The Economic Upside of a Warm Winter

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The lack of snow across most of the U.S. this season has had a damaging economic impact on ski resorts around the country. But a dry winter isn’t always bad news: Just ask construction crews and road workers.

The first week of 2012 was a bizarre one weather-wise. Temperatures in much of the Midwest were some 40 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal. Half of the U.S. is supposed to be covered by snow at this point, but as of last week, only about 20% was blanketed. This unusual “winter” has really hurt skiing facilities around the U.S., especially at one of the country’s most prominent destinations: Vail Resorts. Skier visits at its six mountain resort properties have dipped more than 15% year-on-year. Its stock price has declined almost 5% over the last three months, and the weather doesn’t seem to be getting much better. ( forecasts a single snow shower to finally hit Vail, Colo., early next week.)

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But unseasonably warm temperatures have been a boon for other sectors of the economy. Roadwork has gone uninterrupted in 80% of the country, according to one estimate. The Associated General Contractors of America says 17,000 nonresidential construction jobs were added in December. Repairs at Lambeau Field, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, have continued into January. Landscaping businesses and nurseries are seeing customers they thought they wouldn’t see for months.

Cities especially are benefiting from the lack of snow. Des Moines, Iowa, has reportedly saved millions so far this season because its’ snowplows and salt trucks aren’t out in the streets.

“The reduced costs of municipal maintenance are definitely a benefit to those areas,” says Jeff Lazo, Director of the Societal Impacts Program at the National Center of Atmospheric Research. “Most cities budget for that and are saving money.”

While it’s not exactly a zero-sum game, there are of course industries that are begging for snow, even outside the U.S.’s ski resorts. Many hardware stores, normally selling bags of salt, shovels and snowblowers this time of year, are hurting, and crews often hired to clear roads are without work.

“I’d hesitate to say for sure that overall there are more economic benefits when we have a warm winter like this, but there is probably a net benefit up to a point,” says Lazo, also noting that many Americans have been able to reduce their heating costs this year.

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But it’s not as if we should be praying for a warm winter ever year. “If this carries through the summer, then we’ll get increased cooling costs, which are generally more expensive,” says Lazo.

So let’s hope we get back to a normal winter sometime soon, and there’s some promise: Last week, announced the “First Real Storm of Season Strikes!” as a snowstorm made its way through the Midwest on its way east.