Sure, this winter set records for snowfall. But it has also set a precedent for warming. So what does this mean for skiing? Recent data suggest that while mountains across the West have enjoyed big snowfalls, it also carried the threat of snow turning to rain, a frequent occurrence in the Sierra Nevada.
February 2017 was the second-warmest February in the 137 years of record keeping, according to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Even January of this year—when #Januburied brought more than 20 feet of snow to Mammoth Mountain, Winter Storm Jupiter snowed 14 inches in downtown Portland, Oregon, and tornados touched down in Sacramento—hit a mark as the third warmest on record.
The warmest January and February on record? Both occurred in 2016.
A monthly analysis of global temperatures—taken from 6,300 meterological stations around the world—showed that last month was 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than the mean February temperature from 1951-1980, according to NASA. February 2016 was 1.3 degrees warmer.
February's temperature surge puts 2017 on track to be yet another hot year. Which is not good. Earth has warmed more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. NASA is reporting CO2 emissions to be 405.92 parts per million—the highest levels in 650,000 years. Meanwhile, ice is disappearing. Arctic ice is shrinking by 13.3 percent per decade, land ice by 281 gigatonnes per year—and sea levels are rising, 3.4 millimeters per year, or 7 inches in the last century.
NASA also recorded on February 13 the lowest sea ice numbers since satellite monitoring began in 1979 for the combined Arctic and Antarctic. Scientists attributed the low point to a "combination of warmer-than-average temperatures, winds unfavorable to ice expansion, and a series of storms [that] halted sea ice growth in the arctic." In addition to shrinking, the sea ice cap is also thinning, which makes it more vulnerable.
The global temperature is currently on pace to rise 4 degrees celsius by 2100. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, scientific consensus says we must keep the rise below 2 degrees Celsius. As skiers, we have much to lose due to climate change—the more the earth warms, the less it will snow. The less it snows, the less we will be skiing. The less we ski, the larger a hit the economy will take. A study by the National Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters indicated that between low and high snowfall years of 1999 and 2010, the ski industry lost $1.07 billion in revenue.
What's more, scientists say it's getting harder to predict winter, and it was especially difficult to predict this one. La Niña winters, like this year, typically mean drier conditions for California, with below-average winters. But this year, even as we’re hitting spikes for warm temperatures, is on track to be the state's wettest year on record. "How did this happen?" writes Tom Di Liberto on the climate blog for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's likely a combination of a dying La Niña, competing climate phenomena, and the random vagaries of the atmosphere."