What is the future of snow? Struggling with climate change and warmer winters


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Between the Winter Olympics and our dry January, I’ve been thinking a lot about snow over the past few weeks. Last month, Reno saw no measurable precipitation for the first time since such records were kept. The drought streak continued beyond January. And although there have been longer dry spells in the region, it’s enough to be noticeable, with warm temperatures that feel more like spring than winter.

Perhaps it’s the weather whiplash that makes it particularly noticeable. The year of water has started strong. Reno saw record rainfall in october, followed by large storms in December around Lake Tahoe and the West, pushing snow accumulation above 100% of normal for this time of year. Since then, with no new snow in many places, the snowpack has fallen to just below — or very close to — the average in the Sierra, much of Nevada, and much of the West.

Snow has also been on my mind since the Winter Olympics started this week. Beijing skiers and snowboarders ride what is entirely artificial snow, a first for the winter games and an artificial process that requires a lot of energy, water and chemical inputs.

Over the weekend, driving down US 395, which runs along the Eastern Sierra, I saw at least one message on a hotel sign echoing the oft-repeated sentiment: Please, no more snow.

Although the year of water is far from over – a lot can happen later in February and March – I have heard a lot of chatter, including in my own interviews and reports, about what all that means.

There is data and science. This is the second driest January on record for Nevada and California (where much of western Nevada’s water comes from), according to the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Numerous scientific studies have pointed to a less reliable and, for many years, less robust snowpack in the Sierra and other parts of the West. In 2018, a study found that since 1915, the western snowpack had already shrunk by about 21%. Another study prediction consecutive years of little to no snowfall in the Sierra and the West.

But the story goes beyond the data. There is also a qualitative story. Aridity affects us on the ground, at a personal level – our attitudes and the way we think about climate change.

For me, it makes me think about the future. What will our snow look like in 20, 50 years? What does it mean to enjoy winter? For our water supply? Our economy?

Heather Hansman, skier and author of Powder days: Ski Bums, Ski Resorts and the Future of Snow Huntingat much written on these issues. I spoke to him briefly on Wednesday about how people view winter, outdoor recreation and the future.

Hansman said she was talking to someone recently about the water year conditions and how they compare to past years. The conversation, she said, went like this: “I’m trying to remember if other years have been this bad. Does it hurt because we’re in it right now?

But, she added, there seems to be greater recognition across the West that something has to happen, that our personal experiences can shape how we act. While people have been in climate change denial, a conversation around the outdoor recreation industry – let alone water managers – is being forced by what we see in front of us.

“We avoided the hard stuff for a while,” Hansman said.

Cities and mountain regions with snowpack-dependent ecosystems are begin to prepare for the future and to adapt (but perhaps slowly in many cases). Of course, the conversation goes far beyond outdoor recreation. It intersects with the economy (many local towns rely on winter sports tourism) and our water supply (snow acts as a natural reservoir to store water).

The nature of it all is cumulative. Impacts often build up gradually, in ways that are difficult to see or visualize, until they suddenly appear. Take the Colorado River Basin, which supports much of the Southwest (including Las Vegas) and needs more snow to boost falling reservoir levels. Last week, water forecasters predicted that inflows into Lake Powell, an important water supply indicator, would be 78% of average, a 20% drop from January. Even the economic effects can seem slow – until they suddenly arrive.

Last month, Loughborough University’s Sports Ecology Group and Protect Our Winters, a climate advocacy nonprofit, publish a research report how climate change is expected to affect the Olympic Games. Using climate predictions, it examines whether cities and regions that have hosted the games in the past will be fit to host the games in the future.

These data are based on a paper 2014 which assesses minimum temperatures and the probability of maintaining adequate snow depth. The results suggest that one location that may not be able to reliably host the games in the future is Lake Tahoe, which hosted the 1960 Olympics.

“There will still be great seasons,” said University of Waterloo researcher Nat Knowles, who used to compete as a competitive skier and lived near Tahoe for several years.

“But,” she added, “the average snowpack is decreasing.”

Knowles said this means a future where the snowpack is less reliable and more uncertain – snowmelt could start earlier, more precipitation could fall as rain rather than snow. Yet when Knowles considers predictions for the future, she doesn’t get caught up in the gloom that characterizes so many of these conversations. She sees them as a call to action.

“What I’ve always found useful about them is that there’s a really radical difference between a high-emissions future and a low-emissions future,” Knowles said in a phone interview this week. . “I don’t think scaremongering is a useful way to talk about any of this.”

Beginner skiers at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe outside of Reno on Jan. 2, 2019. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

“A federal appeals court has survey a temporary ban on building a geothermal power plant in Nevada opposed by a tribe and conservationists who say the site is sacred and home to a rare toad considered for the protection of endangered species,” the Associated Presswrites Scott Sonner.

the Reno Gazette Journalthis is Amy Alonzo looks at a first effort remove a dilapidated dam on the Truckee River which can be a hazard to kayakers and rafters.

Connection to groundwater: As Arizona seeks to pump groundwater, some experts question whether it is sustainable in the long term, as KUNCreports Alex Hager.

“The Great Salt Lake is in trouble. … We have to do something.” This quote comes from a Republican legislator from Utah in a excellent piece speak Associated Press‘s Lindsay Whitehurst and photojournalist Rick Bowmer on efforts to save the lake – and whether the proposed recovery strategies go far enough.

City saidhigh lithium prices are here to stay. This is important because, as we reported recently, there is a rush in Nevada to develop new lithium mining and recovery projects.

the Sierra Nevada Allyis Scott King interviewed Kirsten Stasio, the founding executive director of the “Green Bank” of Nevada.


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