Mountain Town News: Long-term declines in snowpack, mountain town accessibility and how to be civil on the lift
March 20, 2018
Snow finally, but not enough to lift regions out of drought
California got dumped on in late February and early March, with more snow forecast during the next two weeks.
"Pretty wild in #SierraNevada," tweeted climate scientist Daniel Swain of the University of Southern California Los Angeles. The snow doubled the snowpack in California yet brought it up to only 37 percent of the average for that date.
Snow, late in coming, was also welcomed in New Mexico. Taos opened up much of its steeps. Ski Santa Fe had its upper mountain open, but this winter has been very different: 49 inches of natural snow as of last week, compared to 100 inches on the same date the year before. Two years before it was close to 200 inches, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican.
"We're definitely down," said Ben Abruzzo, the ski area manager, speaking of ticket sales.
The big resorts in Colorado along the I-70 corridor have been blessed more than the New Mexico resorts. Still, they've been pinched, too. Vail Resorts has four ski areas along the highway, including namesake Vail Mountain. The Denver Post reports that investors had been told early in the winter to expect between $646 million and $676 million in resort earnings. Last week, the company revised that prediction downward to between $607 million and $627 million.
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Wildfires are now on the minds of some in southwest Colorado. There, rivers originating in the southern San Juans were at 54 percent of average, compared to 73 percent for Colorado overall.
The Telluride Daily Planet reports that fire managers in the San Juan National Forest plan to bring in seasonal fire crews about 30 days early this spring.
One manifestation of the unusual winter is that January was so unseasonably warm that Gambel oak started budding on all aspects of hills and mountains up to 8,400 feet in elevation in southwestern Colorado. They have since been nipped by frost, but the leaves can bud out twice a year on the oak brush, says Chris Tipton, a fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service. The hope is that they will not bud again and then be nipped by frost, leaving leaves that could be combustible when spring arrives for sure.
Study finds major declines in snowpack of the West
If you've been to Las Vegas, you've probably gone out to Hoover Dam, the great engineering marvel of the 1930s. It created Lake Mead, the largest of the reservoir on the Colorado River.
But will Lake Mead and the other dams and reservoirs in the West have similar utility in the rapidly warming 21st century? That's an open question.
A new study finds declines at more than 90 percent of snow monitoring sites with long records across the western United States. A third of those declines are significant. The declines, they say, have occurred across all months, states and climates. However, the largest declines have occurred in spring, in the Pacific states, and in places with mild winter climates.
Lake Mead is cited in the report as a reference point. The average April 1 snow-water equivalent since the mid-20th century has declined roughly 15 to 30 percent. Authors of the study say this decline is comparable in the capacity of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the West.
"It is a bigger decline than we had expected," said Philip Mote, lead author of the study and director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University. "In many lower-elevation sites, what used to fall as snow is now rain. Upper elevations have not been affected nearly as much, but most states don't have that much area at 7,000-plus feet."
Mote and his colleagues attribute the snowpack decline to warmer temperatures, not a lack of precipitation. But the consequences are still significant. Earlier spring-like weather means less precipitation will linger in the mountain in the form of snow. That, in turn, results in lower volumes of water in rivers and declined reservoir levels during late summer and early fall.
"The solution isn't in infrastructure. New reservoirs could not be built fast enough to offset the loss of snow storage — and we don't have a lot of capacity left for that kind of storage," says Mote in a press release from Oregon State. "It comes down to managing what we have in the best possible ways."
Walking the climate talk in ensuring greener buildings
WHISTLER, B.C. – Whistler may adopt a greener building code called the BC Energy Step Code. Some builders say it's desperately needed to address the community's contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are primarily responsible for the warming climate.
"If society wants to move to more carbon-neutral construction, there have to be goals set forward both federally and provincially," Bob Deeks, president of RDC Fine Homes, told Pique Newsmagazine.
"If people want to do this in accordance with goals set forward by the Paris Accord (climate change agreement), they have to get moving now … you can't wait until 2030 and move the industry from 0 to 100."
Buildings are a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, but accounting mechanisms vary. The Canadian government calculates that buildings produce 11 percent of the nation's emissions. This figure, however, excludes the electricity used in homes and also the extraction process of natural gas. The end product is commonly used to heat homes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency similarly low-balls the contribution of buildings at just 6 percent, again stripping buildings of their electrical use. The U.S. Green Building Council uses a different accounting. It blames buildings for nearly 40 percent of emissions. Architecture 2030, an advocacy group for improved building methods, went even higher in a 2013 estimate. It linked buildings with 47 percent of emissions in the United States.
If Whistler adopts the building code, it will help the province of British Columbia meet its target of 80 percent fewer emissions by 2050, as compared to 2007.
Unlike existing codes, the Step Code does not specify insulation requirements or window ratings. It does, however, require builders work with energy advisors. But the big test comes at the end, when the efficiency is measured. Among the testing devices is the blow-door exercise, which detects how many leaks the building envelope has.
With eyes on Paralympics, talk of local accessibility
BANFF, Alberta – While Paralympic athletes compete in South Korea, local residents of Banff and Canmore were asked to consider the work that remains to make their communities more accessible to those with physical, mental, and cognitive handicaps.
"We're not thinking with disability in mind," said Robin Slater, who suffered a brain injury in 1984 after a vehicle accident with an elk.
"There has to be an attitudinal switch, so instead of just watching Paralympic athletes we need to think in terms of what disability is like 24/7 and how it impacts people's lives."
Slater and another individual interviewed by the Rocky Mountain Outlook said that building codes require only the bare minimum. "We actually need quite a bit over the minimum to make things welcoming and comfortable for people," he said.
A tip for polite chairlift talk when riding the spring lifts
CRESTED Butte, Colo. – With a twinkle in his eye and a tip sheet for spring skiing issued by the trade organization Colorado Ski Country USA as motivation, Crested Butte News editor Mark Reaman came up with his own tips for spring skiing.
No. 8 on the list: "Don't talk politics on the chairlift. Lord knows the majority of locals have 'issues' with the current president. Many of the tourists don't. The visitors probably loved that recent tax cut that helped pay for their vacations and the dismantling of Obamacare that they don't know they'll need yet. Most locals are focused on the environmental pullbacks that could help speed global wieriding and eventually decimate a ski area that needs snow. Locals don't seem thrilled with the rudeness of the bragging orange duffer in the White House either. (The bottom line is we all got what we got for right now: crazy!) So instead of debating the merits or flaws on the 12-minute Silver Queen ride, take 12 minutes in November and vote when you have the chance."
Telluride top still No. 4 in elevation in North America
TELLURIDE, Colo. – Does it matter whether the top lift at Telluride, servicing Revelation Bowl, reaches an elevation of 12,570 feet, as trail maps used to say, or 12,515 feet, as they now say?
The Telluride Daily Planet concludes that either way, Telluride's bragging rights don't change. The four highest lifts in North America are all in Colorado: Breckenridge at 12,840 feet, Loveland at 12,700 feet, Telluride's 12,515 feet, and then Arapahoe Basin at 12,447 feet.
The Revelation lift originally was assigned a higher elevation because of a piece of slightly higher topography nearby.
A lot of cars during summer in Vail's big parking garages
VAIL, Colo. – Vail has kind of an odd problem. During summer, its two big parking garages have been getting lots of cars that just sit there.
That doesn't happen in winter, because there are charges to use the garages. In summer, though, it's free. But that's about to change.
"The day the mountain closes, there's 200 cars in the structures, and they don't leave until November," said Jen Mason, a town council member, at a meeting covered by the Vail Daily. "The numbers are staggering."
Last summer, town officials counted the cars in the structures between 4 and 5 a.m. On one of those counts, they found 511 vehicles.
The Daily reports that town officials are weighing charges for extended stays of more than 14 days. It is believed that the majority of the cars belong to locals, who use the garages as seasonal storage for their cars. The town would like to free up 100 to 200 spaces per night.