Bethany Hway thought that she had decades of snowy winters from the past on her side.

Hway, founder of the Klondike Dog Derby in Excelsior, pored over years of snow and ice data as she and others planned this year's race around Lake Minnetonka. But on Wednesday, a month before 35 teams of mushers were scheduled to hit the course, they canceled. The day before, organizers of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth did the same.

The problem? No snow. Too little ice.

"We're going to all pray for a better winter next year, that's for sure," Hway said.

It might not be enough. While this year's brown winter may be a result of El Niño, which is the cyclical warm climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean, researchers say Minnesota's winters are getting increasingly warmer, meaning fewer days of lake ice and shallower snow packs on hills and trails.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
John Wirtz, left, cleared snow on the pedestrian bridge connecting Loring Park to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on Jan. 4, 2023. Teresa Copps, right, walked her dog, Fred, on the same bridge Jan. 4, 2024.

Businesses that depend on ice for fishing and snow for skiing might need to adjust their business model, said Stefan Liess, a University of Minnesota climate researcher. Longstanding wintertime culture and traditions may need some tweaking as well.

"You might need to change from skiing to winter hiking. Instead of snowshoes, you may need hiking shoes," Liess said of research showing Minnesota with the strongest winter warming in the contiguous United States.

This season's 5.3 inches of snowfall so far, recorded at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport through Jan. 4, pales in comparison with the 39.3 inches of snow that fell in the same period last year. On average, the Twin Cities receives just over 20 inches of snow by this time every winter.

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Strus in Chanhassen, a major factor is El Niño. Typically, it means it will be warmer overall. In El Niño years like this one, water in the southern Pacific is warmer, resulting in winds high in the atmosphere carrying hotter air east to Minnesota and the Midwest.

"That's the key player — the way the jet stream sets up, based on that feature, tends to lead to above-average temperatures in this part of the country," Strus said.

Warming winters are part of a longer trend, Liess said. Results of a study published last year indicate that Minnesota's future climate is likely to be significantly warmer than it was near the end of the 20th century. Over northern and central Minnesota, winters and summers are expected to be up to 6 and 4 degrees Celsius warmer, respectively, near the end of the 21st century.

And while major snow events still will happen, warmer weather means that the ice and snow cover will melt sooner.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Left: A person walked down a snow-covered ramp leading to the pedestrian bridge connecting Loring Park to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on Jan. 4, 2023. Right: The same ramp had no snow accumulation, Jan. 4, 2024.

Warmer winters' toll

A 2021 study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the state Department of Natural Resources found that warming waters shortened Minnesota's lake ice season by up to 14 days.

That ice loss affects lake and fish health, outdoor sports enthusiasts and business owners, researchers said.

Since 1967, ice-in dates have arrived about nine days later on average, and ice-out dates have occurred about four to five days earlier, according to the study.

"That means two weeks of lost ice coverage for ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and other winter activities on Minnesota lakes," the study says. A shortened lake ice season threatens to strip millions of dollars from businesses that support winter recreation.

The loss of ice duration on popular lakes for winter recreation includes 18.9 days on Lake Bemidji in Beltrami County, 14.8 days on Lake Waconia in Carver County and 14 days on Lake Itasca in Clearwater County, according to the MPCA/DNR study.

Lesley Knoll, a Miami University (Ohio) freshwater ecologist, was at the University of Minnesota's Itasca Biological Station in 2019 when she co-authored a paper looking at the impact of shrinking lake and river ice on traditions and culture around the world. Less ice means shorter skating and ice fishing seasons, she said — and less social interaction in communities that enjoy those activities.

"There is a social aspect to ice fishing," Knoll said. "For these kinds of social connections, overall, you might not just be losing ice."

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Left: Snow fell on "Spoonbridge and Cherry" in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on Jan. 4, 2023. Right: A young girl made a photo of her mother, Jan. 4, 2024.

Luke Skinner, assistant superintendent of Three Rivers Park District, agrees. While Three Rivers can make snow for its slopes and four of its trails, the loss of ice and natural snow is changing what Minnesotans do in winter, he said.

"When you look out the window of your house and you see brown ground, you don't think winter activities," he said.

Skinner, who grew up in northern Minnesota and loves the cold and snow, said diehard skiers and anglers likely will stick with those activities. "But the recreational person will go away," he said.

Lisa Jacobson, president of the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation that oversees the city's annual Winter Carnival, is well-versed in making adjustments forced by either too much cold or too little ice and snow. Weather-dependent events have to adapt to survive, she said.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Left: Bryan Erickson cleared snow in front of First Avenue on Feb. 23, 2023. Right: A man walked past First Avenue, Jan. 4, 2024.

In 2023, the bone-chilling cold of a polar vortex drove away Winter Carnival patrons and contributed to a financial loss. This year, the carnival is offering a heated Hamernick's Entertainment Chalet with food and drink while it hosts an "ice optional" fishing tournament.

The tournament, which started on New Year's Day and runs through Feb. 4, allows contestants to fish from shore, boat or dock on public bodies of water. It's a digital contest in which anglers use their phone cameras to take and share photos of their catch.

Weather forecasts for the Winter Carnival, scheduled to kick off Jan. 25, show temperatures low enough for ice sculptures and snow carving, Jacobson said.

"We're not canceling anything," she said. "We just make adjustments."

Hway can relate. In place of its cancelled Feb. 3 race, the Klondike Dog Derby will hold a cutest puppy contest. Although the decision to cancel the sled dog race was a huge disappointment to hundreds of volunteers and dozens of mushers, she said, work already has begun on planning the 2025 race.

"You have to hold out the hope that there will be a next year," she said. "Weather willing."

Star Tribune staff writer Louis Krauss and news assistant Melissa Walker contributed to this story.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Left: A car was snowed in on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis on Dec. 22, 2022. Right: A car was parked on Hennepin, Jan. 4, 2024.