WASHINGTON — The seven states that rely on water from the shrinking Colorado River are unlikely to agree to voluntarily make deep reductions in their water use, negotiators say, which would force the federal government to impose cuts for the first time in the water supply for 40 million Americans.
The Interior Department had asked the states to voluntarily come up with a plan by Jan. 31 to collectively cut the amount of water they draw from the Colorado. The demand for those cuts, on a scale without parallel in American history, was prompted by precipitous declines in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which provide water and electricity for Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. Drought, climate change and population growth have caused water levels in the lakes to plummet.
“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”
Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system.
Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges.
The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.
A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical.
The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.
“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”
Santos is embedded in popular culture. He’s the subject of satire and SNL cold openings and TV monologues. And while he may protest the characterizations, he does so with the grand, self-aware gesture of a man who’s settling into his infamy. He’s laying claim to his shame.
Santos is the man in the crewneck sweater and the sport jacket: entitled, privileged. He’s a man for this age, one in which facts are fungible, the truth is opaque and mediocrity can take a person far. Santos is everything. And he is nothing at all.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight. From left,, Siegfried Hecker, Daniel Holz, Sharon Squassoni, Mary Robinson and Elbegdorj Tsakhia with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists remove a cloth covering the Doomsday Clock at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday.Patrick Semansky/AP
The world is closer to catastrophe than ever: the Doomsday Clock, the metaphorical measure of challenges to humanity, was reset to 90 seconds before midnight on Tuesday.
The science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said the move — the closest to widespread calamity humanity has ever been judged to be — was “largely, though not exclusively” due to the war in Ukraine.
The scientific body evaluates the clock each January. This is the first full update since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last February, triggering a war in Europe and a new flood of refugees.
The clock created a stir when it was set to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020, the first time the famous clock had gone down to seconds rather than minutes. At the time, the Bulletin’s scientists said we were “at doom’s doorstep.” It remained at 100 seconds to midnight in 2021 and 2022.
The scientists behind the Doomsday Clock use it to alert humanity to threats from within — the perils we face from our own technologies, particularly through nuclear war, global climate change and biotechnology.
Of the new update, Mary Robinson, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “The Doomsday Clock is sounding an alarm for the whole of humanity. We are on the brink of a precipice. But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and livable planet.”
Much of Tuesday’s announcement focused on Russia, and President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his refusal to accept anything other than victory in Ukraine.
“Even if nuclear use is avoided in Ukraine,” said Steve Fetter, dean of the graduate school and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, “the war has challenged the nuclear order — the system of agreements and understandings that have been constructed over six decades to limit the dangers of nuclear weapons.”
Fetter also noted that the U.S., Russia and China are working to modernize their arsenals.
The Chicago-based Bulletin was founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. Over the years, its members have included dozens of Nobel laureates.
Natalie Koch is a professor of geography at Syracuse University and the author of a forthcoming book about the relationship between Arizona and Saudi Arabia.
Arizona’s water is running worryingly low. Amid the worst drought in more than a millennium, which has left communities across the state with barren wells, the state is depleting what remains of its precious groundwater. Much of it goes to private companies nearly free, including Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company.
Thanks to fresh scrutiny this year from state politicians, water activists and journalists, the Saudi agricultural giant Almarai has emerged as an unlikely antagonist in the water crisis. The company, through its subsidiary Fondomonte, has been buying and leasing land across western Arizona since 2014. This year The Arizona Republic published a report showing that the Arizona State Land Department has been leasing 3,500 acres of public land to Almarai for a suspiciously low price.
The case has prompted calls for an investigation into how a foreign company wound up taking the state’s dwindling water supplies for a fee that might be as low as one-sixth the market rate.But the focus on the Saudi scheme obscures a more fundamental problem: pumping groundwater in Arizona remains largely unregulated. It’s this legal failing that, in part, allows the Saudi company to draw unlimited amounts of water to grow an alfalfa crop that feeds dairy cows 8,000 miles away.
Even if Fondomonte leaves the state, it will be only a matter of time before Arizona sucks its aquifers dry. While a 1980 state law regulates groundwater use in a handful of urban areas, water overuse is common even in these places. The situation is worse in the roughly 80 percent of Arizona’s territory that falls outside these regulations. In most of rural Arizona, whoever has the money to drill a well can continue to pump till the very last drop.
Many more agricultural operations are drawing down the state’s underground water reserves free. And most of them are U.S.-owned. Minnesota’s Riverview Dairy company, for example, has a farm near Sunizona, Ariz., that has drained so much of the aquifer that local residents have seen their wells dry up. Meanwhile, some California-based farms, facing tougher groundwater regulations at home, are looking to relocate to neighboring Arizona for cheap water. These companies and other megafarms can afford to drill deep wells, chasing the rapidly sinking water table.
This winter, the West has been slammed by wet weather. Heavy rains have pummeled California, and the Rocky Mountains are getting buried with snow.
That’s good news for the Colorado River, where that moisture hints at a possible springtime boost for massive reservoirs that have been crippled by drought. Climate scientists, though, say the 40 million people who use the river’s water should take the good news with a grain of salt.
Snow piled high in the Rockies is crucial for the Colorado River — a water lifeline for people from Wyoming to Mexico in an area commonly referred to as the Colorado River Basin. Before water flows through rivers, pipelines and canals to cities and farms across the region, it starts as high-altitude snow. In fact, more than two-thirds of the river begins as snow in Colorado. This year, snowfalltotals are well above average, but climate scientists say the winter is far from over and conditions could change bringing less precipitation.
“Everybody is so eager to make an early call on this,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University. “Invariably, you’ll get caught with your pants down if you think you know what’s going to happen.”
The Colorado River is in crisis, shrinking at the hands of climate change. A 23-year “megadrought” has created the region’s driest conditions in 1,800 years. That has created a yawning supply-demand imbalance for a multibillion-dollar agriculture sector and large cities — such as Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles — that depend on the river’s water.
More eyes are now turning to the snow-laden mountains that keep the river flowing and help to fill the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Those reservoirs have dropped to historic lows — jeopardizing hydropower for millions of people and threatening the need for costly modifications to the towering dams that hold the water back.
Meanwhile, mountain snow totals are off to a promising start. Around Snowmass in Colorado the snowpack is 130% above average for this time of the year. The Roaring Fork watershed, which includes Aspen and Snowmass, makes up only 0.5% of the landmass in the Colorado River Basin but provides about 10% of its water.
In other nearby mountain ranges, snow totals are between 140% and 160% above average. Even if those numbers persist until spring, the severity of the Colorado River’s drought means many more years of heavy snow are needed to make a serious dent in the low water levels.
“It’s great to see a big snowpack,” Udall said. “We would need five or six years at 150% snowpack to refill these reservoirs. And that is extremely unlikely.”
The long view
A string of wet years is unlikely because of rising temperatures driven by climate change, Udall said. Since 1970, temperatures in the Colorado River Basin have gone up by three degrees Fahrenheit. Those higher temperatures have already caused a 15% drop in streamflows across the region.
Warming has driven a raft of worrying environmental changes across the region. In recent years, scientists have sounded the alarm about soils drying out. The ground has become parched and soaks up snowmelt before the water has a chance to reach the places where people divert and collect it.
Already, Udall said, winters with 90% of average snowpack have led to only 50% spring runoff because thirsty soil acts like a sponge.
Every 10 years, NOAA moves the three-decade window that it uses for averages. But the rapidly accelerating effects of climate change mean the current window from 1991 to 2020 sticks out from previous 30-year periods because it includes the hottest-ever period in America’s recorded history.
Because of that, snowpack data tells a somewhat deceptive story. For example, if snowpack is at 130%, the number would appear substantially lower if current totals were compared to normal snowpack going back further than 30 years.
“Man, we need to continue to plan for the worst here,” Udall said. That’s what we’ve seen the last 23 years. That’s what these warming temperatures continue to tell us.”
Tough to plan
Planning has become much harder as shifting baselines make the future of water availability less predictable.
Cynthia Campbell, who has advised the city of Phoenix on water law for over a decade, knows this firsthand. The nation’s fifth-largest city gets more than one-third of its water from the Colorado River.
“Our worst case scenario, from our perspective, is that we have to be in the habit of annually looking to the mountains to see what is the precipitation,” Campbell said.
She said reservoirs should function as a buffer against the fluctuation of dry years and wet years. But with reserves shrinking to never-before-seen lows, cities around the arid West can only plan one year at a time.
“That’s just not enough time to make changes that you would have to make,” Campbell said with a nervous chuckle. “But that is where we are. So, in some ways, it might be our worst nightmare.”
Campbell and Phoenix residents are not alone in their hand-wringing.
As supply shrinks, the seven states that use water from the Colorado River have been caught in a standoff over how to reduce demand.
Water allocation across the basin is governed by a 1922 legal agreement that hasn’t been substantially rewritten to meet the needs of a changing region. Some experts suggest that agreement — the Colorado River Compact — should be replaced to meet the modern demands of a region with sprawling fields of crops and booming urban populations.
As the drought has worsened, states have agreed on a patchwork of tweaks to prop up reservoirs and stave off catastrophe, but they have been unable to reach a deal for larger, more permanent cutbacks of water use.
At meetings about the river’s future, delegates from the seven states — including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and California — are quick to talk about the need for a collaborative solution to their collective problem but are reluctant to commit to sacrificing portions of their own shares.
The current managing guidelines for the river expire in 2026, and states are mostly focused on drawing up a new agreement before then. Policy analysts and water managers have hinted that major cuts will have to come from the agricultural sector, which uses more than 70% of the Colorado River’s water.
Making water supplies last
In the meantime, cities have had to get creative to stretch finite quantities of water for their growing populations. Those efforts have not been changed by this winter’s strong mountain snow or the rain that drenched California for days, causing major flooding and widespread damage.
“One storm is not going to change the game whether we get a wet year or not,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “We need to continue to focus on building the infrastructure we need to create local water supply.”
The district supplies drinking water to 19 million people from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. The agency has undertaken a number of ambitious projects to reuse water that is already in the system.
One proposed facility in Carson, California, would clean up sewage to make it drinkable. The treatment setup is projected to cost $3.4 billion to build. Once completed, it would cost $129 million to operate each year. That new facility aims to redirect up to 150 million gallons back into the municipal water supply in and around Los Angeles.
Water agencies in Nevada and Arizona plan to pitch in, helping pay for the project in exchange for some of Southern California’s water. The hefty price tag is just one example of the many new infrastructure costs cities may incur due to climate change.
“We have to be ready,” Hagekhalil said, “And it will be on us if we’re gonna take the right actions today to invest and build the necessary infrastructure.”
Elsewhere around the Colorado River Basin, governments have teased the idea of investing in other ways to augment existing water supplies. Last year, Arizona’s then-governor Doug Ducey proposed a deal with Mexico in which the state would fund an ocean desalination plant on the Gulf of California. That would allow Mexico to use the newly-desalted water in exchange for some of Mexico’s share from the Colorado River.
Inventive solutions like wastewater reuse and desalination have generated buzz among denizens of the region’s parched cities. But water policy analysts say none of them can serve as a silver bullet for those who depend on the shrinking Colorado River. Instead, they say, significant cutbacks to demand are the only way to meet the challenges posed by climate change’s impact on water supplies.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.
It’s anybody’s guess why forecasters do this job. It could be the smell of powder, throwing 50 pound shots from the helicopter, watching hard slab failure release energy over several alpine basins at once, or maybe just the company you keep.
Whatever the reasons, you get hooked on the excitement and the challenges of the job. It requires a lot of field experience (series of non-fatal errors), collection of empirical evidence, listening to your inner voice (intuition), and distilling all of the variables to reduce uncertainties until you can finally make a decision that you can live with. There are many truths to be learned. It’s no big mystery; you pay attention and do your work because you don’t want to be a victim of your own bad planning. It helps to be comfortable in the world of uncertainties.
A San Francisco art gallery owner who was recorded on video spraying a homeless woman with a hose outside his business last week has been charged with misdemeanor battery, the city’s district attorney said.
The video, made by a bystander on Jan. 9, shows a man identified by the police as Shannon Collier Gwin, 71, who runs the Foster-Gwin Gallery in the city’s Financial District, leaning against a railing with his legs crossed at the ankle.
Holding the nozzle in his right hand and supporting a length of the hose with his left, he aims a steady stream of water at the woman, who is sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by her belongings.
“Move, move, move,” the man says after he stops spraying. “OK? You gonna move?” he adds, pointing down the sidewalk.
Brooke Jenkins, the San Francisco district attorney, said on Wednesday that her office had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Gwin based on evidence from an investigation by the San Francisco Police Department. She said he was charged with misdemeanor battery “for the alleged intentional and unlawful spraying of water on and around a woman experiencing homelessness.”
“The alleged battery of an unhoused member of our community is completely unacceptable,” she said in a statement on Twitter. “Mr. Gwin will face appropriate consequences for his actions.”
She added that vandalism that took place at the gallery shortly after the episode was “completely unacceptable and must stop — two wrongs do not make a right.”
This is a story about a curious seal, a wayward robot and a gigantic climate change disaster that may be waiting to happen.
Scientists tagged a southern elephant seal on the island of Kerguelen, an extraordinarily remote spot in the far southern Indian Ocean, in 2011. The seal was a male close to 11 feet long weighing nearly 1,800 pounds, and they fitted his head with an ocean sensor, a device that these massive seals barely notice but that have proved vital to scientific research.
Elephant seals like this one swim more than 1,500 miles south from Kerguelen to Antarctica, where they often forage on the sea floor, diving to depths that can exceed a mile below the surface. As summer in the Southern Hemisphere peaked, the seal made a standard Antarctic journey, but then went in an unusual direction.
In March 2011, he appeared just offshore from a vast oceanfront glacier called Denman, where elephant seals are not generally known to go. He dove into a deep trough in the ocean bed, roughly half a mile below the surface. And that is when something striking happened: He provided an early bit of evidence that Denman Glacier could be a major threat to global coastlines.
The seal swam through unusually warm water, just below the freezing point, but in the Antarctic, that is warm. Given its salt content and the extreme depths and pressures involved — in some regions Denman Glacier rests on a seafloor that is over a mile deep — such warm water can destroy large amounts of ice. And it certainly could have been doing so at Denman.
Yet scientists do not appear to have seen the significance of the seal data. Back then, Denman had not received much scientific attention. It did not help that the glacier is extraordinarily difficult to study directly. It lies between the two Antarctic research bases of Australia. The logistics are challengingfor a voyage from either side, especially as the glacier is often locked in by extensive sea ice.
Researchers had already observed that the glacier was losing some of its mass, which is a worrying sign. They also knew something else: Denman serves as potential doorway into a region of extremely deep and thick ice, even for Antarctica.
With Denman and several other neighboring glaciers in place, the doorway remains closed. Opening it would allow warmer ocean water to start eating away at this thick ice, leading to gradual melt and eventually, a massive influx of new water into the ocean. That would have the potential to unleash over 15 feet of sea level rise, remaking every coastline in the world. So the scientists flew a few planes over Denman and watched with their satellites. And they waited.
A striking discovery came in 2019. Using satellite data and other techniques, scientists published a new elevation map of all the crushed-down land beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. And it showed that beneath Denman lay the deepest point of them all, about the depth of two Grand Canyons, or two miles below sea level. If water, rather than ice, were to someday fill this valley, Denman Glacier could raise global sea levels by nearly 5 feet.
Almost simultaneously, scientists reported something else: Denman was reeling. The region of its “grounding line,” where the glacier touches both the seafloor and the ocean, had retreated backward more than three miles toward the center of Antarctica since 1996, bringing the sea to the edge of the newly discovered canyon.
It was in this context that researchers now unearthed the nine-year-old measurements from the seal. “We dug out these data because we wanted to find out if warm water can indeed reach this glacier,” said Eric Rignot, an Antarctic expert at the University of California at Irvine and one of the authors of the paper. “The answer seemed to be yes.” But while the seal sensor proved the presence of warm water, it did not reveal how much of it might be hitting the glacier.
WASHINGTON — It’s not a pretty sight when pols lose power. They wilt, they crumple, they cling to the vestiges, they mourn their vanished entourage and perks. How can their day in the sun be over? One minute they’re running the world and the next, they’re in the room where it doesn’t happen.
Donald Trump was so freaked out at losing power that he was willing to destroy the country to keep it.
I went to lunch with Nancy Pelosi at the Four Seasons to find out how she was faring, now that she has gone from being one of the most powerful women in the world — second in line to the presidency — and one of the most formidable speakers in American history to a mere House backbencher.
I was expecting King Lear, howling at the storm, but I found Gene Kelly, singing in the rain. Pelosi was not crying in her soup. She was basking as she scarfed down French fries, a truffle-butter roll and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts — all before the main course. She was literally in the pink, ablaze in a hot-pink pantsuit and matching Jimmy Choo stilettos, shooting the breeze about Broadway, music and sports. Showing off her four-inch heels, the 82-year-old said, “I highly recommend suede because it’s like a bedroom slipper.”
Dick Dorworth is working on a typewriter, cross-legged on a thin mattress inside a handmade redwood slide-in truck camper. The year is 1974. Sheets of paper are stacked beside him, and woven tapestries hang from the open back doors. A pair of leather hiking boots is tucked in the truck bed beside camping gear. Dorworth’s dark hair and beard fall past his shoulders; his glasses are tight against his face. In the background, ponderosa pine boughs hide Yosemite Valley’s sheer granite walls.
National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell took this image of Dorworth, singularly focused on the work in front of him: Night Driving. This seminal coming-of-age tale is a window into the 1960s and ’70s counterculture fringe of climbers, skiers, and vagabonds and the drugs, drinking, and sex they imbibed. Mountain Gazette published all 100 pages of it in 1975, alongside a short essay by Edward Abbey, the two pieces taking up an entire issue.
“It became an instant cult classic, a talisman and a benchmark for those who fancied themselves hardcore,” wrote fellow climber, writer, and Buddhist Jack Turner, in an introduction to a later edition.
Night Driving was based on the real thing. Dorworth, who turned 80 in October, broke the world speed skiing record in 1963, going 106 miles an hour on metal skis and leather lace-up boots on an icy Chilean mountainside. He went on a 6,000-mile road trip from California to Argentina to climb Cerro Fitz Roy in 1968; his team—among them Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, founders of Patagonia and The North Face, respectively—made the third ascent of the 11,020-foot rock spire. And between 1957 and 1971, Dorworth fathered five sons by five different women. He didn’t meet or know about two of those sons until he was nearly 60. I first met Dorworth in 2006 at Practice Rock, a climbing area south of Bozeman, Montana, where I live and he spends summers with his partner, Jeannie Wall. Since then, we’ve become friends. They winter near Sun Valley, Idaho, where Dorworth—a member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame—still skis six days a week.
In mountain towns such as ours, Dorworth is a living legend known both as the madman he once was and the kind, loving Zen philosopher he is today. He is a child of his generation, his story one of redemption as well as contradiction. Never chasing commercial success or fame like some of his contemporaries, Dorworth followed his own path. It always led to the mountains.
There, and later in the zendo, Dorworth shifted his way of being in the world. One foot in front of another, one breath at a time, he found peace.
When he was 7, Dorworth and his parents moved to the south shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to work for his aunt and uncle, who owned Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. His mother was a cook, waitress, and change girl, and his father did bookkeeping and odd jobs. After class at the Zephyr Cove one-room schoolhouse, Dorworth would strap on his wooden skis and sidestep up the hill behind their house, lapping it until dark. He leapt off jumps, practiced slalom technique on a race course made of willows he’d cut and stripped with an axe, and toured the hills above the cove.
“I learned to cope with and then cherish solitude in action on skis, and those times were among the happiest of my childhood,” he wrote in The Only Path, a memoir self-published in 2017.
A natural athlete, he found joy in skiing—in the movement, in the discipline of practice, and in the mountains. It was also an escape from his parents’ difficult marriage.
While Dorworth’s father was deployed with the Navy during WWII, he had an affair with a woman who then died while he was overseas. He returned to a wife and 6-year-old son, living at home with resigned acceptance. Dorworth’s mother never forgave her husband. Dorworth himself didn’t find out where the resentment came from until he was almost 50.
His parents dulled their misery with alcohol, often drinking until dawn in casinos and bars around Tahoe, Reno, Carson City, and Las Vegas. Dorworth spent those nights in the back seat of the family car.
“Sometimes it was cold,” he wrote. “Always it was lonely. Sometimes it was scary. And I always hated it.”
When sober, his parents were caring and affectionate. They bought him ski gear they couldn’t afford and drove him to races around the West. Herself a fan of pop fiction and mysteries, Dorworth’s mother gave him the essays of the 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, crime novels by Mickey Spillane, and everything by Mark Twain and Jack London.
Dorworth finished Reno High School and entered the University of Nevada, Reno in 1956, a time he has described as “an insipid era of saccharine shallowness and sterile hypocrisy that the ’60s would none too soon strip naked.” He studied English and journalism, ski raced, partied, and read Faulkner, Snyder, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Hemingway. He graduated in 1963 with a BA in English.
“Skiing and the mountains gave me a place to put my anger about my family dynamics and the disruption in life caused by WWII,” Dorworth told me. “[Both] were the beginning and the path of spiritual searching, which eventually took me to Zen.”
Although he was an all-American college ski racer and a member of the first U.S. National Development Team, Dorworth never made it to the top of that game, in part because he hated the politics and favoritism of sanctioned ski racing. The niche pursuit of speed skiing, on the other hand, had none of that. It was pure. All he had to do was survive.
“He was a very bright, intuitive, creative guy,” said C.B. Vaughan, a racer who spent three months preparing the speed course in Chile with Dorworth and, incredibly, tied the record that same day. “He was always interested in everything and anything.”
After he retired from racing in 1965, Dorworth began a 30-year career as ski coach and instructor, which included a winter coaching the U.S. Men’s Ski Team and four as director of the Aspen Mountain Ski School in Colorado. In 1966, at age 28, Dorworth started graduate school. The plan was to become an English professor, but he left after a year, bored and exasperated. The country’s fault lines were spreading amid Vietnam and civil rights protests. Dorworth was still lugging around angry childhood baggage. He’d been dropping lots of acid. He needed something to believe in.
The Battleship path running near Silverton, Colorado.
Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson
Some folks sit on a cushion and count their breaths as though it were a matter of life and death. Others, like 68-year-old Jerry Roberts, a retired avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, meditate wholeheartedly on the intricacies of snow.
I do not use that word “meditate” lightly. As a forecaster, Roberts’s job was to rigorously and relentlessly observe the snowpack. That involved studying everything from weather systems swirling in the Pacific to the structure of ice crystals out the back door. His special awareness was then tapped by the Colorado Department of Transportation to help determine when to shut down the mountain roads for avalanche mitigation around Telluride, Durango, Silverton and Ouray. Winter in the San Juan Mountains begins in October and ends in June, and the range often receives 350 inches or more of snow in a single season. It is a notoriously dangerous place.
Currently, Roberts is employed with Mountain Weather Masters, an outfit he co-founded providing weather forecasts for the motion picture and television industries. The group’s logo—a sword-wielding samurai backed by a white cloud—reflects his longtime interest in Japanese culture. Roberts’s house in Ridgway, Colorado, is equally filled with avalanche maps and anthologies of haiku by Issa, Buson, and Basho. I met him there on a bright winter morning, and we sat by the fireplace, drank coffee, and talked. He showed me homemade chapbooks of his own free-verse haiku, many of which braid the languages of snow science, skiing, and mountain geography with the language of Zen.
Enlightenment? Roberts surely doesn’t claim to know much about such an exalted state of being. Self-deprecating and quick to laugh, he jokingly referred to our conversation as “bullshitting.” Nevertheless, I could tell from his warmth and sincerity that talking about snow and poetry was, for him, an immensely valuable pastime. After my second cup of coffee, when I rose to leave, instead of offering a handshake, he smiled and told me, “Keep on enjoying life.”
How did you first get interested in snow and avalanches? Living inside was never an option for me. I grew up at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, here in Colorado, and as a kid I was constantly outdoors. A big part of my life has been climbing peaks and skiing off them. Enjoying nature and the pleasure of the turn. Feeling the wind on my face. Those experiences in the wild can be so vivid. You become them. For some there’s no turning back.
Spending so much time in the backcountry, sometimes going out for weeks on end, I saw my share of avalanches. Pretty soon I was thinking, hmm, I better learn a bit about this huge power I’m edging up against. The air blast created by an avalanche can reach 200 miles per hour. In some cases we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of snow on the move.
So in the early seventies I found my way to the San Juansand took an avalanche course. Within a few years I’d moved into an cabin in the Chattanooga town site and was collecting data for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, San Juan Project. It was a simplified, almost ascetic existence—skiing a bunch, learning the snow-pack. The locals down in towncalled me and another buddy who lived in the next shack and worked on the project, “the snow monks.” We were hooked. Who would have ever thought looking at snow could be so exciting?
What exactly does “looking at snow” entail? It all starts with the weather. Back then, forecasters weren’t using the Internet. What Internet? It was more like a finger in the air: Okay, it’s coming from the southwest. Might be a big one. Get ready.
Wind is the architect of avalanches, so you’re tracking the storm’s movements, gauging speed and direction. You’re monitoring temperatures, too. Did the storm come in warm and then cool down, bonding the new snow to the old snow-pack’s surface? Or did it come in cold and then warm up, creating a dangerous upside-down cake, a heavy, wet slab sitting atop a low-density base? You’re constantly interpreting. Is it a hard slab or a soft slab? What got loaded during the storm, north faces or northeast faces?
Small world becomes big world—that’s how I like to sum it up. A forecaster observes things at two scales, the micro and the macro. You look at a snow crystal under a hand lens and see all the beautiful shapes and angles, and then you think about how a mountainside covered with these beautiful crystals can all of a sudden fracture, come down and cover the highway, andsweep you into oblivion.
I’m reminded of a line from the Soto Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru: “You must pay attention as if you had a fire burning in your hair.” Yeah, you’re afraid to go shopping at the supermarket an hour away because you might miss a wind event. You can’t be absent from your place. You have to be totally present.
Forecasting is not just a job; it’s a lifestyle. You don’t think about Christmas or your wife’s birthday. You don’t go on vacation. A series of storms in ’05 lasted ten days. I got very little sleep. From November through May, paying attention is what you do. It’s who you are. There’s no difference between on and off.
Over the years, I learned so much by just being out there. A friend of mine says, “Experience is a series of nonfatal errors.” Every winter I added something new to the list of what I knew. You develop a daily mantra, your daily prayers: Look for this, note this, pay attention to this. If you don’t, somebody is going to get hurt. Maybe you.
As you immerse yourself in the observation of these massive forces—storms and avalanches and the like—you must become increasingly aware of your own smallness, your own fragility. There’s a quote attributed to Miles Davis, “If you aren’t nervous, you’re not paying attention.” I used to joke that it was my job to worry for six months of the year. The worry is itself a kind of meditation. You worry from the first storm to the last storm. Why hasn’t that slope avalanched? It’s got to avalanche, doesn’t it?
Our mortality is with us through all stages of life, whether we’re aware of it or not. As a snow viewer, out in the middle of the storm, you know that the possibility of the end is always present. Mortality isn’t an abstract concept—it’s right in your face. The sky is falling!
At times it was dangerous driving the road in “full conditions,” snow coming down so hard you couldn’t see past the steering wheel. Over the years, an avalanche or two took me for some rides while skiing. For much of my life I’ve had a daily, maybe an hourly appreciation of my own impermanence—a heightened sense of how delicate things really are.
Because no matter how much expertise you have, no matter how keen your focus and diligence are, the big one can still slide on you unexpectedly, right? One has to be comfortable living with uncertainties—that’s just part of the life. In the worlds of snow and weather, but also the rest of life, there are so many unknowns. Our job as forecasters is to try to reduce uncertainties while simultaneously learning to live with them. A bit of yin/yang. Some days are better than others, but every day is another invitation to try.
Without mindfulness, my job living with the uncertain nature of snow would have been impossible. Riding around in my CDOT rig, feeling the snow with hands and under ski, they all lead to the same place: Mindfulness. Mindfulness of what is.
How does haiku fit into all of this? I’ve always been drawn to the counterculture, so naturally I spent time in the Bay Area in the sixties. I was fortunate to experience some of the fine Beat poets performances at City Lights and Moe’s. That was my first brush with another life. All of a sudden I was thinking on that plane—the haiku plane.
The Zen aesthetic relies on the fewest possible words to express a situation, a feeling, a view, a brush stroke. It shaped how I looked at everything, including snow. Alongside the more scientific approach to the snow-pack, I began to understand it through little descriptive bursts: “Wind slab layers / thick as Van Gogh / brush stroke.” I’d pull off the road during a blizzard, or stop at the end of a ski descent and scribble something about the mood in my notebook. Some of my haikuare okay, some aren’t. That’s fine with me. The importance lies in the attempt, the effort at catching a moment.
The poet Jorie Graham has described poetry as a way of going through life, as opposed to accidentally slipping around it. Even if you’re serious about not going around it, you do. We all do. Searching for the right words for haiku, skiing a perfect line through the trees—these can get you going through life, at least for a little while.
The haiku is both a meditation and an expression. You disregard the nonessential and focus on the essential. There’s a discipline to it. It’s similar to writing a good avalanche or weather forecast with a minimum of words—less room for confusion. It’s also an attempt to share some space with the masters, to walk the mountain paths with traveling monks and roshis, begging bowl in hand. There’s a haiku by Basho that I love: “Come, let’s go / snow-viewing / till we’re buried.”
Buried in what? In snow? I wonder if it isn’t also something else. As you put it a minute ago, maybe by viewing snow we get buried in “what is.” One of the great things about snow is that its meanings are infinite. It melts and becomes irrigation-water for ranchers or drinking water for city dwellers. It has significance for an avalanche forecaster today and for Basho back in the 17th century. It can be a dream or a nightmare. And yet it’s all the same, just different crystals that have bonded together—needles, columns, stellar.
After six-plus decades in the Colorado Rockies, what would you say are the lessons that stand out in your mind? It might sound trite, but what I’ve learned is that the mountain always leads in the dance. It’s hard to say much more about it than that. You do what you are allowed, nothing more. You wander around above the trees, knowing all the while that you are a temporary trespasser.
I don’t want to be a downer,butpeople die. Avalanches take us out. It happens. Years ago, a friend said to me that in the San Juans we’ve got a “tiger of a snow-pack.” That always stuck with me because of its animistic sensibility. Rocks, snow, clouds—I see them as alive. That mountain outside the window is a living thing. And it’s bigger than you are! It’s in charge. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get bit by the tiger. You’re going to suffer. It’s a big tiger.
As you said earlier, though, for some folks there’s no turning back. It’s a risk worth taking. That’s right, you learn all you can, pay attention, and then learn some more. Nature has this draw, whether it’s the ocean, the desert, the river, or the mountain. For me, it’s the wind from the desert southwest carrying it’s dust that will become the snowflake nuclei here in the San Juans. It’s that smell: “Aaaaaah, the turn / I can smell it / in the air.” It’s the feel of powder snow blowing up into your chest as you round your turn on a perfectly angled slope. There’s stillness at the heart of that motion, the Stillpoint. Gravity is pulling you down, the same force that wants to collapse the snow-pack and send it to the valley floor. Steep powder skiing is just one controlled fall after another.
“One controlled fall after another.” That has a lot of overtones. Words come up short. D. T. Suzuki, the prominent early exponent of Zen in the West, once said, “When a feeling reaches its highest pitch, we remain silent, even 17 syllables may be too many.”Leath Tonino is the author of a forthcoming book of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, about explorations in Vermont, where he was born and raised.