Thinning snow for skiing and melting Arctic ice

Too little snow for skiing at Mt. Baker, and too little Arctic ice for polar bears

by Allen Best

Mt. Baker Ski Area in Washington has had its troubles, and whether they have anything to do with the opportunities in the Arctic Ocean is an open question.

The ski area closed on Sunday, March 8, because of insufficient snow. The ski area has an average annual snowfall of 641 inches, among the most of any ski area in the world. In one season, 1998-99, it had 1,140 inches.

General manager Duncan Howat said the ski area needed 6 to 12 inches to reopen, and as of Monday the ski area’s website suggested a possible Friday reopening. It snowed 8 to 10 inches over the weekend.

In Colorado, meanwhile, a conference held at Beaver Creek examined the opportunities represented by the melting of the Arctic Ocean. Gary Roughead, a retired admiral in the U.S. Navy, pointed out that 30 percent of the world’s estimated natural gas reserves are found in the Arctic, as well as sizable oil deposits.

In his presentation at the Vail Global Energy Forum, Roughead presented a graphic showing the iceflow over the Arctic in recent years. It waxes in winter, of course, and wanes in summer. But the ice-free component of summer has been growing rapidly.

That means ships have been able to use the Arctic to get between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This is shorter than the routes through the Southern Hemisphere or using the Panama and Suez canals.

But ice remains and, said Roughead, it’s a lot like politics: it’s very local and hard to predict. Container-ship transport remains risky.

The question hanging over both Mt. Baker’s lack of snow and the withering Arctic ice is how much either is a reflection of human-caused climate change.

Baker’s woes are those of just one winter, and scientists are undecided about how much to blame the West Coast drought on greenhouse gas emissions. But the Arctic meltdown is easily enough linked.

Is this meltdown a problem? Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, said polling suggests that climate change “feels very distant to people” and hence doesn’t become a high priority for action.

Dimock also noted that there’s a giant gap among countries and their perception of climate change as a significant problem. In Brazil, 76 percent of people think it’s a problem, and in Canada it’s 55 percent. Down the list are the United States at 40 percent and China at 39 percent.

“It’s interesting that the two largest carbon emitters in the world are down at the bottom of the list about professed concern about climate change,” he said.

The conference was not all doom and gloom, however. Photovoltaic solar energy has come on in a major way. Ahmad Chatila, president and chief executive of SunEdison, spoke about the cost of electricity from collectors dropping to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour and likely to drop soon to 5 cents by the end of the decade, maybe even 2 to 4 cents.

Advances in battery storage have been brisk. These and other technological breakthroughs suggest that it’s possible that global carbon emissions into the atmosphere may slow.

Others, though, suggested that slowing down this runaway train may not be enough if we want to avoid a climate that lurches violently like an unbalanced washing machine.

Right now, the melting of the Arctic seems distant and only gradual. But according to some climate models, things could turn out badly for more than just polar bears very, very soon.

When spring runoff comes in February

HAILEY, Idaho – In the past, the peak snowpack in the Wood River Valley has occurred, on average, on April 1. That’s the valley where Ketchum and Sun Valley are located.

But come 2070? It will be a different story, according to a study conducted by the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium. Their modeling suggests the peak snowpack will occur as early as mid-February.

Instead of snow, there will be more rain. Winters will get shorter.

“This isn’t to say that we’re getting less moisture overall,” said John Stevenson, a member of the research consortium, in a presentation at Hailey covered by the Idaho Mountain Express . “But it changes how we’re going to get it, which has impacts for streamflows,” he added. “Snowpacks will be smaller, but more important is that they’re going to melt off earlier in the year.”

Currently, nearly 60 percent of the annual precipitation around Sun Valley falls in the form of snow.

Stevenson told the 124 people who attended the presentation that the climate has shown greater variability over the long term, but scientists cannot explain the changes of the past 50 years without taking human activity into consideration.

Average local temperatures now are about 1 degree higher than they were in the mid-20th century. But temperatures by 2070 may increase between 4 and 11 degrees.

In some places, this year looks a lot like that future. The Associated Press reported warm temperatures and a lack of snowfall taking a toll on winter snowpack in the Cascade Mountains.

One-third of monitoring sites in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada reported the lowest snowpack ever measured as of March 1. Some sites had no snow whatsoever.

Still, while snowpack has been below normal in Oregon and Washington, there has been plenty of rain.


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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