The slow, snowless start to ski season

Snowless Thanksgiving not the first, but expect more of them to come

by Allen Best

Going into Thanksgiving , Vail has had almost no snow. That’s not remarkable, but the recent warm weather is.

­In 1962, the ski area’s inaugural year, it was dry, too. Ski area marketing boss Bob Parker got the bright idea of recruiting Ute Indians to conduct a snow dance. It did start snowing almost immediately. That was in December.

Since then, Vail has had more slow starts to winter, particularly in droughts in 1976-77 and 1980-81. Instead of recruited Utes, though, Vail—like most ski areas—invested heavily in snowmaking.

Just one problem with this autumn. It’s been too warm to make snow at many places. Vail delayed opening until the day after Thanksgiving. And at Beaver Creek, a few miles from Vail, World Cup races had to be punted. Mike Imhoff, the chief executive of the Vail Valley Foundation, the organization that puts on the races, said the venue has a “remarkably sophisticated snowmaking system. However, the cold weather did not come in time this year.”

Warm weather was the problem at Telluride, too. Chief executive Bill Jensen announced a delayed opening until the Monday after Thanksgiving. “There aren‘t enough snowmaking hours over the next week to 10 days to make the quantity of snow necessary to achieve our planning opening day,” he said.

Indeed, temperatures in Denver last week hit 80 degrees, a record for the date and tying the record high for November, which was set in 2006.

In Salt Lake City, it was warm, too. Even though it snowed, the temperature didn’t fall below freezing. The Salt Lake Tribune noted that the city had been frost-free for 242 days, breaking a record set in 1915.

Expect more temperature records to tumble, say scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. New research announced this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” says Americans will see, on average, about 15 daily maximum temperature records for every time that the mercury notches a record low.

This compares, during the last decade, with two record high temperatures for every record low temperature.

The United States has experienced unusual warmth lately, as indicated by this July 22, 2016, weather map showing much of the country facing highs in the 90s and 100s and lows in the 70s. New research indicates that more record high temperatures may be in store. (Weather map by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Prediction Center.)

The United States has experienced unusual warmth lately, as indicated by this July 22, 2016, weather map showing much of the country facing highs in the 90s and 100s and lows in the 70s. New research indicates that more record high temperatures may be in store. (Weather map by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center.)

If temperatures were not warming, explained Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at NCAR and lead author of the paper, the ratio of record highest to record lows would average out to about one to one.

“An increase in average temperatures of a few degrees may not seem like much, but it correlates with a noticeable increase in days that are hotter than any in the records, and nights that will remain warmer than we’ve ever experienced in the past,” he said.

“Even with much warmer temperatures on average, we will still have winter and we will still get record cold temperatures,” he went on to explain. “But the numbers of those will be really small compared to record high temperatures.

The 15-to-1 ratio of record highs to lows assumes temperatures across the continental United States increase by slightly more than 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) above recent years. That’s the amount of warming expected to occur by 2065 with the current pace of greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, the World Meteorological Organization reported that it is very likely that 2016 will be the hottest year on record globally.

“Long-term climate change indicators are also record breaking,” the organization said in a press release. “Concentrations of major greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to increase to new records. Arctic sea ice remained at very low levels, especially during early 2016 and the October re-freezing period, and there was significant and very early melting of the Greenland ice sheet.”

Can we adapt to higher temperatures? To an extent, yes. Snowmaking was conducted at California’s Boreal Mountain Resort in July even as temperatures rose above 80 degrees. It took a lot of energy to make the snow, but it can be done.

But as was noted in Telluride and Beaver Creek this past week, cold temperatures are needed to make snow with any great volume.

In Park City, National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney, looked through the crystal ball of increasing greenhouse gas emissions to predict even more rapid climate change.

“We’re going to see areas that are (now) 100 percent snow-covered in December, January (and February) and are only going to be 50 percent snow-covered starting in 2035,” he said at an event covered by The Park Record.

“The young people in the audience that are skiers, they’re going to have a hard time getting to the base areas of Park City, Powder Mountain Beaver Mountain, some of these lower-elevation areas,” he added.

That’s in the future. This winter might still be a good one. Ryan Boudreau, a forecaster with aspen-weather.net, predicted plenty of snow in the Northern and Southern Rockies in December and January.

“It’s going to hammer in December. It’s just a little delayed,” he told the Telluride Daily Planet.

But if we continue to dump carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases into the troposphere the way we have, ski season will get a lot shorter.

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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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2 Responses to The slow, snowless start to ski season

  1. Pingback: #Snowpack news: The slow, snowless start to ski season — The Mountain Town News | Coyote Gulch

  2. DC says:

    To the author: there is no temperature data in this article for Vail itself. Is Vail itself getting warmer in November? I looked at Weather Warehouse for Vail, and it shows the last five years for which the data exists on that site (2011-2015) as on average cooler than the first five years in the Weather Warehouse record (in the early 80s). I fully recognize that there are other datasets out there, and better/more scientific ways of crunching data. But it is unusual for a long article saying that Vail is getting warmer in November to not cite any data to that effect. Trends vary from place to place. For example, in the Northeast a study recently showed no statistically significant warming at the summit of Mt Washington (6000 feet). Same point for Telluride and the other ski areas mentioned. Do you have historical data for them, and does that data in fact show a change from predominantly colder Novembers to predominantly warmer Novembers, and if so by how much? Thanks.

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