Who am I, and why do I care about snow?

It was via the love of quiet and a deep serenity that comes with the snow filled woods that brought me into the world of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Backcountry was a natural extension of cross country forays in the winter landscape, ventures made exciting by pointing two skinny sticks straight through 500 yards of steep second growth forest and rocks, and the thrill of finding secret passage under scrubby spruce into the side country stashes in Southern Vermont.

I came to the PNW in pursuit of fresh air, on a quest for progressive ideals more widely held than in the bustling and competitive East. I also came seeking to connect with Indigenous ways of knowing land, people and ourselves, and productive partnerships between science and traditional ecological knowledge. As an Interdisciplinary PhD student at Portland State, I examine the relationships between physical sciences, traditional and place based knowledge, and policy making processes for managing environmental change. My work focuses on diffuse contaminants and how they affect human and ecological health, with an emphasis on the spatial distribution of atmospheric pollution in snow, rivers, and coastal waters in the region.

I also came to the region in search of snow, and as you can imagine, the last two seasons have me feeling a bit ripped off; while the Northeast has been netting record snowfalls for two years running, the West has been in drought. Not to say that the East has had pure gravy, the weather has been exceedingly variable, big dumps and then hot January days: an unsettling pattern.

Snow the last two years became a novelty in this part of the world, something that has to be pilgrimaged to. Not unlike drought years in my childhood home of Northeastern Conneticut, where last year’s January storms let me ski laps on 20 foot cliff drops I could only dream of doing as a kid.

The season started off promisingly. A big November storm blew in with enough richness to encourage a foray up to Meadows to check conditions. It was slim, but still rideable as long as one watched out for sharks and stumps.

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Two weeks later and a post Thanksgiving storm seemed to dump just enough snow to bring us back up to the same levels as mid Novemeber, evidenced by the photo below of Timberline.

image006Fast forward two more weeks and we had a nice early December storm that seemed to put us back on track for a real winter. The photo below shows the Silcox Hut getting buried in snow (although notice how thin the roof deposit is).

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Finally! We got some creamy riding at about 6,500 feet.

Despite the early storms, it was clear early on that something was wrong. But still, we held out hope that this would be a big season.

Here we are in Shasta taking a little family trip (note the 4-year old poking out of my pack – that’s Oona, she loves powder turns and jumps!).

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Since then, silence from the weather gods. A long warm January set in. Snow levels dropped to about 5,500 feet, staying pretty constant, and snow at 3,500′ was all but gone by the end of the month, as you can see in the two graphs below.

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Water Year Precipitation and Snow Water Equivalent chart for the Mt Hood Test Site SNOTEL (from http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snow/)

You can clearly see the black line (this year’s precipitation accumulation) mostly tracking average precipitation (the grey line). While the red line (snow water equivalent) tracks well below the historical median, or the blue line, staying flat through January and February, declining a bit in March before being bumped up by April storms and then rapidly melting in May. Snow Water Equivalent is the amount of water stored in the snowpack in inches (which is a function of snow depth and density – snow generally being 10% water when fresh and up to 50% water when aged).

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The same chart for the Blazed Alder site just Northeast of Mt Hood at 3650 ft.

What this data meant for the ski season was all the snow was way up top, where riding was actually quite nice, if you were willing to hike up and out through the ‘dirty’ snow to get to the goods.

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Photo credit: Jacob Smith

While there were stashes abound at higher elevations, no one can deny this winter was downright depressing in many respects. This is perhaps best captured by this photo at almost 5,000 feet on our way up to Tilly Jane Hut, on April 11th, which is historically right after peak snowfall.

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To sum it all up, this has been the worst snow winter on record. I fear what this might mean for the summer fire season. In the regional map above you can see that the entire Cascade Range, except for a few spots in the Methow Basin and North Cascades, was below 60% of average snowfall. In fact, most sites were below 15%, with many registering an astonishing 0%.

We live in a changing world. Many of us attempt to make peace with this, technology, transport, human density and the global atmosphere all shifting in front of our eyes. These changes bewilder and amaze, induce a subconscious fear of the unfamiliar, a sensation of discombobulation that we shove off with familiar routine and platitudes; change is the only constant. And yet, climate change will not push us gradually into a warmer world; it will give us greater and greater ranges of weather conditions. The number of warm records will continue to outpace cold records due to average increases in global temperatures (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3207670/)

For many, this year, and the last few, were weather anomalies. To be fair, they truly were years of anomalous weather, record high seasonal average temperatures, and record low snowfalls on the entire Pacific coast. The immediate cause of this low snow has been much higher than average temperatures. This means that while we received about average precipitation totals over the winter, more than 90% of that water which normally falls frozen, instead washed away what little snow there was.

The cause for these increased temperatures is slightly more complicated, but two things are very clear:

1. Sea and land surface temperatures were the hottest on record for most of the northern hemisphere (except for New England) and the world

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2. The whole season was plagued by a ‘resilient’ high pressure ridge over the Western US, which coincided with high seas surface temperature anomalies (over 6-8 degrees Fahrenheit for much of the winter). This not only significantly increased regional atmospheric temperatures, but also altered the path of the jet stream, pushing it farther north than usual. The jet stream dipped further south over the Eastern half of the continent, bringing them the goods and a few record low temps.

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Red marks areas of anomalous high pressure and blue marks areas of anomalous low pressure. You can clearly see the large area of high pressure over the entire Pacific Coast reaching all the way to Eastern Asia. This pattern persisted from December to March.

Debate rages over the complexities of global climate modeling. While it is clear humans have increased the concentrations of heat absorbing gasses and particulate matter in the atmosphere, how that heat gets precisely redistributed is still poorly understood. What to do about is is even more contentious. There is evidence that the ocean is soaking up some of the heat trapped in the atmosphere, with complex mixing processes distributing that heat deeper into the ocean than previously thought.

While a big part of the problem with public understanding of climate change is the lack of access to scientific literature, an even bigger problem is the unwillingness of scientists to step outside the comfort bubble of expertise and engage in discussion over the uncertainties and limitations of science. The climate blogoshpere is limited help,  focusing on stone throwing and polemics rather than a genuine discussion.

It is undeniable that we have loaded the atmosphere with gases that absorb radiation several orders of magnitude greater than pre-industrial levels. And yet, it is unclear how deeper dynamics of global temperature variation interact with human alteration of the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, climate change discussions tend to focus on CO2 and a few other select green house gases. I believe we need a discussion on limiting other air pollutants which negatively our and our children’s health. Such pollutants, like soot and metallic particles, aerosols and other organic compounds, not only cause climate change but also accumulate in snow. This increases the rate at which it melts by absorbing more sunshine than pure snow (the details of which I will discuss in my next blog). While climate change is a truly global problem, there is more we can do on a local level to improve regional air quality. My goal is to buy our dwindling snowpacks some time. In this climate, if we want to keep getting turns, we will have to earn them. I hope you enjoy the following blog series on my research, its process (my field trips!) and my findings.

All the best,

Z Grabowski

zbig@pdx.edu

 

 

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