Tom Clyde: Observing rooftop climate change
The glacier came off my roof the other night. There’s a shed dormer that holds the snow. The upper roof is steeper and snow slides down to the dormer, and there it sits. Gradually, it creeps forward, building up a layer of ice at the edge. It will cantilever out a couple of feet. Sometimes it breaks off, and other times, the ice warps. After a while it curves downward until the ice curl reaches down to the roof below, a perfect half circle about 3 feet in diameter.
Through the years, it’s been interesting watching the different ways the snow builds up and then creeps forward from the dormer. Sometimes there are huge icicles, and then the glacier curls forward and the icicles end up pointing horizontally at the bathroom window. The only constant is that it doesn’t slide off with every storm like it was supposed to with the metal roof. When you hear geologists talking about glaciers carving the Cottonwood canyons, it seems implausible. Then the ice on the roof provides a scale model of glaciers in action.
The glacier broke loose the other night at 3:05 a.m. I know that because when it came crashing down, it shook the house and woke me out of a sound sleep. Because it had curled all the way around to meet the roof below, it came off in a rolling motion. That’s better than all the weight smacking the lower roof all at once, but it still was enough to rattle the teacups. I discovered my maximum heart rate, too.
The dogs slept through it. They didn’t notice the house shaking or the sound of half a ton of ice crashing down. Sometimes a car will drive by very late at night on a road across the river. It’s a quarter mile or more away, but the headlights will shine in the bedroom window, casting shadows that dance across the bedroom wall. The headlights will send the dogs into red alert mode, and they have to run and bark at every window for about fifteen minutes of sheer panic. They race up and down the stairs until they are sure the perimeter is secure. But a concussion on the roof that shakes the house? Didn’t bat an eye.
This has been a very strange winter. There haven’t been more than a hand full of nights below zero, and even those weren’t extremely cold. The coldest I’ve seen so far is -5, which isn’t cold enough to put the earflaps down on my Elmer Fudd hat. My cousin and his wife have moved back into his parents’ old house up the street from mine. We got talking the other day about how much harder hard the winters were 50 or 60 years ago.
We weren’t completely sure if the winters 60 years ago seemed harder because we were whiny little kids, or if things have really changed enough to notice. Relatively speaking, the snow was deeper when we were only three feet tall. The snow removal equipment we have now is all substantially bigger than the little Ford 8n tractor we used back then, so the effort involved in keeping things opened up is definitely less. Everybody has four-wheel drive and UDOT more or less paves the highway with salt. I never feel snowed-in anymore. So it’s hard to make a direct comparison. Maybe it just seems like the winters are less threatening now.
Except that we both have actual records of temperatures, and memories of fences that disappeared under the snow. Temperatures of -20 were normal in January. The coldest I’ve recorded is -35, and the ten days or so on either side of New Years often didn’t get much above 0. Then the January Thaw would come in and warm things up to a blessed 40 degrees for a week, just in time for another brutal cold spell during the first half of February. I used to cultivate a layer of permafrost on the road to my house all winter. It’s easier to plow if the gravel is under the ice layer. It used to stay in place, rock solid, until early March. The permafrost in the driveway is already gone at the end of January. Mud season lasts all year now.
There’s no getting around it. The climate has changed. We’ve been using the atmosphere as a dumping ground since the industrial revolution began. The carbon dioxide is invisible, so nobody gave it any thought. After 200 years, it appears to have made a difference. For some reason, the courageous decision to ban plastic bags at our local Walgreens hasn’t reversed it.
I don’t really miss -35 nights. But there’s something wrong about mud puddles in the driveway in February. This ought to be the core issue of the next election, but don’t count on it.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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Tom Clyde looks back as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic upending life in Summit County approaches.