. For snowshoeing, at least 6 inches is best. At the downhill ski and tubing areas, the snow can be up to 10 feet deep in places. 

According to the Minnesota DNR, however, average December snow depth in the Twin Cities is only 3.76 inches. This shallower snow depth has impacted our recreation activities and programs in several ways: 

  • We rely on snowmaking more than ever to support a full cross-country ski season – especially for competitive leagues. 
  • We have to make snow earlier in the season and longer into the season to support downhill skiing and snowboarding.
  • Cross-country ski trails packed with natural snow open later in the season and with often unreliable conditions. 
  • Snowshoe programs must be co-promoted as hiking programs in case the snow isn't deep enough.
  • Ice fishing season is often shortened by a late ice in and early ice out. 

Sustainability and Snowmaking

A snow gun blows snow onto a grassy trail.

As our winter recreation is being threatened by climate change, we are relying more and more on snowmaking to sustain it. We have been making snow at Hyland Hills Ski Area since 1970. Today, we also make snow for cross-country ski trails to support both recreational skiers and local competitive leagues that otherwise would have nowhere to practice or compete.

Making snow, however, comes at a cost.

The Cost of Making Snow

To make snow, you need water. At Three Rivers, we have a water appropriations permit from the Minnesota DNR to draw a certain amount of water from the ground and local lakes. The limit is based on what is safe for our aquatic ecosystems.

As creating a natural snowpack has become harder, we have had to increase our snowmaking operations to keep up. Since 1985, the total amount of water we use to make snow in the winter has increased by 6 million gallons. 

Working Toward A Sustainable Future

At Three Rivers, we recognize that demand for winter recreation must be balanced with the health of our public waters. We are actively exploring ways to use surface water instead of ground water for snowmaking in the winter, as well as for irrigation in the summer. Our golf courses are already on their way to achieving this goal. 

Shortened Ice Fishing Season: A Study of Medicine Lake

Snow-based winter sports are not the only activities that are impacted by climate change.

If you ice fish, you likely pay close attention to ice-in and ice-out on the lakes in Minnesota. Both of these dates depend on many factors, including size, depth, snow cover and temperature. 

One local lake that has been studied by the Minnesota DNR for decades is Medicine Lake in Plymouth where French Regional Park is located. Their findings show that we are experiencing fewer days of total ice cover than in the past, including:

  • Later Ice-in Dates: In the past, ice-in occurred in late November or early December. Today, it is increasingly common for ice-in to occur in the second or third week of December. 
  • Earlier Ice-Out Dates: While Medicine Lake's average ice-out date since 1955 is in the second week of April, nine years since 1998 have had ice-out in March.

Learn more about ice-in and ice-out trends and variations from the Minnesota DNR.