Nordic Skiing in a Changing Climate
Where’s the Snow, dammit???
Snow is Magic!
Snow is magical. Millions of Americans know this, kids especially, and all the skiers, snowboarders, sledders, snowman-builders, snowcone eaters, snowball throwers.
I’ve known snow’s magic since I was a little kid, when snow rarely graced my leafy North Carolina neighborhood. When it did, we kids rejoiced and went sledding, built snowmen and played in the snow to exhaustion. Later I discovered skiing, first alpine (or downhill) skiing, what most Americans think of as skiing. Then I discovered Nordic skiing, first telemark skiing (downhill Nordic skiing) at ski areas and then in the backcountry powder of the Tetons. Finally I discovered Nordic track skiing, classic style (old school kicking and gliding) then skating, 30 years ago, and that became my dominant passion in winter, training and racing.
I’ve lived in snowcaves on Alaskan glaciers and in the Tetons, taken avalanche courses, read books and articles on snow science, studied snow in pits dug on the sides of mountain slopes to calculate avalanche risk. I’ve studied snow crystals, temperature and humidity to determine the optimum wax for glide and grip for nordic ski racing for 25 years for myself and for skiers I coached at Dartmouth College and the Jackson Hole Ski Club. I chose to live in a cold, snowy place with limited work opportunities precisely for its long winters and bountiful snow. Bo may not know diddly, but this boy knows snow!
Snowsports enthusiasts like myself are deeply worried about what our changing climate means. Jeremy Jones is the famous adventure snowboarder based in Lake Tahoe, California, star of Further, Deeper and more ski adventure films (ski porn!) yet to be made. He started his own environmental advocacy group called Protect Our Winters a few years ago, collaborating with ski areas, ski industry companies, concerned skiers and snowboarders. Auden Schendler, the sustainability director of Colorado’s famous Aspen Skiing Company, has written and spoken eloquently for years about how his business and industry are threatened by our shortening, warming winters with less snow. Aspen has done more than anyone else in the ski industry to reduce its carbon footprint and through pro-active efforts to educate the public and the industry. Porter Fox has a good new book entitled Deep about the threat of climate change to skiing and the ski industry.
Nordic skiers in New England and the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin) have dealt for years, decades really, with variable, unreliable winters, often with little or no snow. Powder skiers out West get morose when the snow doesn’t pile up steadily and deep. Most dreaded of all are drought winters like the infamous winter of 1976-77 in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies. The current winter of 2013-14 is shaping up as a repeat of that drought winter, with almost no snow in California through the end of January.
Our Winters are Changing
The last 3 million years on Earth have been comparatively cold, with warmer interludes (the interglacials) between ice ages, the last of which ended just 12,000 years ago. But most of us think about more recent weather. Have you noticed that it’s been warming up the last 35 years?
Arctic sea ice has melted dramatically in the last decade, losing 80% of its volume and shrinking back 60% in area in summer, hitting new all-time lows in 2012. This wasn’t supposed to happen until 2100 at the earliest. Now it looks like we’ll have an ice-free Arctic in summer by 2017! The Antarctic Peninsula, which juts northward out of the body of the southern continent towards South America, has warmed 4.5 degrees F. in the last 60 years, with consequent massive calving events on the huge Larsen and Wilkins ice shelves in the last decade. Even West Antarctica, once assumed to be remote from global warming, is experiencing unexpected melting and much faster glacier movement on the Pine Island Glacier, Thwaites Glacier and others. Instead of saying that Antarctica will be cold and glaciers stable for another thousand years, glaciologists now are saying nervously they expect it to last another century, maybe, hopefully.
Climate scientists had assumed that wind and weather vortices around Antarctica would keep the continent cold and unaffected by global warming for many centuries, even millennia. After all Antarctica has been covered in snow and ice for at least 24 million years; the ice is typically 2 miles or so deep. But warmer ocean water is melting the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) from below, since the ice shelves float in the ocean, just like the ice in your cold drink on a hot summer day. The weakened ice shelf frees the glaciers to run more speedily to the ocean. That faster glacier movement has already begun. A huge iceberg (278 square miles!) broke off the Pine Island Glacier in early July, 2013.
Greenland’s glaciers are melting fast as well, shocking many ice scientists by their acceleration in recent years. The entire Greenland icecap experienced greater than freezing temperatures during summer 2012, even up at the 10,000+ ft. elevation where the ice cap is two miles thick and melting has rarely happened in the past. The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado reports:
‘Greenland’s surface melting in 2012 was intense, far in excess of any earlier year in the satellite record since 1979 (the beginning of modern measurements). In July 2012, a very unusual weather event occurred. For a few days, 97% of the entire ice sheet indicated surface melting.”
Greenland has experienced unusually warm temperatures this January (2014), as did Alaska, causing mammoth avalanches that closed the road to the coastal city of Valdez.
Glacial ice in mountain ranges worldwide has been melting at a rapid, accelerating rate for 35 years. Ice core researchers like Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State have fortunately done their remote, difficult research for decades, because they are seeing these high-elevation, tropical remnant glaciers disappear in Peru, Tibet, New Guinea, Kenya. Even the Canadian Rockies’ glaciers have been losing snow and ice since 1977, according to Canadian scientists. Alpine climbers have reported these same ice and snow losses for years, as high mountain routes change, melt out and become more dangerous due to falling rock no longer frozen in place.
The planet’s climate has gone through numerous warm and cold periods in its 4+ billion year geological history; many of these past periods much warmer and much colder than anything modern humans have experienced in our brief 170,000-year existence. Most of the Earth’s temperature and climate variation has been caused by the Milankovitch cycles, three different patterns of wobble and elliptical orbit irregularities that subtly change the amount of sunshine reaching the Earth. These cycles have well-understood periods of 23,000, 45,000 and 100,000 years. They’re visible in the ice core records drilled in Greenland and Antarctica over the last 40 years, carefully preserved in climate lab freezers and studied closely by scientists. Oxygen isotope ratios from air trapped in these ice cores give accurate temperatures going back 600,000 years or more.
The last 8,000 years have been unusually stable in terms of global climate, and this corresponds with the advent of agriculture, civilization (as we rather grandly call it), and a human population explosion from a few million to more than 7 billion. No coincidence, certainly.
Numerous scientists are actively studying the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) of 55 million years ago to better understand what exactly happened then, why and what species survived it. Scientific suspicion is that a massive release of methane gas (a megafart) caused abrupt, extreme warming, about 10 degrees F. worldwide average, essentially what is predicted for the Earth by 2100 if humans continue business as usual, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without restraint. The present rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere is by all accounts unprecedented in geological history, at least as far as we know from ice cores, other means such as tree rings, lakebed and ocean sediments, and the geological record locked in rocks.
What will the Future Bring?
What does this rapidly rising CO2 and consequent warming mean for winter and snow in our temperate northern latitudes?
Well, obviously it doesn’t look good. Winters are already getting shorter, summers longer in northern and southern temperate latitudes. Tundra is melting rapidly in the north country of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia. Rain will replace snow in many lower elevation and southern locations, and the snowline is already retreating up the mountains in most snowy climates worldwide. Drought is already affecting the mountains of southern California, Colorado, Utah and the Southwest and has been for 14 years or more. California had almost no snow last winter after January 1st , and that pattern has continued this current winter, broken only by a big “Pineapple Express” Pacific storm in early February, 2014.
The coldest nights of winter are no longer anywhere near as cold as they used to be 30+ years ago. The US federal climate and weather agencies have measured above average warming every month for almost 37 years; this typically shows up most pronounced as warmer winter nights. 2010 was the warmest year ever recorded; the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. There’s an obvious pattern — the planet is heating up.
Where I live in the Tetons of Wyoming, the coldest recorded temperature was -63 F., set in Jackson Hole in January, 1979. (I remember it well! I was taking a 2-mile walk to the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, Wyoming, and had to decide whether to run or not in the cold to stay warm! Generate heat vs. windchill? Tough call…neither technique worked; the cold felt life-threatening.). We used to see 2-3 week spells of sustained subzero cold in the Tetons in January 20-30 years ago every winter. A high pressure, “Siberian Express” cold air mass would come in from the north and park for a while. We rarely see -20 F. any more, and when we do it’s only for a night or two. Jackson Hole, a narrow valley with tall walls creating strong temperature inversions (where cold air settles to the valley floor at night), sees quite a few subzero nights still, but many fewer than before.
In 2012 the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture acknowledged global warming when it changed its climate zone map, intended to help farmers and gardeners know what plants to grow. The Teton Valley (southeast Idaho, elevation 6000+ ft.) growing season has increased from 70 frost-free days 30 years ago to as many as 110 and more. Winter used to start by late October and last into May; now it starts fitfully by late November and lasts into March.
The Arctic has warmed faster than predicted because there are a lot of adjacent large land masses that warm quickly and retain heat — Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia basically. Weather systems can easily blow up into the Arctic from the north Pacific and the north Atlantic, bringing warm air and moisture north. The Gulf Stream has long brought heat and moisture to Great Britain, Scandinavia and the Arctic. Melting sea ice has created a positive feedback loop, where the darker seawater exposed after melting absorbs much more sunshine that ice and snow, with its high reflectivity (or albedo). Even meltwater on top of ice greatly decreases the albedo and increases heat absorption. Consequently the Arctic has been warming much faster than the global average. This is known as Arctic amplification.
Melting tundra is also spewing a lot of methane into the atmosphere, and methane is the most potent greenhouse gas of all, not as long-lasting as CO2 but much more potent, 25 times or more. Methane typically degrades into CO2 adding to the atmospheric burden, now exceeding 400ppm. Scientists studying northern lakes in Alaska and Siberia routinely light the methane on fire as it bubbles out of the water! Big methane bubbles are trapped under ice in winter.
The Jet Stream is Changing
Studies by Professor Jennifer Francis at Rutgers and others show that the melting, warmer Arctic is changing the flow of the high-altitude northern jet stream, causing it to loop much farther north and south. This is producing longer spells of stagnant weather than the old normal pattern, which moved sinuously north and south some but mostly drove hard to the east and changed seasonally north and south. This new pattern exaggerates either drought or snow/precipitation patterns in northern latitudes.
A February, 2013 report from the German Potsdam Center for Climate Impact Research explains what’s happening (www.thinkprogress.org/climate, 2/27/2013). Lead author Vladimir Petoukhov wrote:
An important part of the global air motion in the mid-latitudes of the Earth normally takes the form of waves wandering around the planet, oscillating between the tropical and the Arctic regions. So when they swing up, these waves suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the US, and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic.
What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks. So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays. In fact, we observe a strong amplification of the usually weak, slowly moving component of these waves.
Time is critical here: two or three days of 30 degrees Celsius (90+ F.) are no problem, but twenty or more days lead to extreme heat stress. Since many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to this, prolonged hot periods can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses.
The Jet Stream Don’t Come Around Here No More!
What that changing jet stream pattern has produced where I live in the Tetons is a record heavy snow year in 2010-11 followed by two unusually warm, dry winters. 2010-11 was not a particularly cold winter, but it did snow a lot, and the snow kept falling until the middle of June. The skiers were very happy; many people skied down the Grand Teton that late winter and spring in exceptionally forgiving conditions due to the heavy snowfall. The last two winters have been mild and dry, and that’s even judging them by the National Weather Service’s new 30-year temperature and precipitation averages, which no longer include the comparatively cold, snowy 1970s, the wettest period in the last 2000 years in the West, according to tree ring and lakebed sediment studies.
Climate scientists using climate models have predicted that California’s Sierra Nevada (which ironically means Snowy Mountains in Spanish) will lose all their snow by 2100 if we continue with carbon-burning business as usual. Precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. At the observed rate of accelerating warming, this could happen by 2050 or earlier. We’ve been seeing a sustained drought throughout most of the US interior for the last two or three years and for the last two decades or so in the Southwest. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas had notably bad and frequent forest fires the last couple of years, and Colorado’s mountains have received about 2/3 of normal snowfall during the winter of 2012-13. At the tail end of winter 2012-13, 56% of the country, mostly the interior states of the Great Plains, was still in serious or extreme drought. So is California and most of the Southwest.
Exaggerated patterns of drought and heavy rains seem already to be the new normal in North America. These heavy rains are often destructive rather than beneficial, causing flooding and erosion, running off violently rather than soaking into the parched soils. If snow doesn’t fall in the mountains, it won’t be there to melt and run off throughout the summer, as farmers have known it for hundreds and thousands of years. This same pattern threatens people worldwide who depend on snow and glacial melt for their drinking and irrigating water, in the Himalaya, the Andes, China, North America, everywhere.
All climate predictions made thus far in the last 30+ years have been conservative, because scientists have been reluctant to appear alarmist. They are cautious and conservative by nature about their science, since they understand the assumptions made, the uncertainties involved, the challenges of finding solid proof. They’re trying to understand complex, dynamic planetary systems — weather, atmosphere, the oceans — that are changing while they study it, with no data baseline! The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its periodic climate change assessments dating back to 1991 has been particularly conservative and understated in its predictions, not only because of the typical conservatism of science, but also because their reports are compromise, collaborative documents with political input as well as the best current, accepted, uncontroversial science. By design the IPCC reports understate the science and the risks of climate change.
Most climate predictions have also assumed incremental, linear change rather than dynamic, abrupt, exponential change in climate. More scientists are now questioning these assumptions as predictions are routinely exceeded and climate scientists have discovered abrupt warming and cooling in the ice core record, as much as 9 degrees F. worldwide average in a decade. James White at the University of Colorado in Boulder proposed the idea of dynamic equilibria in climate 15 years ago, that the climate wants to stay at one set point until enough heat input forces it abruptly into a very different equilibrium, like a 9 degree F. average global temperature difference!
All predictions of global warming — Arctic ice melt, snowfield and glacier melting, more powerful storms, more extreme weather, drought and flooding — have been met in faster time frames than predicted, often dramatically, scarily fast like Arctic and Greenland melting. The pace of climate change is frightening already to anyone really paying attention (not just to James Hansen and Bill McKibben), and it is accelerating along with worldwide carbon emissions, up 2.7% in 2012, with concentrations reaching 400 ppm in the atmosphere in May, 2013 (280 ppm. was the pre-industrial level; 350 ppm is the recommended maximum according to Hansen, McKibben and others). the only slowdown in carbon emissions resulted from the economic downturn of 2007-2012, and now emissions are rising quickly again with China and India building many coal-burning powerplants. So far climate change has been tempered by the earth’s multiple carbon-absorbing capabilities in the oceans, forests and grasslands, as well as by volcanic aerosols and industrial air pollution that have screened some solar insolation (solar heating).
There are known future feedback loops like methane released from melting tundra and from methane clathrates (methane locked in ice crystals in the ocean floors and sediments) that could well prove to be explosive, causing abrupt, substantial warming and crazy weather changes. No one knows for sure when these will be triggered. This is one of the reasons scientists are studying the PETM, to learn if the rapid, extreme heating that happened then was caused by a catastrophic methane release. And scientists are monitoring methane releases from the tundra in Siberia and Alaska to try to calculate the volume being released.
Skiing in the Apocalypse?!
So what’s a Nordic skier to do? It looks like we’ll be able to ski in Antarctica and Greenland for quite a while still, decades certainly, maybe hundreds of years. How about closer to home?
We know for sure that considerable global warming is already locked in, probably more than the 2 degree Celsius limit decreed by the most knowledgeable climate scientists (we’ve already gained 1 degree Celsius). This warming is certain even if we stop or greatly reduce carbon emissions immediately, something that still seems completely unlikely given US politics, Chinese and Indian coal-based power development, and worldwide long-term dependence upon oil-based transportation.
So we know for sure that winters will get milder and probably less snowy overall, although there will be more big snowstorms, at least for a while (they will become big rainstorms if we keep warming). There is progressively more water vapor (4% for every 1 degree F.) and heat in the atmosphere, so storms will continue to get more powerful and heavier. Most snow falls when the atmosphere is not really very cold, close to freezing actually since cold air can’t hold much moisture. So there will be more Snowpocalypses and Snowmageddons in places like Boston and New York City, where snow has become a rare event.
Snowy colder climates like the Northern Rockies will continue to have decent winters for a while, a decade or more perhaps. It all depends upon what humans choose to do, if anything, to limit our carbon pollution. The northern Midwest and New England will continue to see more volatile, unpredictable, alternating cold and mild winter weather, with little snow occasionally interrupted by big storms. The cold spells caused this winter by the famous “Polar Vortex” are a result of the altered jet stream pattern. And winter will keep getting warmer and shorter. Consistent snow should remain available at higher elevation locations, which means the interior Rocky Mountain West of the US and Canada, for another decade or two, perhaps more.
How Do I Wax for this Slop?
Nordic skiers across North America and Europe already have to deal with shorter winters and more challenging waxing since the nights are less cold and days warmer as well. That means more days that start cold but warm above freezing, even at high altitudes and in previously cold climates like the Tetons, where you could use blue grip wax almost all winter back in the old climate days (yes, those were the good old days!).
Grip waxing for classic skiing gets particularly challenging close to freezing, and especially when it warms from well below freezing to well above. I remember well dealing with these conditions in New England even 25 years ago, switching from hardwax to gooey hardwax to klister to warmer klister during the same day, usually in a matter of an hour, trying to give my Dartmouth College ski racers some grip for a ski race. We had to do the same in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in early spring, a sunny climate famous for clear cold nights and rapidly warming spring days, from 10 to 50 degrees F!
“No-wax” classic skis will get more popular, not just for average recreational skiers but even with racers who care a lot about glide and speed. It’s just going to get too difficult to wax properly because the snow is changing so fast! Fortunately ski manufacturers have been clever in developing fishscale, hairy, nano-particle and synthetic sealskin grip systems for variable, changing snow. Many Nordic ski racers already have a pair of “hairies” in their ski quiver for snow right around freezing. Hairies have a rubber grip zone that can be roughed up with sandpaper to create directional hairs (pointed to the rear) and lubricated with silicone so it doesn’t ice up and will still give grip in wet snowflakes and transforming snow. Another option is the Atomic Skintec system with two different synthetic sealskin grip zones (one thin, one thick) mounted on plastic plates that recess into the kick zone of the ski under your foot and are held there magnetically. No sticky hardwax or klister mess, no fuss; just put ‘em on and ski! You still need to wax appropriately for glide of course, since good glide is what skiing is all about.
Warmer winters are good for skate skiing, as long as you have some snow. The melt-freeze cycle tends to make the Nordic ski trails firm and fast. But if the temperature gets too warm, water causes drag and suction, and skating becomes not much fun, even with coarse structure and appropriate wax. You have to get out early in the morning when the snow is still cold, a longtime spring skiing pattern. If nighttime temperatures stay above 32 F. and the snow doesn’t freeze overnight, even with the residual coldness of the snowpack, that is an ugly scenario — unconsolidated slop.
Fuggedaboutit! Go Fatbiking!
You’ll need to buy a fatbike so you can ride in the sloppy snow. You can go anywhere with these fat-tired (4 or 5 inches wide) monsters, in snow, slop, sand, mud. It’s a Mad Max solution for transportation in the warming apocalypse, and you won’t need gasoline, unlike Max!
Or maybe move to Hawaii…Bill Koch, our only US Nordic skiing Olympic medalist (silver in 1976), skied on his Nordic skis on the Hawaiian beaches when he lived there. He must have been bored, because you know the glide was nonexistent. Snorkeling the coral reefs is more fun, as long as they survive, since warm water threatens coral, causing the little coral critters to expel their symbiotic algae (a phenomenon known as bleaching which will kill the coral if the water doesn’t cool back down)…
Hopefully winters with snow will last the rest of my lifetime, because I hate rollerskiing!
National Snow and Ice Data Center — www.nsidc.org
National Weather Service — www.weather.gov
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate change
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map —
Weather Underground, www.wunderground.com — Dr. Jeff Masters’ excellent weather website and blog
Climate Progress, Joe Romm’s excellent websitewww.thinkprogress.org/climate/issue
Climate Central — www.climatecentral.org — A science-based website by real climate scientists
Real Climate — www.realclimate.org — Another science-based website, started by Michael Mann (the famous hockey stick graph guy) et al.
Climate Reality Project, www.climaterealityproject.org — Al Gore’s educational website
www.350.org — Bill Mckibben’s effort to mobilize people to address climate change, stop the Keystone XL pipeline, ensure a future for the Earth
Protect Our Winters — www.protectourwinters.org — Jeremy Jones’s organization
Aspen Skiing Company — www.aspensnowmass.com
Thin Ice, Mark Bowen (Henry Holt, NY, NY; 2005)
With Speed and Violence, Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston, MA; 2007)
The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, NY; 2005)
An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore (Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA; 2006)
Hell And High Water, Joe Romm (Harper, NY, NY; 2007)
The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock (Basic Books, NY, NY; 2009)
Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen
Surly Pugsley, Moonlander, Neck Romancer Pug– www.surlybikes.com
Salsa Mukluk and Beargrease — www.salsacycles.com
Fitzgeralds Bikes, Teton fatbike specialists — www.fitzgeraldsbicycles.com