MARQUETTE - With a history of long, snow-filled winters, many Upper Peninsula businesses depend on high snowfalls to make ends meet.
But this year, as in recent years, the season snowfall total is below average and things don't appear to be looking up any time soon.
"Beyond the basic scattered light snow from lake effect and higher terrain, we don't really expect any bigger snowfalls in the next week or so," said Megan Dodson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Negaunee.
As of this morning, the area's season snowfall total was 48.1 inches, 18.2 inches below normal, according to the weather service.
And with the area experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures through much of this winter, most of that snow has already melted away.
Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association, said the local economy is hit hard when the snow doesn't fall.
"We have less visitors, less overnight stays, less money spent in the stores, less money spent in restaurants, less money spent in gas stations, it just rolls right through," Nemacheck said. "There's a lot of people working in those industries and their salaries depend on it. It's very important. Hotel occupancy needs to get up because it rolls over into so many other areas."
So far this season, the warm temperatures have kept most of the snow from sticking to the ground. For Vern Barber, general manager of Marquette Mountain Ski Area, that's been the hardest part of this year's mild winter.
"Our biggest detriment is the temperature," Barber said. "We make snow, but it's always nice to have both. ... Having a foot of fresh stuff packed down to about three inches of base, that's just three inches less we have to make ourselves. It would be wonderful to have a couple good snowfalls that stuck. We actually have had some pretty good snowfalls, but unfortunately, all three of them were followed by warm spells."
And though this winter is shaping up to be another U.P. winter with not much snow, Nemacheck said it's already looking brighter than last year, when many sled dog races in the Midwest were canceled for lack of snow, including the John Beargrease race in Minnesota.
The U.P. 200 had to reroute its trail last year due to the lack of snowfall. For the first time in the race's 22-year history, it did not begin or end in Marquette. Instead, the race began in Chatham.
According to the National Weather Service, the lowest winter snowfall totals in a decade have occurred in recent years, with 159.6 inches in the 2010-2011 season and 163.1 inches in the 2009-2010 season.
"I don't have a crystal ball to know whether or not this is the new normal. This is better than last year," Nemacheck said. "Last year, we didn't have any snow between Christmas and New Year's. This year, at least we have some snow.
"We'd certainly like to go back to the years when much of the Upper Peninsula would have a couple of feet on the ground by Christmas time. That would be wonderful. We don't want this to be the new normal."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.