Benny Schmidt & Colby Albino Hiking the ridge to an area called "Little Japan" on Echo Summit in Lake Tahoe.
Benny Schmidt & Colby Albino Hiking the ridge to an area called "Little Japan" on Echo Summit in Lake Tahoe.

This Deep Winter is a Sign of Climate Change

One season of high snowfall doesn't mean winter is back to normal

PHOTO: Jorik Blom

We could tell by the time we turned onto the Crystal Mountain access road that we were in for a big one. "I've never seen this much snow this low," I told Julie, as we watched a truck fishtail, skidding its tires in the line of traffic snaking up the hill.

"I've never seen…" seems like the common cry across the ski world this season: Tahoe has its biggest snowpack in two decades; Crested Butte got 100 inches in 10 days; ski hills like Monarch and Arapahoe Basin have had to close temporarily because they can't keep up with snowfall. Snowfall combined with wind even shut down Jackson Hole for several days last week. This winter has been incredibly snowy, unless you live in Switzerland.

But, as we shovel out, again, and try to go skiing, it's important to note that this year's JanuBURIED and DEEPcember are not denials of climate change, they are reflections of it. "This is not normal," we should keep telling ourselves, even outside of a Trump-induced emotional winter. It's not normal. And it's going to continue to be not normal in the face of unprecedented, human-induced global warming.

As global temperatures continue to rise, one of the biggest markers of climate change will be increased variability. Arctic sea ice is rapidly melting, ocean temperatures are warming, and climate models for future snowpack show shorter, drier winter in places like California and Colorado, and warmer, wetter ones in Wyoming and Washington. If you're a skier, that should ring your alarm bells.

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Rising temperatures can initially lead to more precipitation, like we've seen this winter, but that can also mean more of it falls as rain, instead of snow. Anyone who has been dodging puddles in Tahoe or flooding in Idaho can tell you that is true. Regardless of where you live, it means winter will deviate from the historical norm. It's not that everywhere is going to dry up all at once, it's that shit is only gonna get weirder.

Data show how much that's already happening. The last three years have each been record-breaking warmer than the last, and so far, 2017 temperatures show that continuing. Nationwide, January was 3.5 degrees warmer than average, and it was the ninth wettest on record.

"The trend toward the end of the century is to see winters that are 8 to 10 degrees warmer," says climate scientist Elizabeth Burakowski, who has studied the impact of climate change on the ski industry. "That puts a lot of places right above the freezing level. The margin is small."

In the Northwest, where I live, we've seen the hazard of that margin over the past few winters. Two out of the last four have been snowless and shitty. We watch snow levels like hawks, assuming rain, crossing fingers that temperatures will drop as we drive up the mountains.

Weather and climate don't track in straight lines. The effects of climate change are slow, inconsistent, and diffuse, but they're here.

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And as skiers we should know better, because we hang on the abstract potential of future storms. Human memory is short and optimism is an attractive quality, especially in the face of a grim environmental and political landscape, but even if this winter is the best one in recent memory, that's because it's a tangible sign that the bipolar yo-yo of climate is swinging in bigger arcs.

Climate models show there will be more epic, so-snowy-you-can't-shovel-out winters in the future, but there will also be more groomer-scratching dry ones, too. As someone whose winter happiness is tied to the cold, I have trouble not moralizing, not getting angry at government deregulation that impacts climate, and not freaking out. "If you've truly been paying attention you should be frightened right now," climate scientist Brad Udall told me. And I am.

Sunday at Crystal, patrol opened the gates of Southback late in the afternoon. Ski patrols everywhere have been fighting to keep the mounting snowpack under control (buy ’em a beer!), and our dudes and ladies were doing control work until well after lunch. It was still pounding as we bootpacked up the King, and clicked into our skis in the flattening light.

I dropped off the ridge into a series of no-bottom, deepest-in-a-long time, maybe-deepest-ever turns. I'm not a scientist, much less a psychic, and I have no idea what the future is going to hold, but maybe they were the deepest I'll ever get.