Weather at the edges

Aspen can still boast of powder at its Snowmass ski area, but all models show less and less powder in decades ahead. Photo/Jeremy Swanson.

Aspen can still boast of powder at its Snowmass ski area, but all models show less and less powder in decades ahead. Photo/Jeremy Swanson.

Is the more intense weather predicted for global warming evident at edges?

This story originally was published in Mountain Town News in March 2011 and in Ski Area Management in May 2011.

by Allen Best

Just before Christmas in 2010, storms rolled in from the Pacific, soaking Los Angeles and then dumping prodigious amounts of precipitation — 27 inches in three days – on Mt. Baldy, a ski area in the San Gabriel Mountains, about an hour from downtown LA.

Some of that precipitation arrived as snow, leaving Baldy a winter wonderland. But would people be able to get there? The deluges had also washed out roads. It took Herculean efforts by county crews to restore access.

This winter, the story at Baldy is exactly the opposite – as it is in much of the West. Tahoe is bone dry. Homewood on Monday reported 5 of 62 trails were open. Northstar, better armored with snowmaking, had dropped the rope on 27 of 97.

Colorado’s big destination resorts were only marginally better. While Aspen boasted of eight inches of powder and a town full of smiles on Sunday, Vail still hadn’t opened its Back Bowls, the latest since the eerily similar winter of 1980-81.

But at least Vail is open. Not so Bogus Basin, the community ski area near Boise, Idaho. For that matter, after getting drenched last year, Mt. Baldy this week was preparing to open the chairlift to the top of the 10,000-foot mountain for scenic rides. Ski season? Maybe later. Not now.

“It is very likely that this has been the driest first week of January in U.S. recorded history,” wrote Dr. Jeff Masters, the co-founder of Weather Underground at his blogsite, WunderBlog. Portions of North Dakota and Minnesota had temperatures 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average during December. “The strangely warm and dry start to winter is not limited to the U.S.,” he added. “All of continental Europe experienced well above-average temperatures during December.”

Different only on the edges

From tornadoes to heat waves to floods, the last 13 months have been a time of extremes. Can any of this be ascribed to global warming? Climate scientists have typically warned against making too much of individual events. Climate is full of natural variability, they point out, no two years exactly alike. From these individual weather events we get climate, and shifting patterns are most accurately discerned in retrospect.

Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., describes this explanation as too “wishy-washy.” Global warming, he says, is already evident in the extremes. Records are being broken when natural variability, such as El Niño, works in the same direction as human-induced warming.

“Most of the time, the climate and the weather you experience are the same as you experienced before. It’s only out here on the tails of the distribution that you are really experiencing something different,” he said in Seattle last year at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting.

Warming temperatures are already creating about 4 percent more water vapor over the oceans than was the case in the 1970s. That water was likely a factor in the extent of the snowstorm in Washington D.C. in March 2010 as well as the deluges of Los Angeles, he said. Natural variability produced big storms. Global warming, he said, pushed them over the edge into major events.

“We get these questions all the time. Is it due to global warming? Is it due to natural variability?  I would argue these are not well-posed questions,” says Trenberth. “The answer these days is always both.”

Lower ski areas at risk

But regardless of whether human fingerprints can directly be detected in the major weather events, extreme weather of the last year is consistent with what global warming theory holds can be expected in coming decades. And that’s something several ski areas and mountain towns are trying to get their arms around.

In its long-range planning, Whistler/Blackcomb is thinking about how to get more warm-weather activities.

Park City has twice commissioned studies to deliver a picture of changes in coming decades. One option is to move operations higher up on the mountain. “It’ll be fairly expensive. They are now putting that into their operating plans,” says one of the researchers, Mark Williams, who teaches geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder and is a fellow with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Others, especially those closer to maritime climates and those in New England, but even some ski areas at Lake Tahoe, and in Idaho and Montana, are at even greater risk, he says.

This isn’t necessarily tomorrow not everywhere. At first, changes will come more slowly, according to Brian Lazar, of Stratus Consulting in Boulder, Colo.

“During the next 20 years we’re just going to be seeing a little change around the edges: snow falls a little later in fall, melts a little earlier in spring, and we will start to see rain falling at the base area, kind of like it did at Vail and Steamboat (in December 2011),” he says.

“Winter won’t be dramatically different until after 2030. But things really do start changing by 2050.”

Increased heat is the given. The change depends at least partly upon the continued rate at which we spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but also feedback loops. For example, how rapidly will the permafrost of the Arctic melt, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere – further accelerate heating?

Precipitation effects less clear

Effects of global warming on precipitation are less clear. There will be more precipitation in the atmosphere. In some areas, there already is, with clouds carrying up to 4 percent more. But the changes in terms of snowfall are less clear. One study in Colorado, for example, suggested more snow in store for Steamboat, in the northern part of the state, and less for Telluride, in the southern half. But, as Laurna Kaatz, a climate scientist employed by Denver’s water agency, observed, the evidence isn’t sturdy enough to justify expensive infrastructure decisions.

What can be counted on – what Trenberth insists has already arrived – is greater variability. This will be most evident on the edges, in duration and intensity of both droughts and deluges.

But this greater variability will even be evident within the context of more-or-less normal ski seasons. Vail, for example, might well expect less of the pattern of six inches here, four inches there routine. There will be more feast and famine, with challenges and perhaps peril at both ends.

“We’re headed toward an increasingly variable world, with an upward temperature trend,” says Frank Lowenstein, global climate adaptation strategy leader with The Nature Conservancy. And that variability, he says, is something that ski areas—and ski towns—need to think about.

A handy projection tool

Last winter, Lowenstein met with ski area managers at a session held at Snowbird, Utah, to explain a new tool for their use. The tool, a website called Climate Wizard (, was created by The Nature Conservancy to get a firmer grip on how global warming will impact coral reefs and wetlands.

Ski areas and mountain towns may also benefit. The interactive website allows users to study temperature and precipitation maps from anywhere in the world for the last 50 years. It also gives projections of how temperatures and precipitation will change in the next 40 to 70 years. The changes depend upon whether emissions begin to stabilize, continue much as they are, or accelerate even more.

The website allows viewers to quickly evaluate the information based on the level of consensus among the ensemble of 16 global circulation models.

In a sense, ski areas long ago began adapting to climate variability and changes. Snowmaking has extended the ski season in New England in the last 50 years. “It’s not because we have better snow. I can assure you of that,” says Lowenstein, a skier who lives in western Massachusetts.

Warmer temperatures will require more snowmaking yet. In Aspen, a study suggested the need for a five-fold increase.

In Europe, says Lowenstein, ski areas have become more conscious of slope development, calculating how to make slopes skiable with less snow, as opposed to slopes that nobody wants to ski because they are boring.

In North American, he believes ski areas are still thinking in terms of safety, liability, and exciting appeal to consumers as they design ski trails. All are important. “But I don’t think many of them are thinking about how much snow do I need to ski this in a snow-starved future.”

Increasing variability

Lowenstein stresses the increased variability. Warmer temperatures, yes – but also more extreme weather. That has vast implications. “The question of increased variability is something that ski areas really do need to wrestle with,” he says. “It’s everything from larger culverts on the sides of roads to what kind of financial reserves you will need.”

To give ski area managers a sense of how warming temperatures may affect them, Lowenstein used Climate Wizard to project possible futures for several dozen ski areas. Consider Crested Butte Mountain Resort as a case study. It’s among Colorado’s highest and coldest resorts. By 2050, however, it might have a climate comparable to that of today’s Ski Apache, located in southern New Mexico. By 2080, trends, Crested Butte could have a climate comparable to that now found in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.

That prediction may not be bankable, but the scenario-planning tool is one of several becoming available to ski areas and mountain towns as they try to plan for the future. Another tool being created by The Nature Conservancy promises a better sense of possible temperatures and precipitation on any given day in any given year. For example, how many days will the temperature exceed 50 degrees, on average, compared to the present?

“There will be a fairly high level of uncertainty around these, but as modeling improves, the accuracy will improve,” says Lowenstein. “These techniques are advancing extremely rapidly.”

Colder, higher resorts in the Rocky Mountains will face less immediate risks than lower resorts, such as those in New England and along the West Coast. Still, ski seasons almost surely will become shorter.

Modeling futures for ski areas

Aspen was first among ski towns and resorts to formally explore the implications of climate change with its Canary Initiative, which was launched in 2005. Part of the effort included hiring a team that included Mark Williams and Brian Lazar.

The Powdr Corp., which operates Park City Mountain Presort and Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, subsequently hired Williams and Lazar to similarly down-scale climate models in an effort to provide a glimpse of the future. By 2050, a rising snowline could leave Park City’s primary base-area lift in a mud puddle, and more assuredly so during spring break.

In the Cascades, Bachelor also stands to see potentially devastating shifts. It has a base elevation of 5,700 feet and a summit of not quite 9,100 feet. Existing rain-on-snow events occur four to six times per season on the lower portion of the mountain, but another 5 to 7 could occur by 2050, given a moderate-warming scenario. If emissions continue to accelerate, however, more rain can be expected and, in the worst-case emissions scenario, Bachelor would lose its snowpack altogether.

Much depends upon whether emissions of greenhouse gases can be abated. During the last decade, concentrations of carbon dioxide measured atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loan have increased 2 parts per million (ppm) annually. As of December, they stood at 392 ppm. For their work, Lazar and Williams assumed at least 450 ppm by 2030. In the best-case scenario for 2100, the emissions will be 540 and the worst-case foresees 930 ppm. Climate scientist Jim Hansen insists C02 must be lowered to 350 ppm to avoid dangerous climate changes.

Snow, for both Lazar and Williams, is more than a research discipline. It is also a passion.

Lazar was a mountain guide in the 1990s, forming his own company, taking clients to the Wrangell, St. Elias, and Chugach mountain ranges of Alaska, the 6,000-meter peaks of Peru, and occasionally New Zealand and Kilimanjaro.

Doubting that he wanted guiding to be his sole source of income for the rest of his life, he returned to school at the University of Colorado-Boulder, earning a master’s degree in civil engineering. His work involved studying runoff from glaciers, climate change, and other aspects of snow mechanics. In addition to his consulting work with Stratus, he is assistant director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

Among Lazar’s teachers in Boulder was Williams, who also had a career in the backcountry snow before returning to academia. Bearded and husky, Mr. Williams favors florid Hawaiian shirts no matter the season. When young, he summered as a wilderness ranger in Alaska and during winter operated a cross-country ski area in California called Rock Creek Lodge. Located near Mammoth, it had 15 rental cabins and few amenities at the start. “It was little more than camping in the snow,” says Williams.

But even though the business took off, Williams decided he had had enough of that life when he found himself with a 5-month-old son living 35 miles from the nearest road. That, plus a hunger for greater intellectual stimulation, caused him to return to advanced studies in physical sciences and mathematics—and now his part-time work in trying to figure out what ski area managers might expect.

The work at ski areas

Williams recently began work on a $5.4 million study of the sources of water in Asia’s Himalaya Mountains. From Pakistan to China, some two billion people – about 28 percent of the world’s population — depend directly or indirectly upon the Yellow, Ganges and other rivers that originate in what is called High Asia. Williams’ team intends to figure out exactly where their water is coming from. If a substantial portion comes from the now melting glaciers, there could be problems down the line. Those glaciers may disappear.

In Park City, Brent Giles has noted anecdotally the shifting in snow quality. “It just seems like we’re getting more wet-snow events than what we used to see,” says Giles, a 31-yeare veteran of the ski industry and now director of environmental affairs for mountain operations at Park City Mountain Resort. “It used to be all this fine powder, and now it’s getting a little wetter, a little heavier.”

He believes the science of global warming delivers a compelling case for revisions in business practices, which he contends Powdr Corp. has tried to implement with renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. At Park City, the ski company has reduced its electrical consumption 2.7 million kilowatt hours per year, at a savings of $150,000. In Utah, 86 percent of electricity comes from burning of coal.

Auden Schendler, the evangelist of carbon reduction for the Aspen Skiing Co., argues that neither adaptation nor mitigation by ski areas and ski towns are enough. They should, he contends, use their prominence to argue for dramatic shifts in carbon policy.

He’s had some success. Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, testified before a Congressional committee three years ago in support of federal regulation of carbon, as did an Aspen Skiing Co. representative

Schendler insists that an even louder, steadier voice is needed.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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One Response to Weather at the edges

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