DEEP: The Future of Snow. Days 3-4: Mt. Hood to Stevens Pass
Looking at climate change in Washington and Oregon
This series follows a yearlong, global project to document disappearing snow in the Northern Hemisphere. We’ll be interviewing meteorologists, scientists, skiers, farmers, and anyone who knows anything about snow along the way. The coverage started in Portland, Oregon, on a trans-Rockies road trip, and will continue across the U.S. and Europe.
Days 3-4: Mt. Hood to Stevens Pass
A 20 percent chance of snow before 10am. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 36. West wind 11 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph.
We hit the road after breakfast and coast down Highway 35. The roads are wet with two inches of sand covering the double yellow line. The Prius charges its batteries as we arc around corners and glide over glacial moraines. The snow thins the further we descend, hundreds, then thousands, of feet to the Hood River Valley. There, the skeletal apple and pear trees of the valley’s myriad orchards edge the road in perfect rows. The leaves and fruit are gone but the grass around them is green, as is most of the landscape.
We pull into Bickford Orchards and ask them about climate change and water supply. Bickford added grapevines years ago when temperatures and water supply from Mt. Hood stopped being as consistent as they once were. Grapes don’t need as much water, but are highly sensitive to temperature change—as seen in Napa Valley and the Mediterranean that is warming with the rest of the planet. Grapes once grown in Bordeaux are now being grown in England. Same goes for the U.S. where Oregon, and Bickford Orchards, just saw its finest vintage last year, winemaker Rich Cushman said.
Cushman gives us a bottle of Riesling, made from grapes he planted in the 1980s, and we continue five hours to Stevens Pass. Stevens has gotten 358 inches this season and seems to be stacking up a few more inches every other day. They’ve had a lot of sun, too, a rarity for a resort in the North Cascades. It’s hard to say how climate change will affect this area, as increased moisture in the air will likely increase snowfall in the short term. The question is, will freezing levels in the long-term—50 years out—stay low enough for it to fall as snow in the mountains. Most scientists say that, with a predicted rise of 3.2F by the 2040s in the Pacific Northwest, skiing in the North Cascades could be limited to higher elevation mountains like Mt. Baker and Crystal.
An interesting weather phenomenon in the area is what makes it snow right now. When there’s high pressure in the eastern plains and low pressure coming in off the Pacific in the west, frigid air from the east flows west through the passes—like Stevens and nearby Snoqualmie—chilling them below the freezing level, and turning moisture to snow.
We ski the next day with Tiffany Abraham. Her nickname in Leavenworth is Tinkerbell, because she takes care of the Lost Boys of Stevens Pass. For a hill that hasn’t seen snow in over a week, the skiing is terrific. Soft-packed powder, blue skies, short lines at the lifts. Plumes of white crystals follow skiers down the hill. It’s the kind of snowpack that gives you the feeling the place is flush with the white stuff most of the time. In 50 years, this very well might be the kind of snow that skiers from all over the country flock to. As in, it might replace the powder day.
The blue skies are a new phenomenon, Tiffany says. She doesn’t remember ever having so many sunny days in a season. This year it seems to be happening more often. The trees are dripping in the sun and the runoff at the bottom carves small trenches in the parking lot. It’s a typical scene at any resort in the spring. Not so typical for mid-February. But up high, for now anyway, there’s still plenty of snow. In fact, significantly more than most of the rest of the Lower 48.
We hit the The Bull’s Tooth after skiing and get beers and a heaping plate of nachos. Tiffany orders a round of shots I’ve never heard of before. Ullr is the God of Snow, and also, apparently, a peppermint cinnamon schnapps. We throw them back and I study the bottle. On the front is the image of a snow-covered mountain. On the side is a “Prayer for Snow”:
Come snow! Come snow!
Fall fast, fall slow
be it powder or crud,
Let the inches be shown
Come snow! Come snow!
Blessed ULLR bestow
Make white our peaks
Make full our bowls
Come snow! Come snow!
From here to fro
Let the snow god be praised
Let his gifts be shown
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