PORTLAND, Me. – The big snowstorms of autumn are just memories in New England, where people who make their living off winter tourism are losing income and New Hampshire primary candidates lack picturesque winterscapes for photo ops. Tourists in the West play golf instead of skiing. In Midwestern hockey country, you can barely slog a puck through the slush.
A continuing dearth of snow in many U.S. spots usually buried by this time of year has turned life upside down. The weather pattern that left many northern states with a brown Christmas is still sticking around, and the outlook for at least the next week is bleak for winter recreation enthusiasts.
Nationwide, the lack of snow is costing tens of millions of dollars in winter recreation, restaurant, lodging and sporting goods sales, experts said.
"It's Mother Nature. She's playing tricks on us, or something. Now it's getting nerve-racking," said Terry Hill, whose cash flow is nonexistent because her rental cabins are empty at Shin Pond Village, north of Maine's Baxter State Park, normally alive this time of year with the buzz of snowmobiles.
Early in the winter, the Southwest saw some heavy snow, as did parts of the Northeast clobbered around Halloween and Thanksgiving by snow that has since melted. The Pacific Northwest has seen snow recently. And longer-range forecasts predict above-normal or normal snow amounts for much of the country's northern half for the rest of the season.
Many economic losses can be made up, said Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie Institute of Public Service.
But that's of little comfort right now in the Northeast, where businesses that depend on winter recreation usually see heaps of snow around the Christmas and New Year holidays as a bonus and it's critical to have snow by Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, about a week from now.
As of Thursday, only 19 percent of the nation was covered in snow, less than half the average snow cover over the past five years on the same date, according to the National Weather Service's National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Minnesota.
On Friday, the forecast calls for the Northeast to thaw out from its first big cold spell. It'll be in the 50s and sunny in Reno, Nev., a place that normally sees snow by now. In the Midwest, where the temperature hit the 40s Thursday, the warm weather has turned frozen ponds and backyard rinks to slush, sending ice skaters indoors.
"There's no place that has reliable ice. You're skating on Jell-O. You try to shoot the puck. It goes a little ways and it gets stuck in a puddle," said Barbara Garn, who has seen a big uptick in the number of participants in pickup hockey games she organizes at indoor rinks in Minnesota's Twin Cities region.
Tom Buker, a pilot with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said he flew over southern Minnesota on Thursday and saw lots of open water and ice that's too dangerous for fishing.
"There was no snow -- zero," he said. "I was at 2,000 feet; my temperature gauge was reading 62 degrees. That's more like April weather than January weather."
Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y., normally buried in feet of snow by now, had the third-lightest snowfall on record from October through December. Reno recorded its driest December in history, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University in New York.
"It's been 128 years since Reno didn't have snow in December," said Scott Hickey, owner of a retail golf shop in Reno. "Not only have we not had snow, but it's been mild so you can play golf."
He said he thinks snow will arrive in time to satisfy skiers. And what's good for skiers, he added, will be good for golfers in the end.
"We need the snow to water the golf courses," he said.
The ski industry is also having a tough time in New England.
Ski resorts have a core of skiers and boarders who are season ticket holders or have slope-side condos. Those folks are going to go ski because they've invested; what's lacking are the thousands of additional skiers -- the weekend warriors -- who are less likely to spend their dollars unless conditions are great.
In Maine, up to 100 people would be skiing on 12 miles of trails on a good day at Carter's Cross-Country Ski Center, but the center has yet to open because there's no snow on the ground. Worse, with no snow, no one is buying skiing gear from the store, said manager Jesse Hill.
It's discouraging, he said, given high hopes that accompanied the early snowfall in October and November.
"It was just a big tease," he said.
Fresh snow, said Matt Siekman, a skier from Portland, plays a psychological factor in motivating "weekend warriors." He admits to a bit of angst.
"It's mostly anxiety, but I try to remember it's going to happen," he said. "It's just a matter of time."
In New Hampshire, there's no snow to slow down Republicans as they zoom across the state to make their last push before next week's primary vote.
But the lack of snow means the state is missing its snowy backdrop as bundled-up journalists provide the latest political reports. And candidates have been unable to plunk campaign signs down in snow drifts to provide a showy backdrop for public appearances.
"It's an iconic part of the primary," said Dean Spiliotes, political science professor at Southern New Hampshire University. "It's part of the ambiance -- the mill shots in Manchester, the snow-covered town squares, watching candidates shuffle through the snow."