Mary Beth Pfeiffer, an investigative journalist for three decades, began reporting on Lyme disease in 2012 for the Poughkeepsie Journal. Her latest book is Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate
Evolution has endowed the big-footed snowshoe hare with a particularly nifty skill. Over a period of about 10 weeks, as autumn days shorten in the high peaks and boreal forests, the nimble nocturnal hare transforms itself. Where it was once a tawny brown to match the pine needles and twigs amid which it forages, the hare turns silvery white, just in time for the falling of winter snow. This transformation is no inconsequential feat. Lepus americanus, as it is formally known, is able to jump 10 feet and run at a speed of 27 miles per hour, propelled by powerful hind legs and a fierce instinct to live. But it nonetheless ends up, 86 per cent of the time by one study, as a meal for a lynx, red fox, coyote, or even a goshawk or great horned owl. The change of coat is a way to remain invisible, to hide in the brush or fly over the snow unseen, long enough at least to keep the species going.
Snowshoe hares are widely spread throughout the colder, higher reaches of North America – in the wilderness of western Montana, on the coniferous slopes of Alaska, and in the forbidding reaches of the Canadian Yukon. The Yukon is part of the Beringia, an ancient swathe of territory that linked Siberia and North America by a land bridge that, with the passing of the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago, gave way to the Bering Strait. All manner of mammals, plants and insects ferried east and west across that bridge, creating, over thousands of years, the rich boreal forest. But in this place, north of the 60-degree latitude, the axiom of life coloured by stinging cold, early snow and concrete ribbons of ice has been upended in the cosmic blink of an eye. The average temperature has increased by 2 degrees Celsius in the past half century, and by 4 degrees Celsius in the winter. Glaciers are rapidly receding, releasing ancient torrents of water into Kluane Lake, a 150-square-mile reflecting pool that has been called a crown jewel of the Yukon. Lightning storms, ice jams, forest fires, rain – these things are suddenly more common. Permafrost is disappearing.
Such rapid-fire changes across a broad swathe of northern latitudes are testing the adaptive abilities of the snowshoe hare, however swift and nimble it might be. Snow arrives later. Snow melts earlier. But the hare changes its coat according to a long-set schedule, which is to say that the snowshoe is sometimes snowy white when its element is still robustly brown. And that makes it an easier target for prey. In 2016, wildlife biologists who tracked the hares in a rugged wilderness in Montana gave this phenomenon a name: ‘climate change-induced camouflage mismatch’. The hares moulted as they always had. It’s just that the snow didn’t come. Survival rates dropped by 7 per cent as predation increased.
In order to outwit its newest enemy – warmer winters – snowshoe hares would need something in the order of a natural miracle, what the biologists, writing in the journal Ecology Letters, called an ‘evolutionary rescue’. Like the Yukon, this pristine corner of Montana was projected to lose yet more snow cover; there would be perhaps an additional month of bare forest floor by the middle of this century, on which snowshoe hares would stand out like bright white balloons.
Jeff Derry, director of the Colorado-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, digs a snow pit at the Swamp Angel monitoring site in the San Juan Mountains.
A menace lurks beneath the snow high up in the southern Rocky Mountains: Dust. Lots and lots of dust.
This dust speeds up spring water runoff, causing intense melting and streams to peak weeks earlier than usual — which wrecks havoc throughout the alpine ecosystem. Water managers and fire forecasters alike are sounding the alarm about the consequences of less water flowing in streams and reservoirs.
At first glance the dust seems innocuous. How could something so simple undermine water infrastructure, stress wildlife and lengthen the wildfire season all at once?
For most of the winter, dust stays buried under blankets of snow. Then, as the days grow longer and the sun’s rays begin to melt the top layers, it begins to show. To see the dust before this happens, you need to dig a snow pit.
In the spring, Jeff Derry can often be found waist-deep in one of these pits, somewhere in the southern Rocky Mountains. Derry, the director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, Colo., pays close attention to the amount of dust that winds up embedded in snow.
“I’ll be curious if you’re going to be able to see the dust event we had Feb. 18 and 19,” Derry said one day in April, shoveling snow over the edge of a half-formed pit. “It is very subtle.”
Derry uses a range of instruments to pull details from the pits, each fine-tuned to measure snow qualities such as temperature, density and reflectivity. But the best way to gauge the magnitude of a dust layer is with the human eye, Derry said.
White snow melts slower than snow covered in dust because of its high albedo, or reflectivity. It reflects radiation from the sun rather than absorb it.
Courtesy of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies
“It’s very qualitative in a sense,” he said. “You go out, you look for it, you dig, you see what you see.”
In Derry’s current cross-sectioned snowpack, about 7 inches down, is a beige-colored band of dust.
This tiny little strip of dust has the potential to upend how water is managed in the West. Eventually, Derry says, this snow will melt and empty into the Colorado River. Its watershed provides water for some 40 million people in the southwest.
When there’s no dust on the snow, it’s brilliantly white: On a sunny day, this kind of snow can be reflective enough to cause eye damage. Without dirt or dust, the snow melts off slow and steady — like the drumbeat of a drip from a faucet. Dust cases the snow gets darker and absorb more sunlight.
“It melts the snow faster than it would have otherwise,” Derry says. “And then it melts down to the next dust layer, and so on and so forth until all the dust layers have combined at the surface of the snowpack greatly reducing the [reflectivity].”
A thin, barely visible stripe of dust sits about 7 inches down in snowpack in Colorado’s San Juan mountains.
When these dust layers combine, the sun’s radiation quickens the pace of runoff, making it all that more difficult to capture and divvy up the precious water.
This quickened runoff makes managing water harder and upsets mountain ecosystems, causing earlier green up of vegetation. And when snow melts earlier, wildfires have more opportunity to spark and take hold.
Most of the dust that’s settling in places like the San Juan mountains comes from the desert southwest, from land disturbances like farming, oil and gas drilling, cattle grazing, recreation and residential development on the southern end of the Colorado Plateau.
“It’s kind of a slow crisis, a slow disaster,” said Rich Reynolds, an emeritus researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver. “It’s not like a hurricane. It’s not like an earthquake or a volcano.”
In the past 50 years, as the Sun Belt boomed, scientists recorded a dramatic rise in the amount of dust being deposited on snow — which forces fundamental changes in how spring runoff occurs. Reynolds says reversing this trend won’t be an easy task.
“There’s no one size fits all in terms of mitigation for these kinds of source areas,” he said. “Plus, these are large, large areas.”
In a 2010 study researcher, scientists found that in heavy dust years, the Colorado River’s flow on average peaked three weeks earlier than in years without heavy dust deposition.
The same study also found that earlier melting snow reduces the amount of water that runs to the Colorado River by about 5 percent. That’s more water lost than the entire state of Nevada uses from the river in a year.
“What we found looking at those two in this region, is that it was actually dust that controlled snowmelt timing and magnitude and sort of how fast snow ran out of the mountains, as opposed to temperature,” Skiles said. “We didn’t see any relationship to temperature at all.”
Warming temperatures are more likely to affect and diminish total snow accumulation, causing some snow to come down as rain. But when it comes to runoff, dust is the controlling factor. It’s the sun’s rays that force snow to melt, not outside air temperature.
While science is beginning to paint a clearer picture of how this phenomenon plays out, Skiles says that there’s plenty the field doesn’t know about dust.
“We still have some questions on what controls the actual dynamics of the dust events themselves,” she said. “We see dust in every year, but there’s a high variability between the amount of dust that’s deposited each year.”
Back in the San Juan mountains, Derry says he’s bracing for more dust events this spring. The mountain range has registered five dust events since October. Derry says the San Juans are ground zero for this problem. And because they’re a key part of an already overtaxed Colorado River system, he says everyone in the seven U.S. states and in Mexico that depend on the river should be concerned.
“We’re located at the headwaters of four major watersheds,” Derry says. “And our mountain systems are undergoing change at a fundamental level.”
Change that could make the West an increasingly dry — and dusty — place.
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant.
A guanaco in Patagonia Park, Chile. (Linde Waidhofer)
Kristine Tompkins is a former CEO of Patagonia and current president of Tompkins Conservation. Tom Butler is the author of Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition and vice president for conservation advocacy at Tompkins Conservation.
PUERTO VARAS, Chile — “Sustainability” may be a worthy goal, but the word has become cliché, now typically deployed in its adverbial form to modify various nature-exploiting activities like “logging” and “fishing” or the catch-all “development.”
So let’s quit talking about “sustainable” this or that and face the overarching question about the future: Can we create a durable civilization in which humans become good neighbors in the community of life? Where our society is embedded in a matrix of wild nature that allows all creatures — from microorganisms to blue whales — freedom to pursue happiness and raise their progeny in a secure habitat?
The path to that flourishing future for the diversity of life is “rewilding” — helping nature heal by returning missing species and processes to parts of the planet where they’ve been eliminated or diminished by human activity. In a strange and inversely proportional ratio of planetary sickness to public concern, there seems to be less attention paid to the mountains of data that scientists are gathering on Earth’s ecological and climate unraveling. We have, however, seen the power of rewilding projects to capture public imagination and gain widespread support.
Recently, Argentine President Mauricio Macri and his family spent a weekend with the rewilding team from Tompkins Conservation, learning how biologists are reintroducing missing species to their former home in the Iberá marshlands of northern Argentina. After successfully returning giant anteaters, pampas deer, tapirs and green-winged macaws, the rewilding team is now working to breed jaguars in captivity so that their offspring may again roam freely in one of South America’s greatest natural areas.
A herd of guanacos in Patagonia Park, Chile. (Pablo Hubner)
In his first term, Macri established multiple new protected areas including Iberá National Park; its designation was prompted by the donation of privately assembled land from Tompkins Conservation. Macri has also articulated how expanded parks can help promote ecotourism-related economic vitality and help Argentina meet its commitments to address climate change: wild habitat equals natural carbon sequestered in soil and vegetation.
Similarly, on the other side of the Andes Mountains, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is creating new marine and terrestrial protected areas. Several weeks ago, before leaving office, Bachelet stood in front of a herd of wild guanacos grazing in the Chacabuco Valley and signed a decree creating the new Patagonia National Park. This act was part of her administration’s agreement to accept a land donation of 1 million acres from Tompkins Conservation along with all of the public-use infrastructure built for two new flagship parks.
Award–winning investigative environmental journalist Jonathan P. Thompson digs into the science, politics, and greed behind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster, and unearths a litany of impacts wrought by a century and a half of mining, energy development, and fracking in southwestern Colorado. Amid these harsh realities, Thompson explores how a new generation is setting out to make amends.
As shocking and heartbreaking as the Gold King spill and its aftermath may be, it’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The disaster itself was the climax of the long and troubled story of the Gold King mine, staked by a Swedish immigrant back in 1887. And it was only the most visible manifestation of a slow–moving, multi–faceted environmental catastrophe that had been unfolding here long before the events of August 5, 2015.
Jonathan Thompson is a native Westerner with deep roots in southwestern Colorado. He has been an environmental journalist focusing on the American West since he signed on as reporter and photographer at the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper in 1996. He has worked and written for High Country News for over a decade, serving as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2010. He was a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and in 2016 he was awarded the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market. He currently lives in Bulgaria with his wife Wendy and daughters Lydia and Elena.
Chahuaytire, Peru — Gumercinda Quispe is a descendant of Peruvian Incas and here, high in the Andes, more than 12,500 feet above sea level, she has prepared a nourishing, spicy potato soup, quacha chuño.
She has made it with both fresh potatoes and chuño, the dried, hard white potatoes that are still prepared just a stone’s throw away. The ancient preservation process includes soaking them in an icy stream, stomping them by foot to remove the skins and drying them in the sun.
I love potatoes. They are not a staple in my native India, as they are in Peru. In India, they are a beloved, cheap treat. Cooked in thousands of different ways, almost always creatively burnished with selective spoonfuls from a treasure chest of seasonings and spices, potatoes are served in every town and village at mealtimes and as chutney-augmented street snacks. I wanted to learn more about potatoes here in the land of their birth.
In the little mountain village of Chahuaytire near the town of Pisac in southern Peru, Ms. Quispe and I sat down at a table close to the warm, sooty hearth in the rustic restaurant where she works. The sun was shining bright outside, and the sky was a clear, cold blue.
“Put some sauce in the soup and drink from the bowl,” she said, motioning to the verdant uchucuta sauce she had prepared. “Uchu” means “chiles” in the Quechua language of the Incas, and “cuta” means “ground.”
The Atlantic Ocean circulation that carries warmth into the Northern Hemisphere’s high latitudes is slowing down because of climate change, a team of scientists asserted Wednesday, suggesting one of the most feared consequences is already coming to pass.
The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation has declined in strength by 15 percent since the mid-20th century to a “new record low,” the scientists conclude in a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature. That’s a decrease of 3 million cubic meters of water per second, the equivalent of nearly 15 Amazon rivers.
The AMOC brings warm water from the equator up toward the Atlantic’s northern reaches and cold water back down through the deep ocean. The current is partly why Western Europe enjoys temperate weather, and meteorologists are linking changes in North Atlantic Ocean temperatures to recent summer heat waves.
The circulation is also critical for fisheries off the U.S. Atlantic coast, a key part of New England’s economy that have seen changes in recent years, with the cod fishery collapsing as lobster populations have boomed off the Maine coast.
Some of the AMOC’s disruption may be driven by the melting ice sheet of Greenland, another consequence of climate change that is altering the region’s water composition and interrupts the natural processes.
This is “something that climate models have predicted for a long time, but we weren’t sure it was really happening. I think it is happening,” said one of the study’s authors, Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “And I think it’s bad news.”
But the full role of climate change in the slowing ocean current is not fully understood, and another study released Wednesday drew somewhat different conclusions.
This study, which was also published in the journal Nature, found that the AMOC has slowed over the past 150 years and similarly found that it is now weaker than at any time in more than a millennium.
“The last 100 years has been its lowest point for the last few thousand years,” said Jon Robson, a researcher at the University of Reading and one of the study’s authors. (The study’s lead author was David Thornalley of the University College London.)
The two studies have their differences: The second suggests the slowdown probably began for natural reasons around the time of the Industrial Revolution in 1850, rather than being spurred by human-caused climate change, which fully kicked in later.
But like the first study, the second finds that the circulation has remained weak, or even weakened further, through the present era of warming.
“These two new papers do point strongly to the fact that the overturning has probably weakened over the last 150 years,” Robson said. “There’s uncertainty about when, but the analogy between what happened 150 years ago and today is quite strong.”
Under typical (what is typical anymore?) spring SWE (snow/water/equalivant) this 1.7″ of H20 would translate to 17″ of snow @ 10% density (or whatever, you do the math). This rain event was nice but it subtracted from the already thin snow pack depth by shrinking/melting our Snow Bank that represents a slower run-off through gradual melting.
The Jan. 4 “bomb cyclone,” a particularly strong nor’easter. (CIRA)
It was March 2017, and a winter storm named Stella promised to deliver as much as a foot and a half of snow to New York City and parts of New Jersey. Officials pushed out blizzard warnings, suggesting the city was under imminent snowy siege.
But only seven inches fell. Gov. Chris Christie blasted forecasters. “I don’t know how much we should be paying these weather guys,” he said. “I’ve had my fill of the National Weather Service after seven and a half years.”
For anyone following the weather, forecasts for big storms are sometimes still roller-coaster rides — with sudden shifts in track or intensity. As a meteorologist who forecasts for a large urban market, I can attest to the frustration. Why can’t we get it right every time, given this era of 24/7 weather data, dozens of satellites and sophisticated computer models? The answer lies in the quirks between the most popular forecasting models.
Battle of the models
Computer forecast models have become the mainstay of weather prediction across North America and many other parts of the world. Run on fast supercomputers, these sophisticated mathematical models of the atmosphere have gotten better over the past couple of decades.
Human forecast skill has improved by approximately one day per decade. In other words, today’s four-day forecast is as accurate as a three-day forecast was a decade ago.
Forecasters in the United States routinely examine several models, but the two most discussed are the American and the European. When the models disagree on the track of a big storm, forecasters must often choose which they believe is most correct. This decision can make or break a critical forecast.
Most meteorologists agree that the European model is the most skillful. This was cemented in March 1993, when it correctly forecast the track and intensity of a historical nor’easter. Called the “Storm of the Century,” the storm dropped a blanket of heavy snow from the Gulf Coast to the northern tip of Maine.
The storm was a milestone for what is termed medium-range forecasting, or forecasts made three to seven days out. The European model nailed the prediction five days in advance. That meant officials could declare states of emergency before the first flakes ever flew.
American model simulation of atmospheric moisture (precipitable water) showing atmospheric river pointed at central California on Friday night. (WeatherBell.com)
The term “Pineapple Express” sounds like the tropical cousin of famous Warner Bros. Christmas movie “The Polar Express.” In the world of weather, it’s a narrow plume of deep tropical moisture that snakes from Hawaii all the way to the West Coast.
Others call these phenomena “atmospheric rivers,” because they are ribbons of warm, humid air drawn into the subtropical air current. Although they sometimes stretch for thousands of miles in length, they oftentimes are less than a few hundred miles wide.
Though it’s late in the season, another one is brewing — one that the National Weather Service is calling “potent.” It will take aim at the California coast Friday into Saturday, unleashing heavy rainfall, gusty winds and flash-flood concerns in the higher elevations.
The heaviest precipitation looks to come down in the Santa Clara Valley, along the Coastal Range and the Santa Cruz mountains. While Los Angeles will be too far south and will barely skirt the moisture plume, San Francisco will sit smack dab in the middle of the fire hose. While 2 to 3 inches of rain is possible there, the mountains farther inland will poke into the jet stream and snatch the water right out of the sky. Some places along the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada could see up to 6 to 8 inches.
Now that’s no small potatoes, but even more astonishing is that this could be the wettest air mass on record in central California. Meteorologists measure atmospheric moisture content with an index called PWATs — short for precipitable water. It’s a measure of how much moisture is stored in a column from the ground to the top of the atmosphere. Most of the time, it’s impossible to tap into all of that moisture. But sometimes, storm systems can squeeze it all out of the air just as one would wring out a washcloth.
Welcome to spring! Grand Valley trees are producing buds and flowers, and our tulips have emerged.
It has been an unusual winter. La Nina winters typically have a snowy January and that certainly didn’t happen this last winter. One pattern I have noticed is the second La Nina in a row is often dry and drier than the first La Nina. The last two “second La Nina in a row” were 2011-12 and 1999-00. Both of those seasons were dry overall but with a snowy January. Attached is a spreadsheet showing the winter’s and March’s Colorado precipitation and their comparison to average. It shows that the typical La Nina pattern of a wetter north and drier south did occur. This last winter it seems the storm track was shifted further north. You have to go up into Wyoming’s Wind River Range to find above normal snowpack.
This pattern has continued into March with the south really falling far behind normal. In the first attached image you can see the last 90 days have been warm and dry for the Great Basin, Southwest, and central-southern plains.
The outlook for April and the Apr-May-Jun season shows the La Nina pattern persisting, see attached second image. The storm track remains across the northern tier of states while the SW and south remain warm and dry. A dry spring is typical during La Nina seasons. Fire season has already started in SE Colorado and we are in heightened fire danger as we head into the warm season.
There is some reason for hope. A low snowpack is correlated to an earlier start to the monsoon season. Fingers crossed.
The outlook for next cold season currently shows an equal chance of El Nino and ENSO Neutral. El Ninos typically favor SW Colorado (and AZ-NM) with precipitation, while ENSO Neutral years are wild cards with no favored storm track.