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CLIMATE DISPATCHES: More to impact of climate change than fewer powder days in Tahoe region

Diana Hitchen
Guest columnist
Our changing climate is characterized by overall warmer temperatures, more extreme weather events, and growing unpredictability. Each of these conditions have the potential to contribute to avalanche danger.
Diana Hitchen photo

The purpose of this series of “Climate Dispatches” is to move beyond arguments around climate chaos and to find areas we can agree on. You may not believe in the climate issues of today, but you may be concerned about the use of plastics and the oceans. You may also be concerned about air and water quality. Whatever you want to call it, the planet needs our stewardship. The writers here will share their perspectives from many angles. Perhaps some or all will resonate with you, and bring to our awareness the necessary actions we can take. We will leave the arguments and differing beliefs to others.

I arrived back home to Truckee after a fall trip, and woke up the following morning, just as I had hoped, to a dusting of fresh snow. Winter was here, right on time. I love this season — well, like many of you, I love them all, but this one is special.

Winter in the Sierra Nevada is dominated by weather. It dictates what we do and when, and consequently, my connection with the outdoors feels most intimate in this season. As a backcountry skier, closely following weather conditions throughout the winter is essential for avalanche safety and finding the best snow. Not only does one need to understand the current conditions, but previous storm cycles must be considered, as new snow layers lay atop older deposits. The way that these layers bond and interact determine snowpack stability.

This winter began with a few solid snow storms, layering on a nice base that transformed rocky Tahoe terrain into a smoother, more simplified landscape which we can travel over on skis. Then, in early December, an inversion hung over the region for several days. Stepping out into the freezing fog on its third morning, I contemplated this seemingly odd weather pattern.

… I pondered how our region’s weather may be becoming less predictable — and therefore potentially more dangerous for skiers.

From Dec. 7 to Dec. 13, a layer of buried surface hoar persisted in the snowpack, according to Sierra Avalanche Center’s “State of the Snowpack.” Surface hoar grows on the snow surface in calm, humid, clear conditions. When reading about this persistent layer in the avalanche report, I immediately thought of the lingering fog of the days prior. Not only was the fog gloomy, but it may have contributed to the development of an unstable layer in the snowpack. A skier-triggered avalanche occurred on Dec. 9 resulting in a burial (and recovery) and was attributed primarily to this weak surface hoar layer.

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Let me be clear that I am not directly correlating singular weather events with climate change. Instead I am observing patterns and asking questions with curiosity.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve. I rang in 2020 at a local backcountry hut with 10 friends who love skiing as much as I do. The first morning of the new year, as we drank coffee and toasted bagels on the woodstove, an eerie mist hung outside. While we packed our backpacks to ski, rain began to fall. We waited for a bit, but the drizzle persisted, so we set out for a good ol’ rain ski! Most of us are aware that climate change means less powder, more rain and “wintry mix,” but this wasn’t what I was thinking about. The rain event was unforecasted, so as we skinned up with our hoods up, I pondered how our region’s weather may be becoming less predictable — and therefore potentially more dangerous for skiers. I have heard it said many times that the worst-case climate scenario for our privileged community is fewer powder days, but I think there is more to it.

Our changing climate is characterized by overall warmer temperatures, more extreme weather events, and growing unpredictability. Each of these conditions have the potential to contribute to avalanche danger: rapidly warming temperatures can cause loose, wet avalanches; extreme storm events can load the snowpack, increasing instability; and erratic weather can make it harder for us to foresee potential avalanche dangers.

For example, as I write this today, our avalanche forecast states, “Loose sugary snow 2 ft. below the surface (or deeper in areas with wind drifted snow) has resulted in unusual avalanche conditions with significant uncertainty and the potential for large avalanches with severe consequences.” I am seeing this kind of forecast more frequently. When weather is less predictable, snowpack stability inherently becomes increasingly unpredictable too. But to what extent can avalanche conditions be accurately observed with new climate patterns and increased uncertainty in the mix?

I don’t believe I am the only one contemplating questions like this. Last week I attended two climate events — one at Patagonia in Reno and the other, a house party hosted by the North Tahoe Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Both were very fun and well attended by passionate young people. If the uncertainty of what our landscape and lifestyles may be like in the not-so-distant future concerns you, I can offer a bit of solace.

Yvon Chouinard said it best, “The cure for depression is action,” and it seems this sentiment is starting to take hold in our community. I am pleased that millennial skiers are getting out there to protect our priorities.

It’s important that we discuss these realities, because with knowledge comes power, and then come solutions.

Diana Hitchen, who lives in Truckee, is a member of Citizens’ Climate Lobby North Tahoe Chapter.


 

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