The Machine Stops

My favorite aunt, Auntie Len, when she was in her eighties, told me that she had not had too much difficulty adjusting to all the things that were new in her lifetime—jet planes, space travel, plastics, and so on—but that she could not accustom herself to the disappearance of the old. “Where have all the horses gone?” she would sometimes say. Born in 1892, she had grown up in a London full of carriages and horses.

I have similar feelings myself. A few years ago, I was walking with my niece Liz down Mill Lane, a road near the house in London where I grew up. I stopped at a railway bridge where I had loved leaning over the railings as a child. I watched various electric and diesel trains go by, and after a few minutes Liz, growing impatient, asked, “What are you waiting for?” I said that I was waiting for a steam train. Liz looked at me as if I were crazy.

“Uncle Oliver,” she said. “There haven’t been steam trains for more than forty years.”

I have not adjusted as well as my aunt did to some aspects of the new—perhaps because the rate of social change associated with technological advances has been so rapid and so profound. I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~



IT’S ONLY WEDNESDAY, but the increasingly sprawling investigations surrounding President Donald Trump this week have already sprawled even further. News came Monday that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York served a wide-ranging subpoena digging into the finances of the Trump inaugural committee. Then, Wednesday morning, the House Intelligence Committee—in its first meeting of the new congress—voted to hand over witness transcripts from its own Russia investigation to special counsel Robert Mueller, a move widely understood to be motivated by the belief of Democratic members that various witnesses, including perhaps Donald Trump Jr., have lied to them.

Meanwhile, Roger Stone—himself indicted, in part, because of his alleged lies to Congress and witness tampering that encouraged his associates “to do a ‘Frank Pentangeli,’” a reference to a Godfather Part II character who lied to Congress—continues his bizarre post-indictment media road show.

A close reading of the Stone indictment shows the odd hole at the center of the Mueller investigation so far. It followed a now familiar pattern: Mueller’s court filing included voluminous detail, including insight into the internal decisionmaking process of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—and yet the indictment stopped short of alleging that Stone was part of a larger conspiracy.

Given how much Trump says, in all settings, all the time, his silences are just as conspicuous as Mueller’s.

All told, according to a recent tally by The New York Times, “more than 100 in-person meetings, phone calls, text messages, emails and private messages on Twitter” took place between Trump associates and Russians during the campaign and transition. But while we’ve seen a lot of channels, we’ve thus far from Mueller’s court filings seen near silence about what was said during those contacts—and why. In court filings that are remarkable for their level of detail and knowledge, Mueller’s conspicuous silence about those conversations stands out.

Of course, one possible explanation is that the content of the conversations was completely innocent—totally normal directions and innocent chitchat about “adoptions,” sanctions, potential business deals, and geopolitical diplomacy. That could explain why Mueller thus far has only charged individuals, including Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Roger Stone, with lying about those contacts, not the underlying behavior.

Yet the evidence against such innocence seems clear too, in the form of consistent lies, omissions, and obfuscations about the numerous meetings, conversations, and contacts with Russians throughout the Trump campaign, transition, and presidency.

To take just two examples: Donald Trump lied extensively, for more than two years, about his dealings with Russia concerning the Trump Tower Moscow project, which suggests that he knew something about it was shady. If he’d really believed the project was on the up-and-up, it’s easy to imagine Trump as a candidate making a public to-do about the deal—arguing that he felt America’s relationship with Russia was off-track, and that as the world’s smartest businessman, he alone could set it right. Trump could have made the case on the campaign trail that he alone could make deals with Putin because he alone was making deals with Putin. Yet he didn’t make that argument, and remained entirely silent about the deal for years, even lying about his interest in Russia. Given how much Trump says, in all settings, all the time, his silences are just as conspicuous as Mueller’s.

And then there’s the continued controversy over Trump’s private conversations with Vladimir Putin at geopolitical gatherings, from Hamburg to Helsinki to Buenos Aires. Under normal circumstances and operations, US leaders meet with Russian leaders to advance geopolitical conversations, and then they “read out” those meetings to staff in order to execute the work and vision hashed out one-on-one. The entire point of those head-of-state conversations is to generate follow-up work for staff later—to come to agreements, to advance national interests, and to find common ground for action on areas of shared concern. And yet in city after city, President Trump has had suspicious conversations with Putin, where he goes out of his way to ensure that no American knows what to follow up on. In Hamburg he confiscated his translators’ notes. In Buenos Aires, he cut out American translators entirely.

If he’s truly advocating for the United States in these meetings, there’s no sign those conversations have translated into any action by White House or administration staff afterwards. Instead, quite the opposite. Trump has emerged from those conversations to spout Kremlin talking points, even, apparently, calling The New York Times from Air Force One on the way back from Hamburg to argue Putin’s point that he didn’t interfere with the 2016 election.

~~~  MORE  ~~~

The North Magnetic Pole’s Mysterious Journey Across the Arctic ~ NYT

  • Scientists accelerated the update of a model of Earth’s fluctuating magnetic field, which is needed to keep navigational systems functioning. Many wondered what’s happening inside the planet’s core.
Aurora borealis over Canada, as seen from the International Space Station in 2017. The spectacular display is caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. Credit JSC/NASA

By Shannon Hall


The north magnetic pole is restless.

Distinct from the geographic North Pole, where all the lines of longitude meet at the top of the world, the magnetic pole is the point that a compass recognizes as north. At the moment, it’s located four degrees south of the geographic North Pole, which lies in the Arctic Ocean at 90 degrees north.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In the mid-19th century, the north magnetic pole floated much further south, roaming around Canada. For the past 150 years, however, the pole has been sprinting away from Canada and toward Siberia.

That change of address cannot be ignored, given that magnetic compasses still underpin modern navigation, from the systems used by civilian and military airplanes to those that orient your iPhone.

In 1965, scientists launched a data-based, mathematical representation of Earth’s magnetic field in order to better keep track of the pole’s ever-changing home. The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years — most recently in 2015 — because the magnetic field is constantly shifting.

In early 2018, it became clear that 2015’s edition was in trouble, because the pole’s Siberian stroll had picked up speed, rendering the model — and therefore a number of navigational systems — incorrect.

So for the first time, scientists have updated the model ahead of schedule, which they released Monday afternoon. Since this work was completed in the wake of the partial government shutdown (which delayed its full release), researchers still are trying to get a handle on the mysteries within Earth’s core that must be driving the magnetic pole’s surprising behavior.

Heading North

The north magnetic pole, the point on the Earth where a compass needle would point down, is sliding about 35 miles closer to Russia each year.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 1.57.45 PM.png

The north magnetic pole’s dizzying dance was first discovered nearly 400 years ago, when Henry Gellibrand, an English mathematician, realized that it had jumped hundreds of miles closer to the geographic pole over the course of 50 years.

“That was a big, monumental recognition that the field was not static, but dynamic,” said Andrew Jackson, a geophysicist at ETH Zurich.

It didn’t take long, however, before magnetic north flipped direction and started to move away from the geographic pole — demonstrating that the field is not just dynamic, it’s unpredictable.

“The problem that we’re still facing today is that we don’t have a good scheme to predict how the field will change,” Dr. Jackson said.

So scientists began tracking the ever-changing magnetic field. The first magnetic maps, which were hand-drawn by exploring sailors, revealed that for the next two centuries, magnetic north twirled among the many islands and channels of the Arctic Archipelago.

Then around 1860, it took a sharp turn and bee-lined toward Siberia. Since then, the pole has traveled nearly 1,500 miles and was most recently found in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, still en route to Russia.

Scientists attribute this wanderlust to the liquid iron sloshing within our planet’s outer core. That iron is buoyant — it rises, cools and then sinks. And that motion below carries Earth’s magnetic field with it, producing changes above.

The north magnetic pole is distinct from the geographic north pole, which is where all the lines of longitude meet at the top of the world. The magnetic pole is the point that compasses recognize as northCredit Norman Kuring, NASA/GSFC/Suomi NPP

To more accurately map those changes, scientists launched the precursor to the World Magnetic Model nearly 55 years ago, which began as a collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The map we know today has existed in its current form since 1990 and is created by an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the British Geological Survey (BGS). It’s commissioned by American and British military agencies, and used by many other militaries across the world.

~~~ CONTINUE  ~~~

It’s Official: 2018 Was the Fourth-Warmest Year on Record ~ NYT

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 10.17.51 AM.png
Source: NASA | By The New York Times


NASA scientists announced Wednesday that the Earth’s average surface temperature in 2018 was the fourth highest in nearly 140 years of record-keeping and a continuation of an unmistakable warming trend.

“The five warmest years have, in fact, been the last five years,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the NASA group that conducted the analysis. “We’re no longer talking about a situation where global warming is something in the future. It’s here. It’s now.”

Over all, 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.

The results of this warming, Dr. Schmidt said, can be seen from the heat waves in Australia and extended droughts to coastal flooding in the United States, in disappearing Arctic ice and shrinking glaciers. Scientists have linked climate change to more destructive hurricanes like Michael and Florence last year, and have found links to such phenomena as the polar vortex, which last week delivered bone-chilling blasts to the American Midwest and Northeast.

While this planet has seen hotter days, and colder ones, what sets recent warming apart in the sweep of history is the relative suddenness of the rise in temperatures and its clear correlation with increasing levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane produced by human activity over the same period.

Total change in temperature, 1970-2018






Source: NASA | By The New York Times

The Earth’s temperature in 2018 was more than 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, above the average temperature of the late 19th century, when humans started pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Scientists say that if the world is to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, global temperatures must not rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels.

It appears highly likely, at least from today’s perspective, that that line will be crossed, despite the fact that 190 nations have signed the Paris climate agreement. (The United States is still technically a party to the accord, though President Trump has pledged to withdraw.)

Even an increase of 1.5 degrees will have dire consequences, according to the United Nations science panel on climate change.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Trump campaign adviser on Democrats in white: ‘The only thing . . . missing tonight is the matching hood’

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 9.32.02 AM.png

February 6 at 7:03 AM

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump made an appeal for bipartisanship, asking Congress to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.”

That plea evidently didn’t resonate with one senior adviser to his reelection campaign. Katrina Pierson, who also served as Trump’s national campaign spokeswoman in 2016, took to Twitter after the speech to compare Democratic congresswomen who wore white in tribute to the suffragists to the Ku Klux Klan.

“The only thing that the Democrats uniform was missing tonight is the matching hood,” Pierson tweeted early Wednesday morning.

Pierson’s jab was among the discordant notes on a night the president had pitched as a paean to cooperation before mostly sticking to hard-line demands for a wall along the southern border and repeating attack lines against undocumented immigrants.

But Trump did pause to recognize the influx of newly elected Democratic women in the chamber. Trump noted that “we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before,” as freshman firebrands such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) stood while the crowd applauded.

Pierson, who made false claims on live television during the 2016 election about Hillary Clinton’s health and wrongly asserted that President Barack Obama started the war in Afghanistan, was not the only figure affiliated with Trump’s campaign to draw KKK comparisons with the Democrats wearing white.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Write your Senators ~ Do It Today!

OA Logo.jpg

You might remember that in December, Congress came really close to passing a historic public lands package. This package included a slew of positive public lands bills we’ve been working on for years and also would have reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a crucial conservation program that expired last September. Sadly, the package didn’t pass but lawmakers promised to bring it back in January, and….
The Senate is currently trying to fast-track the public lands package and plans to consider it on the floor this week!
We’re psyched, but this bill definitely needs your help. The package is getting traction, but it’s important for members of Congress to hear that their constituents are behind them. A quick note to your Senators this week will be extremely helpful, and will ensure they prioritize and act on this legislation.
We’ve made it super easy with a draft letter you can send to your lawmakers. It takes just a minute or two to send, and we’ve heard from offices that this will be important this week.
Thanks so much,
Outdoor Alliance
P.S. If you want to learn more about the package and background, check out the blog post right here.


Sunday Reading: A New Wave of Female Candidates ~ The New Yorker


We’re twenty-two months away from Election Day, but the 2020 Presidential race has already begun—and it features a fascinating group of female candidates. This week, we’re bringing you pieces about some of these women, one of whom may be sitting in the Oval Office in two years’ time. Jeffrey Toobin profiles Elizabeth Warren, in “The Professor,” and, in “The Warren Brief,” Jill Lepore explores her views about corruption and inequality. Benjamin Wallace-Wells explains how Kamala Harris transformed from a prosecutor into a politician, and Evan Osnos chronicles the rise of Kirsten Gillibrand, who is “known for a near-evangelical confidence in the prospect of bipartisanship, in the restoration of the Senate, and in herself.” Kelefa Sanneh meets Tulsi Gabbard, the young, unorthodox representative from Hawaii who, if she won, would be our first Hindu President. And, finally, in a piece from 1928, Russel Crouse tells the story of Victoria Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for President, in 1872, as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party. Last year’s midterm elections saw an unprecedented number of women win seats in Congress. Contemplating the strengths of the women who have announced their candidacy for President so far, it’s easy to see how the 2020 election could be similarly historic.

1878-1932 Major Taylor

00overlooked-blh-slide-KTWR-master675.jpgThe cyclist Major Taylor in 1898. He traveled the globe, racing as far away as Australia, and became known as the “Black Cyclone.” Science History Images/Alamy


More than 100 years ago, one of the most popular spectator sports in the world was bicycle racing, and one of the most popular racers was a squat, strapping man with bulging thighs named Major Taylor.

He set records in his teens and was a world champion at 20. He traveled the globe, racing as far away as Australia, and amassed wealth among the greatest of any athlete of his time. Thousands of people flocked to see him; newspapers fawned over him.

Major Taylor was the “Black Cyclone,” at once the LeBron James and Jackie Robinson of his time. He blew past racial barriers in an overwhelmingly white field bent on stopping him, sometimes violently.

He was the first African-American world champion in cycling and the second black athlete to win a world championship in any sport.

So consider this: He died penniless in 1932, at age 53, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The head-spinning arc of Taylor’s life is a story too little told.

He endured racial hostility — including a brutal beating at a race and more than one episode of sabotage on the course — yet he persevered and professed to bear no animosity.

“Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart,” he wrote in his self-published 1928 autobiography, “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds.”

He lived a life of triumph and tragedy seemingly made for Hollywood, yet by the end of his life could barely sell copies of his book.

“To imagine what he went through in the 1890s is unimaginable,” Edwin Moses, an Olympic gold medalist in track and the honorary chairman of the Major Taylor Association, said in a telephone interview. “I could not imagine competing and being a winner with what he put up with.”

Major Taylor was not actually a major.

Marshall Walter Taylor was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 26, 1878, one of eight children of Gilbert and Saphronia (Kelter) Taylor. He acquired his nickname as a boy doing bicycle tricks outside a cycle shop while dressed in a military uniform to attract customers.

The shop’s owner, Tom Hay, entered Taylor in his first race, a 10-miler, and he won by six seconds. He was 13.

But despite his victories and his jaw-dropping times, Taylor was not allowed to join cycling clubs in Indiana and was barred from tracks. So a savvy racing manager and bicycle manufacturer named Louis Munger, known as Birdie, persuaded him to move to Worcester, Mass.

“I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis,” Taylor wrote in his autobiography.

In 1896, Munger entered Taylor in a grueling six-day race at Madison Square Garden (a television commercial for Hennessy cognac, released last year, celebrates his performance in that race). It crushed him physically but catapulted him, just after his 18th birthday, into the world of professional cycling.

“He had to be terrified,” said Karen Brown-Donovan, his great-granddaughter, in an email, adding, “especially since he was the only person of color on the track.”

“The fact that he lasted for the duration of the six-day race was astonishing,” she said.

In 1899, he shocked the world by winning the one-mile sprint at the world championship in track cycling, the second black athlete, after the Canadian bantamweight boxer George Dixon, to win a world title in a recognized sport.

But for all his newfound celebrity, racism still held him back, even in Worcester.

When he moved into a new house, his neighbors at first tried to get him to relocate.

And with Jim Crow laws in full force, he wasn’t spared on the track, either.

Ice water was thrown at him and nails laid in the path of his bicycle by members of rival racing teams. Riders routinely jostled and elbowed him — and he still won.

Perhaps the worst incident, covered in The New York Times, was in September 1897. After a one-mile race in which Taylor placed second, the third-place finisher, William Becker, “wheeled up behind Taylor and grabbed him by the shoulder. The colored man was thrown to the ground, Becker choked him into a state of insensibility, and the police were obliged to interfere.”

Becker accused Taylor of crowding him, something nobody else saw. He was later fined $50 but was allowed to continue racing.

The hotbed of cycling was Europe, but it took some time before Taylor would compete there. Many of the races were on Sundays, and Taylor, a devout Baptist since his mother’s death in 1898, refused to race then — a conviction that inspired the Otis Taylor blues song “He Never Raced on Sunday.”

Still, Taylor had become so famous that race organizers eventually moved events to weekdays to accommodate him. He was embraced in France and beat every European champion, further sealing his iconic status.

“Major Taylor had a proud and confident identity in Europe and was not a crushed or threatened black man,” Andrew Ritchie wrote in his 1988 biography, “Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer.”

As The Times marveled during a 1903 tour in Australia, “he has won many big prizes and is making money at a rapid rate.”

Eventually, age and younger competitors caught up with Taylor. He retired in 1910, then struggled to capitalize on his success. Interest in cycling was fading as the automobile captivated the public. He made bad investments — including the self-published autobiography — and his savings were further devastated by the 1929 stock market crash, all but erasing his fortune. His health declined and his marriage, to Daisy Victoria Morris in 1902, fell apart.

“Once he was done as a sports person his opportunities dried up,” said Todd Balf, author of “Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being,” published in 2008. “I can only imagine the stress and strain of trying to make a go of it.

Marshall “Major” Taylor racing on May 27, 1901. The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

~~~  MORE  ~~~

Frida Kahlo Was a Painter, a Brand Builder, a Survivor. And So Much More ~ NYT

The artist and pop culture icon meticulously built her own image. A sweeping survey at the Brooklyn Museum examines how she did it, and why.

Scenes from “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” at the Brooklyn Museum.CreditCreditClockwise from top left, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums; Javier Hinojosa, via V&A Publishing (dress and lipstick); Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Nickolas Muray Photo Archive; Brooklyn Museum; Brooklyn Museum

By Rebecca Kleinman


Frida Kahlo’s exhaustively documented crossover from artist to pop culture icon isn’t happenstance. The painter meticulously crafted her own image on a par with Cleopatra. If she were alive today, she’d probably be teaching a branding class at Harvard. Now it’s America’s turn to see how, and, more important, why she did it.

Some of the contents of the home she shared with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera — known as La Casa Azul (Blue House) in Mexico City — will be accessible for the first time in the United States in “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, from Feb. 8 to May 12. Their belongings were to be locked away until 15 years after Rivera’s death, according to his instructions, but the task of unsealing and inventorying them didn’t happen until much later, in 2004. This is the biggest stateside show devoted to Kahlo and a considerably expanded iteration of last year’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The sweeping survey adds greater insight into Kahlo’s collecting habits through works culled from the museum’s vault as well as the New York chapter of her timeline, and includes works lent by local institutions and galleries. The supplementary mix of Mesoamerican objects, one of the many types of art the couple favored, with her paintings and photographs divulge her yearning for Mexico’s indigenous and agrarian culture and her conflicts with capitalism, especially in the income inequality she witnessed during her travels in the United States.

Visitors will better understand Kahlo’s skill in searing her likeness into the public imagination, even if it meant dangling monkeys around her head and cultivating her most recognizable physical traits — a statement ’stache and unibrow. Neither her disabilities from polio and a bus accident, nor her frequent relapses of pain deterred Kahlo. By the time she died at the age of 47 in 1954, she left behind a public persona that is still being mined well into the 21st century; today she has more than 800,000 Instagram followers.

“People have an insatiable curiosity with her, and this presentation is a rare opportunity to see how she built her identity,” said Catherine Morris, a senior curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, who organized the Brooklyn Museum’s version of the show with Lisa Small, senior curator of European Art. Here, they share some of their insights.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery.CreditDiego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums; Javier Hinojosa, via V&A Publishing

A mastermind at using fashion to her advantage, Kahlo delivered red-carpet moments wherever she went. “She even dressed that way to work in her studio,” Ms. Small said. Her ethnic ensembles, famously inspired by Oaxaca’s Tehuana, a matriarchal society, dismissed de rigueur looks dictated by Parisian designers and the soulless mass production of clothing. Vogue magazine took notice. Kahlo championed her homeland’s indigenous customs in wearing huipiles (woven tunics), rebozos (shawls) and flouncy, long skirts. They also drew attention away from her polio-ravaged right leg and body casts from several operations after her near-fatal bus accident. She frequently referred to herself as the great concealer.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait With a Necklace,” 1933, oil on metal. Jade stones in the show are Mesoamerican, from her personal collection.CreditBanco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Besides its feminine allure, jewelry struck a more personal chord for Kahlo. Like her intricate updos embellished with hair ornaments and blossoms, chandelier earrings and bold necklaces drew onlookers’ focus to her face. They were also another vehicle for her to express her passion for Mexican crafts including contemporary silver jewelry and native materials like jade, favored by the ancient Maya. “She most commonly wore gold rope necklaces and Mesoamerican jade stones, which she’d string into extraordinarily chunky necklaces,” Ms. Small said.

A Colima dog figure, 200 B.C.E.-500 C.E., ceramic, evokes the spirit of the collections at La Casa Azul.CreditBrooklyn Museum


In one gallery, the curators set out to re-create the vibe of Kahlo and Rivera’s home. Azure-painted walls and a case of Mesoamerican ceramic and stone sculptures and vessels, from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, evoke its spirit. The ancient objects convey the couple’s eclectic taste and deep appreciation for Mexican art and archaeology. “They’d have a colonial portrait next to a pre-Columbian piece next to a gas mask from the 1940s,” said Ms. Small, who located a Colima dog sculpture in the museum’s collection similar to those at La Casa Azul.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Resort Skiing Is Dangerous. And It Always Will Be ~ Outside Magazine

Extreme Sports

Two men died in one of the worst inbounds avalanches in decades. What happens now?

On January 17, a catastrophic inbounds avalanche released in open terrain on the K3 Chute of Taos Ski Valley’s 12,481-foot Kachina Peak. The resulting slide ripped to the ground, capturing two skiers and depositing them in a debris pile reportedly 150 yards long and deeper in spots than a 20-foot probe. Both skiers, 26-year-old Matthew Zonghetti, of Massachusetts, and 22-year-old Corey Borg-Massanari, of Colorado, died. According to the Taos News, the deaths were the first avalanche fatalities in Taos’s 64-year history. These were deep burials (six-plus feet), which are rarely survived even in the best of circumstances.

Again, the avalanche occurred inbounds on open terrain. Neither skier did anything wrong that day. As with all avalanche deaths, whether inbounds or out, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the aftermath of such tragedies, there’s a tremendous sense of grief and an outpouring of support, specifically to the families who have lost a loved one, but also to the first responders and skiing community. And then, later, skiers and the wider public tend to ask three questions: How can avalanches happen inbounds on controlled terrain? What happens now? And, are inbounds avalanches becoming increasingly common?

I’ve done extensive reporting on this subject, and the answer to the first question—how can it happen?—is that, well, it’s complicated. Avalanches are an inherent risk of resort skiing and snowboarding. And they always will be. No matter how many explosives ski patrol tosses, the risk never goes to zero. It can’t. Avalanches don’t work that way.

Here’s a primer, with an apology to the avalanche professionals out there for dumbing it down. Most deaths—inbounds and out—are attributed to what are called slab avalanches, as opposed to loose or wet slides. In simple terms, a slab is a layer (or many layers) of consolidated snow on top of a layer (or many layers) of unconsolidated snow or icy crust. When you hear ski patrol blasting during or immediately after a storm, they’re typically concerned with what are known as surface or storm slabs. The fear is that the new snow layer isn’t bonded to the surface snow beneath it. Storm slabs can be easy to predict by watching the weather, but they can be hard to pinpoint on a mountain, thanks to what avalanche forecasters refer to as spatial variability—the wind and the terrain decides the location. At a ski area, that can mean such pockets of unstable snow go untriggered by the snow-safety team out running its routes or by the bombs they throw. Spatial variability is the number one reason why avalanches are inherent to ski areas.

But there’s a more insidious type of slab that’s even more closely tied to inbounds avalanches. It’s often called a “persistent slab.” Scientists spend lifetimes studying them, but in the briefest of explanations, a persistent slab means that a weak layer (or layers) is buried beneath the surface of the snowpack. The weak layer often takes the form of the type of round crystals that make for shitty snowballs—they don’t stick to each other. As with storm slabs, persistent slabs are spatially variable. But while the weak layers are easy to identify by digging a deep test pit, knowing when or if one will lead to a slide—especially with deep instabilities—is perhaps the most challenging tasks in the outdoor world. Avalanche forecasters like to say that such layers are “guilty until proven innocent,” and ski resorts spend tens of thousands of dollars each winter testing such deep instabilities with explosives. But of course you can never prove anything with avalanches unless you throw a bomb and make one slide. Those weak layers can get worse over time depending on the weather; the weight of new snow can make them more tenuous, and they also come with nearly impossible-to-predict triggers, such as when the weak layer encounters a rock and you ski near the rock, or when the snow above gets scoured by the wind so that a skier can interact with the suspect layer.

For all these reasons and many, many more, avalanches, like the weather, are a level one chaotic system. And like the weather, they’re inherent to the mountains—avalanche-controlled or otherwise. I’ve witnessed inbounds avalanches that have carried skiers over cliffs and inspected firsthand the evidence of other massive inbounds slides. In one case, the terrain had been open for many months.

I’ll leave it to the avalanche professionals on the scene at Taos to determine the specifics of the Kachina Peak slide, but as a well-read 20-year veteran of backcountry skiing, the K3 avalanche was almost certainly not a storm slab, but rather a deep release of a persistent slab. Images and firsthand accounts of the Kachina slide would indicate that the entire snowpack broke all the way to the ground and ran the length of the avalanche path. A U.S. avalanche forecaster might call that a Category 5 event: it went as deep as it could possibly go, for as long as it could possibly go.

No resort advertises the fact, but as skiers we live with this type of residual uncertainty much of the time we ski big terrain. If we weren’t collectively OK with that small level of risk, we would never ski off the low-angle groomers. So, as with collisions with other skiers, slips from chairlifts, and falls from cliffs, avalanches are considered an inherent risk to resort skiing and snowboarding. This was recently confirmed in the Colorado courts after a lawsuit was filed in the wake of two avalanche fatalities that occurred on the same day at separate resorts in 2013. Avalanches, the Colorado Supreme Court found in 2016, are indeed an inherent risk in the sport—and resorts, barring clear-cut negligence, are protected from avalanche-related lawsuits. That decision further validated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act, which never specifically mentions avalanches but does address the inherent dangers of snow.

And that speaks directly to the second question. What happens in the wake of a tragedy like the one that occurred on Kachina? My long-standing industry sources tell me that in the immediate aftermath, there will be an investigation. Typically conducted by the resort (though a Forest Service law-enforcement officer and avalanche forecaster may be involved), the snow-safety team and the resort’s risk-management staff will immediately review the mitigation work that was performed, interview all employees and witnesses with a corporate attorney present, analyze the decision-making process that led the resort to open the terrain, and debrief the emergency response. By the end of the investigation, the resort will have a feel for whether it was negligent in its duties or if it did everything in its power to operate safely.

Later, lawsuits will likely be filed. But if Colorado’s 2013 incidents serve as precedent, the local courts will look to state law for guidance as they try to determine in favor of the plaintiffs (negligence on behalf of the resort) or the ski area (assumption of risk on behalf of the skiers). Every state’s body of case law is different, every case is different, and negligence trumps all. But while there’s no certainty that a judge will rule in favor of the resort if and when a case makes it to the state supreme court, New Mexico’s own Skier Safety Act would surely come into play—specifically the bit about snow’s inherent risks. The language is written into New Mexico’s act, which uses the same wording as Colorado’s:

“Each skier expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury to person or property which results from participation in the sport of skiing, in the skiing area, including any injury caused by the following: variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions.”

It may not be particularly clear, but “surface and subsurface conditions” includes the types of avalanches discussed above.

Given the law, the case-law precedent, the nature of avalanches, and the fact that Taos Ski Valley has a reputation for diligent and extremely cautious avalanche-mitigation work and terrain opening, the bar for negligence in any court proceedings will be set pretty high. As it should be. Without those protections, resorts might not be able to operate in what many of us would consider challenging and fun terrain. In the worst-case scenario, if we as skiers don’t assume some risk, expert skiing on unique western terrain will end.

The fact that most skiers today don’t appear to know about the risk of inbounds avalanches would seem to indicate that the ski industry isn’t marketing that particular risk very well to skiers. But it’s also true that despite the recent loss of life in Colorado and New Mexico, deaths by inbounds avalanches are exceedingly rare. The latest fatalities amount to the 10th and 11th, including patrollers, in the U.S. since 2008. That translates to roughly one avy-related death per year out of 50 million annual skier visits.

As to whether inbounds avalanche deaths are on the rise, it’s probably too soon to say. We know anecdotally that—equipped with better gear—skiers and snowboarders are spending more time in deep powder on bigger terrain. And we also know that across North America, resorts have moved to open more of that terrain. But it would be conjecture to draw too much of a correlation yet. In fact, over the decades resorts have become markedly safer in terms of inbounds avalanches. In total, 45 skiers and snowboarders died from inbounds avalanches from 1950 to 2017. But while between 1951 and 1979, roughly 10 percent of all U.S. avalanche deaths occurred inbounds, by 1994 that inbounds number had dropped to 1.3 percent—which, even though it reflects the growth of backcountry skiing and snowmobiling (deaths moved to the backcountry), is still a sizable drop and hints at the adoption of avalanche mitigation across the resort industry.

Assuming 27 Americans die per year in avalanches, that means, over the past ten years, 3.5 percent of those fatalities have been inbounds. Which, if borne out, hints at a slight uptick. Or perhaps it’s a statistical anomaly and inbounds avalanche deaths will quickly taper off again. Moving forward, though, with avalanche control getting more sophisticated due to new mitigation devices like Daisy Bells and GazEx Exploders, the control work might just stay ahead of it. Let’s hope so.

In the meantime, we’d all benefit from treating mountains and mountain environments like the inherently dangerous places they are. We owe that to the expert skiers who—through no fault of their own—died while skiing in this big terrain. Knowing that avalanches are an inherent risk in no way softens that human tragedy. But we can learn from the loss and remember that despite the grooming and the bubble chairs, the heated parking lots and the mid-mountain macchiatos, our high peaks are forever wild—and they always will be.