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With winter less predictable, Hanover officials make “heart-wrenching decision” to end a community tradition

For almost 25 years, Hanover Parks and Recreation held an annual party on Occom Pond.
John Sherman
Hanover Parks and Recreation
For almost 25 years, Hanover Parks and Recreation held an annual party on Occom Pond.

As climate change causes winters to warm in the Northeast, Hanover has decided to end a yearly winter tradition for good due to unpredictable weather.

Hanover’s annual Occom Pond Party was a keystone event in the town, with ice castles and snow sculptures drawing thousands of participants to celebrate winter on the frozen pond.

But seven years of cancellations or changes to the event due to melting ice and lack of snow have caused planning difficulties, said John Sherman, the director of Hanover Parks and Recreation. This year, his team decided the event was unsustainable.

“When looking over all of these variables, it just doesn't seem feasible to plan a large winter event. You know, without reliable winter weather, the challenges become insurmountable when planning an event that's dependent on snow and ice,” he said.

Winter recreators in New Hampshire are already feeling the impacts of warmer winters, from ice fishers to skiers and maple syrup producers.

Last weekend, the New England Pond Hockey Classic was cancelled when warm temperatures made Lake Winnipesaukee unsafe.

As the climate changes, researchers say winter recreation will need to adapt. A recent studyfrom the University of New Hampshire shows the Northeast will continue to see warmer winter temperatures and less snow, but the level of global fossil fuel emissions can determine how much change Granite Staters see.

Alix Contosta, an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire who worked on the study, said under our current trajectory of fossil fuel emissions, we could lose two of our four months of temperatures below freezing, and more than a month of deep snowpack – the kind that is important for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and wildlife habitats.

But there’s another scenario, she said.

“If we act now to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, we have the potential to preserve some of the winter of the future. We can save some of the cold temperatures and some of the snow that are so important to our ecosystems and the health of our forests and our way of life,” she said.

Warmer winters could cause challenges for the recreation industry. Under a higher warming scenario, only 29 of the 197 ski areas in Quebec and the Northeastern United States will be able to stay open, with current snowmaking technology, by the end of the century, Contosta said.

And less snowy or freezing days could also make the Northeast a better host for invasive pests and ticks.

But winter also holds cultural and emotional importance – something Contosta has appreciated throughout her 22 years in New Hampshire.

“I feel a really huge sense of personal loss as the winters have continued to warm and become less snowy even during the time that I've lived here,” she said.

As warmer and more unpredictable winter conditions make Hanover’s Occom Pond Party impossible, the town says they will come up with new events that don’t depend on frozen ice.

But canceling the Occom Pond Party was difficult for everyone, Sherman said.

“It was something that everybody looked forward to every year,” he said. “It's these traditional events that everybody looks forward to, that really build community and people really identify with. So to not be able to hold it, it was a heart-wrenching decision for us.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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