The Snow Whisperer

UNH’s Cameron Wake is studying Northeastern winters…in 2044

Cameron Wake on Denali in 2013. Wake has spent his career studying snow and climate change in the Northeast. PHOTO: Cameron Wake
Cameron Wake on Denali in 2013. Wake has spent his career studying snow and climate change in the Northeast. PHOTO: Brad Markle

Cameron Wake is a skier, pond hockey player, and research associate professor at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire. When he is not skinning into his backcountry yurt near Bethel, Maine, he is writing one of the 70 papers that he has authored on climate change—most about regional effects in the Northeast. If you are wondering what winter is going to look like in the Northeast in 30 years, this is the man to talk to. So we did.

POWDER: What is going to happen to winter in the U.S. Northeast if we don’t make dramatic changes to mitigate climate change in the next 30 years?

Wake: Because of the inertia of the climate system and the long atmospheric residence time for carbon dioxide, we are committed to warmer winters across the U.S. Northeast over the next 30 years. Overall, average winter temperatures will warm by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, there will be fewer cold days and fewer days with snow on the ground, and reduced annual snowfall. And more winter precipitation will likely fall as rain.

Why should the ski industry tackle climate change if the industry itself makes up such a small part of the CO2 problem in North America?

There are two sides of the climate change coin in terms of our response: reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases and adaptation to our changing climate. Clearly, the ski industry is vulnerable to a warming climate, and to survive it we will have to adapt. We are already experiencing a major adaptation strategy on the part of ski areas—snowmaking. However, as our winters warm there will be fewer cold nights and therefore less opportunity to blow snow. In addition, if we are going to seriously deal with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we will need leaders who can show us the way. The ski industry can and should be one of those leaders. Wrapping it all together, becoming more efficient at blowing snow will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make ski areas more cost effective.

What should I tell my relative who recently voted for legislators who do not believe that humans are warming the planet?

Climate change is the innovation opportunity of the 21st century. If your fiends and relatives do not think we should do anything to address the grand challenge of climate change, no worries. Better to engage them (and the legislatures they voted for) with a discussion of innovation around energy efficiency and renewable energy.

What can a single skier do to protect snow in the mountains?

Change begins at home. Figure out how to do more with less energy. You will save money and reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. And source your energy from renewable sources. Then, with your newfound knowledge, be the change in the places where you work and play. Oh, and skin up for your turns every once in while. It will provide you with a whole different perspective.

What are a few projects that you know about that could change our approach to climate change?

One is continued development of robust financial tools that allow/promote investment in your community, and that provide a reasonable rate of return. New tools are emerging, but they need to be developed, vetted, capitalized, and distributed widely. Communities could then invest in their own energy efficiency and thereby become more energy secure. Another is a far more aggressive move towards distributed energy production (think solar panels on every home instead of building a big, centralized nuclear power plant). Every home should be an energy producer. A third is transitioning to more walkable and bicycle-friendly cities and ski areas—this helps build community and reduce our reliance on the automobile.

What is the most hopeful thing you have seen in the world climate change recently?

The recent announcement that China and the USA have agreed to address the climate change challenge together. The only way we can solve this grand challenge is to fully engage the developing world and work with them on a development pathway that follows an energy efficient and renewable energy pathway, instead of the fossil fuel pathway that we followed. The China and USA agreement lays a significant foundation for a global treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will be discussed in Lima, Peru, in December and hopefully finalized in Paris next year.