DEEP: The Future of Snow: Big Sky

Upside down snowpack, bankrupt resorts, and the future of farming in Montana

The news in Montana. PHOTO: PORTER FOX

Days 6: Big Sky
Snow. High near 36. West wind 11 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 24 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80 percent. Total daytime snow accumulation of around an inch possible.

It's President's Day weekend and all of the parking lots at Big Sky are full. We walk 10 minutes to the base area and meet Kipp Proctor, the media relations and community manager at Big Sky. He's been skiing all morning and says it's deep at the summit of 11,116-foot Lone Peak. Two long, slow lift rides leaves us at the tram, which zips us to the top of the largest ski area in America. Next door is Moonlight Basin and the posh, private Yellowstone Club. The snow has been stickier and wetter this year, Kipp says, helping to cover up the razor sharp rocks Big Sky is known for.

Going up at Big Sky. PHOTO: PORTER FOX

Big Couloir under the tram is one of the greatest runs in the West, but it's closed so we head down Otter Slide. Forecasters called for nine inches, but the snow is over my knees as we drop into Marx, then The Gullies. The secret to finding snow at Big Sky is knowing where the wind blows it. Gale force winds scour the top of the mountain and dump snow on the front side. We drop through the rocky chutes and bank left into another steep shot. The snow is skied out, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It helps you from hitting bottom. There's an apron further down and for the first time on the trip, my skis lift up and I'm not touching the base--just floating down, subtly shifting my weight right and left to make turns.

Later that day, Bob Dixon, head of the Big Ski ski patrol, tells us a bit more about the snow in Montana. He's worked and skied at Big Sky for 30 years and says he's noticed a definite warming trend. In the old days, he used to see minus-20 or -30 days for more than a week at time, several times a year. These days, Big Sky only sees a few days like that. Director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, Doug Chabot corroborated Dixon's claim, saying that the Northern Rockies have been receiving warmer storms, and "upside down" storms, where wet snow falls on top of dry at the end of a cycle. He said the warming would likely transform the area's snowpack from intermountain to a more dangerous continental one in coming years. He also said that the region had seen more rain-on-snow events in the last few years, another factor that could increase avalanche danger.

Here are some interesting stats we found from the Worldwatch Institute regarding Montana winters:
A trend of particular concern is warmer winters. The average winter temperature in the U.S. West has risen about 1.4 degrees Celsius over the last century, and with it the amount of snow that accumulates on the mountains (the snowpack) has decreased. The northern Rockies are seeing 15 to 30 percent less moisture in the spring snowpack (measured according to the amount of water that the snow would produce if melted) since the 1950s, and along the entire range the spring snowmelt is arriving 10 to 30 days earlier. In Montana’s Glacier National Park, the snowpack and summer temperatures have remained relatively constant since 1922, but the average yearly temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees Celsius, rainfall has increased over snowfall, and winter lows have risen. These factors are driving the disappearance of the iconic glaciers. They are expected to be gone by the end of the next decade. (Global satellite data since 1978 show that mountain glaciers and average snow cover have declined worldwide.)

Back on the slope, we ski past giant mansions owned by Yellowstone Club members and the swanky homes and base lodge of Moonlight Basin. Both resorts filed for bankruptcy after the 2008 recession, and both are reminders of the overconsumption that got us into this mess. The U.S. has higher per capita emissions than any developing or EU country.

We take one last ride up the Challenger lift and work our way down. In the distance, we can see some of the ranchland that surrounds Big Sky. Dixon mentions that he runs an alpaca farm at home and that ranchers will feel the effects of a smaller snowpack first. Water is in high demand in the high desert, he says, and most of it comes from melting snow. With that, he packed up his things and headed home for the night.

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.