Mountain Town News: Climate change hits the slopes, bears out of rhythm, and Bieber’s not sorry for interrupting hockey practice
December 9, 2017
Early season always dicey, but warming trend is clear
DENVER, Colo. — This winter had started out with great disparity, no better illustrated than the difference in World Cup race courses last weekend. In the Canadian Rockies, Mikaela Shiffrin skied on natural snow at Lake Louise. Whistler and other more northerly resorts have been abundantly blessed with snow.
But in Colorado, Aksel Svindal won the downhill at Beaver Creek on snow that was almost entirely human-manufactured. Farther south, in the Telluride area, where it had been too warm to make snow until after Thanksgiving, people last weekend were posting photographs on Facebook of a Lizard Head Peak almost entirely absent of snow. It looked like October.
This not necessarily unusual. "We all panic, but it always turns around," Joe Raczak, manager of a condominium complex in Aspen, told The Aspen Times. Precipitation there in November was about half average, reported the newspaper. Warm temperatures exacerbated the dry conditions, hampering the snowmaking ability of the Aspen Skiing Co.
Snowmaking removes the uncertainty of early season, at least to a point, and serves as an insurance policy against drought.
But there are still limits. At Beaver Creek, there was too little snow for spectators to slip-slide down along the race course.
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Snow can occasionally be made when temperatures are above freezing, as has been done for summer ski and snowboard camps at Boreal Mountain Resort, located at Donner Pass in California. But the snow is produced at an enormous cost of energy.
To make large volumes of snow as required to cover larger amounts of terrain requires below-freezing temperatures. Snow-making manufacturers say that this is unlikely to change. There are just basic immutable laws of physics.
With that in mind, it's worth noting the latest reports about warming temperatures. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in mid-November reported that October 2017 was the second warmest October in 137 years of records. The three warmest October globally have been in the last three years.
This analysis is based on data from 6,300 stations around the world, including meteorological stations, instruments measuring sea-surface temperatures, and Antarctic research stations.
Jonathan Erdman, a senior meteorologist at weather.com, also noted that the last three years — 2014, 2015, and 2016 — all set new global records for warmth.
This continues a theme of the 21st century. 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred this century. Only one year from the last century, 1998, cracks the top-10 list of warmest years globally.
A brief glimpse from the Sierra Nevada also finds snow retreating to higher elevations, replaced by rain. Researchers at the Desert Research Institute in Reno found that warmer temperatures have pushed snow 1,200 to 1,500 feet uphill at a station near Donner Pass. The pass is located east of Truckee, crossed by Interstate 80.
"The concerning thing is that the last 10 years have the steepest decline in precipitation falling as snow of any 10-year period in the 67-year station record," Ben Hatchett, co-author of the study, told the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Randall Osterhuber, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Central Sierra Snow Laboratory, which is located at Donner, said the study reflects observations he's been seeing in the Sierra Nevada as well.
"Bottom line, we are seeing an ever-increasing amount of our precipitation falling as rain vs. snow."
Hatchett and his team attribute the trend to warmer sea-surface temperatures and a rise in winter storms called "atmosphere rivers," which they found result in a higher snow line.
This is not the definitive study, Hatchett conceded when he talked with the Daily Tribune. The period of record examined was relatively brief.
But what can be said is it fits in with a pattern.
Sleepless in Yellowstone, as winters become shorter
JACKSON, Wyo. – In the week before Thanksgiving, there were plenty of grizzly bears out and about in Grand Teton National Park. The grizzlies seem to hang out waiting for hunters to kill elk, which provides an easy way to put on calories.
Seem to is a decidedly unscientific word, as the Jackson Hole News&Guide suggested, but there have been no scientific studies done about this.
What science has shown, however, is that winter in Yellowstone National Park in the last half-century has shortened overall: a 30-day longer growing season, 80 more days above freezing at the park's northeast entrance at Cooke City, Montana, and 30 fewer days with snow on the ground.
What does this mean for grizzly bears? There is anecdotal evidence, points out Cory Hatch, the environmental columnist for the News&Guide, of grizzlies coming out of hibernation unexpectedly early.
"It doesn't take a leap in logic to realize that climate change will likely affect, or is already affecting, how grizzly bears and black bears hibernate," he writes.
The impact on bears might be good, in that they can gain weight before hibernation. But it all amounts to an unpredictable scenario.
Tourist fined for flying drone near grizzly bears
JASPER, Alberta — A tourist from France has been fined $500 for operating a drone within Jasper National Park and $1,500 for disturbing wildlife.
The tourist flew the unmanned air vehicle over a grizzly sow and her two yearling cubs that were feeding on an elk carcass along the Athabasca River, reports the Jasper Fitzhugh. When the drone flew about 40 feet overhead, the sow stood up and sniffed, then guided her cubs to protection under a tree. Later, they returned to the carcass.
The attorney representing the individual, a physician, pointed out that there were no signs prohibiting the use of drones. Knowing no better, the doctor took advantage of the opportunity. But the government prospector pointed out that under Canadian law, foreign nationals cannot fly a drone anywhere in the county.
Citing Parks Canada, the Fitzhugh says up to 20,000 grizzly bears remain in western Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon and Northwest territories.
Two wolf kills on highway renew calls for changes
CANMORE, Alberta — Two wolves have been killed on the TransCanada Highway east of Banff National Park in as many weeks.
"It speaks to the continued challenge of finding ways for wildlife to move safely through the Bow River Valley," said Jay Honeyman, a human-wildlife conflict specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks.
The deaths have renewed calls for a comprehensive plan to keep wildlife off the highway east of the national park.
"We know the Bow Valley is a major pinch point for wildlife movement, and the development and the highway is putting at risk the ability of wide-ranging species like grizzly bears and wolves to survive over time," said Stephen Legault, a program director for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
Dirt bike replacing mountain bikes, e-bikes come on strong
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — A week after the chairlifts began operating at Crested Butte mountain bikers were still out and about there. That fact may speak to the changing climate, but the U.S. Forest Service says there's another change underway: dirt bikes are slowly replacing mountain bikes on local trails.
Along with this change is continued population growth in Colorado, which now has about 5.6 million residents, 85 percent of whom are clustered along the Front Range. They are traveling farther. "And so, even this once somewhat remote enclave is being impacted," observes Crested Butte News editor Mark Reaman.
Reaman points out that even as pressures grow for recreational use of the national forests, the budget allocated for management has been shrinking. And this plays into the momentous tax bill approved by the U.S. Senate last weekend. That bill, he noted, in advance of the vote, will cut spending for environmental and natural resource substantially.
"I can already smell the 'need' to raise fees and sell public acreage to oil and gas companies," he wrote.
In another twist of the biking evolution, the International Mountain Bicycling Association has announced support for low-powered pedal-assist bikes on non-motorized trails. The Durango Telegraph points out the IMBA remains committed to mountain biking and access to trails, but has concluded that the technology is evolving and e-bike use is increasing.
"It's something that local users have echoed. The floodgates are open," says the Telegraph.
Ever more fire suppression, and slumping forest budget
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – The amount of money spent by the U.S. Forest Service for things like trails and watershed protection continues to decline, and the Summit Daily News reports there are two primary causes.
One, firefighting costs continue to swell, taking up a larger and larger percentage of the agency's budget, from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015. By 2025, the agency expects to spend 67 percent of its money on fire suppression.
At the same time, the total budget continues to shrink. The White River National Forest—which is where more than half of Colorado's downhill skiing occurs—expects to have its budget cut by as much as 10 percent.
"Even without the fire borrowing, the amount of money available for other programs continues to shrink," said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest.
A shocker of a teammate at Whistler hockey match
WHISTLER, B.C. — A young hockey team in Whistler got a surprise recently when they showed up to practice. The pop star Justin Bieber was there to play with them. He was described as humble and polite, and he played with the lads for two periods, scoring two goals and sticking around to pose for photos afterward.
Saudan Couloir it is again at Blackcomb
WHISTLER, B.C. — The name Saudan Couloir has been restored to the trail maps for the iconic double-black-diamond run on Blackcomb Mountain. The name honors Sylvain Saudan, a noted Swiss-born extreme skier.
The run was originally given the name by locals. Trail maps and signs subsequently acknowledged that name. The run became more famous once Whistler began hosting the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme in 1982.
But nobody had consulted Saudan about the naming, and when he complained and then sued, the name was changed to something more generic. The case was settled out of court, reports Pique Newsmagazine.
On a visit by Saudan to Whistler in April, an agreement was struck with the ski area operator to restore the name. No money was exchanged. Rather, reports Pique, there was a sense that it was time to reach the agreement.
Steamboat evaluates value of trail spending
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Steamboat Springs plans to spend up to $20,000 to evaluate where to best spend money for building trails for hiking and mountain biking.
The city has spent money on both the technical trails outside Steamboat geared toward advanced mountain bikers, but also the Yampa River Core Trail, which is more or less flat, notes Steamboat Today.
A 2016 intercept study conducted by the Chamber of Commerce found that 80 percent of people "are going to want flat," in the words of town administrator Gary Suiter. This has led some city council members to ask whether money should be shifted toward the more in-town amenities.
Vail wrangles last details of new short-term rentals law
VAIL, Colo. – Vail's elected officials this week were scheduled to review a law regulating short-term rentals. The law was provoked by increasing use of internet-based services such as Airbnb.
The Vail Daily reported that Vail's approach will be less stringent than regulations in Durango, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo., which impose heavy fees and other requirements that make short-term rentals difficult.
However, Vail's regulations do have one requirement that was discussed at length: An owner wishing to do short-term rentals in duplex units that have shared stairs, driveways, or other shared property must obtain the consent of the other owner before being granted a town business license.
If owners of duplex units don't have shared property, they are required only to notify the other unit owner, not obtain consent.
Council member Jenn Bruno describes the consent requirement as balancing quality of life and property rights issues. While some owners may lose property rights if neighbors refuse consent, short-term renters can impair the homeowners' quality of life. Also, she pointed out, having short-term renters in common areas can also lead to higher insurance rates. "It's only fair that you contact your neighbor(s) and get them to agree," she said.
But one resident who testified against the requirement of consent said the provision "opens itself to abuse."
Aspen considering look of its downtown malls
ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen has two downtown outdoor malls, where decades ago the pavement was replaced with bricks, cars replaced by pedestrians, benches, and greenery. But now, those aging bricks will have to be ripped up, as water mains and other infrastructure buried below must be replaced.
This provides Aspen an opportunity to rethink those malls. A consultant, Design Workshop, has been hired by the city to offer ideas about what should come next. The company, reports the Aspen Daily News, says one option is to change very little other than the century-old bricks, which came from St. Louis in the 1970s when that city replaced its cobblestone streets.
One choice for Aspen going forward is to remove the crab-apple trees on the malls, which would seem to be a no-brainer given that they attract bears and bears are a perennial problem in Aspen. Also to be decided is whether the malls become more venues for performers or whether, as is now the case, they are more places for passive engagement.
Construction is unlikely before 2019.
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