TRUFFLE HUNTERS’

THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS follows a handful of men, seventy to eighty years young, in Piedmont, Italy, on the search for the elusive Alba truffle. They’re guided by a secret culture passed down through generations, as well as by the noses of their cherished and expertly trained dogs. The documentary subtly explores the devastating effects of climate change and deforestation on an age-old tradition through a visually stunning narrative that celebrates life and exalts the human spirit.

~~~ WATCH ~~~

‘The Truffle Hunters’ Tells The Story Of Men And Dogs Searching For Culinary Gold

~~~ LISTEN TO INTERVIEW ON NPR ~~~

NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw about their new documentary. The Truffle Hunters is about the men and dogs who sniff out Italy’s rare white Alba truffles.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Review: In ‘Truffle Hunters,’ An Enchanting But Beset World

By JAKE COYLEAP Film Writer     

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Aurelio Conterno and his dog Birba in a scene from

Uncredited, ASSOCIATED PRESS

You’ve got to love a movie that credits its dogs before it does its executive producers. 

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows a scene from
This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows a scene from

View all (3)

“The Truffle Hunters,” Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s exquisitely charming documentary about old Italian men who scavenge truffles and the dogs they’re bound to, lists the canines with the appropriate respect in the end credits. Birba. Biri. Charlie. Fiona. Nina. Titina. Yari. These are some of the stars of “Truffle Hunters,” a profoundly lovely movie that delights in the noble scavengers of a dog-eat-dog world.

“The Truffle Hunters,” which is shortlisted for best documentary at the Academy Awards and which Sony Pictures Classics will release in theaters Friday, is set in the northern Italy forests of Piedmont. Dweck and Kershaw, both cinematographers, film the truffle hunters — aging, sweet men practicing an ancient and secretive tradition — in painterly, pointillistic tableaux as they walk through autumnal forests, foraging with their dogs. They seep into the landscape.

The film, scored by composer Ed Cortes with retro Italian pop mixed in, conjures an otherworldly enchantment. In between backwoods trips where their dogs smell their way to the high-priced delicacies, the hunters live humbly in old country homes. Our main characters are never explicitly introduced, but we’re drawn intimately into their world, as if we just passed through a magical portal. Aurelio, 84, dines with his companion, Birba, sitting on the table. Carlo, 88, never seems to stop smiling, especially when he manages to get past his wife (who sternly believes him too old to truffle hunt at night) and slip into the woods with his dog, Titina. The younger, long-haired Sergio, a kindly but passionate soul, bathes with his pups — Pepe and Fiona — in a pink-tiled tub. This, surely, is a gentle realm every bit as bewitching as Narnia. 

But the hunters’ earthy endeavor isn’t as simple as it seems. Their way of life is a dying one. The rare white Alba truffle is increasingly hard to find because of effects on the soil connected to climate change. The hunters are often pressed for their secrets. “If tomorrow something happens, your wisdom would be lost,” one man urges Aurelio. So sought-after are the truffles that their dogs are perpetually at risk of being poisoned by competitors. Sergio, terrified of losing his, pounds on his drums for catharsis. Another hunter, intent on putting something down, hammers furiously at his typewriter. “Dogs are innocent,” he writes. 

The sense that the hunters — who are really in it for the dogs more than money or anything else — are, like their four-legged friends, innocents in a corrupt world only expands when the filmmakers follow the truffle food chain. Haggling over prices by headlight, the hunters seem always lowballed by a well-dressed buyer. Higher up, still, are the Michelin-starred restaurants and auction houses that feast on the hunters’ finds. This commercial world, miles removed from the muddy forests of Piedmont, is seen in “The Truffle Hunters” like an antiseptic, colorless modern life that has lost the taste of the simple and eternal. 

Wonder and whimsy is back in the forest. “The Truffle Hunters” — surely among the greatest dog movies — even wryly occasionally shifts to a dog’s point of view. We see — via dog cam — like one of the hunters’ dogs when he’s let out of the car and runs down a path, panting. 

Just as last year’s beekeeping beauty “Honeyland,” “The Truffle Hunters” is a richly allegorical documentary of a vanishing agricultural pastime. The truffles, weighed and sniffed at market, are delicacies. But the finer things rhapsodized here are not expensive rarities. What’s worth savoring is natural splendor, the charms of tradition, and, above all, a good dog. Those things aren’t delicacies, but they’re fragile just the same.

“The Truffle Hunters,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some language. Running time: 84 minutes. Four stars out of four.

RECENT SNOWSTORMS ARE BARELY SCRATCHING THE SURFACE OF COLORADO’S ONGOING DROUGHT ~ The Colorado Sun

The state needed an above-average snow year this winter to reverse the drought’s momentum. Forecasts for the next few months aren’t optimistic, either.

Lucy Haggard

Mar 4, 2021

Paonia Reservoir sits covered in snow in Gunnison County, Colorado. Monday Jan. 25, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado is no longer technically 100% in drought. And conditions in some areas of the state have slightly improved as recent spring snows have left deeper-than-forecast drifts. But don’t get too excited just yet. 

Last week’s snowstorms across the Front Range were enough to downgrade some areas from “extreme” drought to “severe,” according to the latest national drought monitor report released Thursday by the University of Nebraska. And the previous week’s map had downgraded much of the San Luis Valley from “moderate” drought to “abnormally dry.”

That’s the good news. The bad news: 98.57% of the state is still in drought, to varying degrees. And experts aren’t confident that conditions will improve anytime soon. 

Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes or other weather events, drought is a phenomenon that builds over time, and its effects compound as it persists. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center and the author of this week’s drought monitor report, noted that some regions of the state, particularly the southwest, have been drier than average for multiple years. This time last year, 45.33% of the state was in drought, none of which was classified in the worst two categories. 

As of Thursday’s report, 56.66% of the state’s drought is “extreme” or “exceptional.” Colorado’s current drought conditions are the result of a combination of earlier-than-average snowmelt last spring, a lack of summer monsoons and a warm, dry autumn that led the state to use even more of its water reserves. Add this winter’s lackluster snowfall and it becomes a tricky situation. 

“If it took a number of years to get into drought, what will it take over the next several years to come out of drought?” Fuchs said. 

Answering that question is a complicated task. The order of operations is important, too; soils need to rehydrate first, soaking up runoff like a sponge, before the water can continue on to rivers and streams. 

In an ideal scenario, the state would have received above-average snowpack this winter to saturate dried-out soils, store up enough moisture for better runoff this spring and summer and refill reservoirs. But snow-water equivalent estimates for Colorado’s eight alpine river basins are at least a little below their 30-year averages, according to reports from the National Resource Conservation Service. (The amount of liquid water held in snow can vary, so measuring snow depth alone won’t accurately gauge how much runoff will occur when warmer weather arrives.

The spring months are often perceived as Colorado’s snowiest time of year, but Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger says that’s really only true for the Front Range. Higher elevations should be receiving sizable moisture loads all winter long, and despite recent storms, models for the next few months are not encouraging.

“Unfortunately it’s little battles that are being won in a bigger war,” Bolinger said. “One winter can be prepared for, and that’s why we have reservoirs and that’s why we monitor this. A winter like this, where we came in already struggling is definitely going to be a bigger concern.”

The state has already activated the agricultural and municipal parts of its drought contingency plan, and Front Range cities are warning residents that they may need to cut back their use this spring. 

Negotiations will begin soon in the yearslong process to reallocate the Colorado River basin’s flows among the seven states, two countries and multiple tribes that rely on its water. The past 20 years have seen increasingly frequent drought conditions due to climate change, and Bolinger says it may become impossible to recover from these water deficits.

“It’s something that can’t be made up,” Bolinger said. “These compacts that they wrote in the 1920s just really aren’t appropriate for what our climate and water situation actually looks like today.”

AVALANCHE INVESTIGATORS TESTIFYING IN CRIMINAL CASE COULD HAVE “CHILLING EFFECT,” WARNS COLORADO AG ~ The Colorado Sun

State Attorney General says testimony of Colorado Avalanche Information Center boss Ethan Green in first-ever criminal case involving an avalanche could hinder reporting and damage the research function of the agency.

Jason Blevins

Mar 5, 2021

The March 25 avalanche deposited as much as 20 feet of debris on the Loop Road above the west portal of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Evan Hannibal happily handed over his helmet video of the avalanche that triggered below his snowboard and buried a service road above Interstate 70 last March. 

He hoped the Colorado Avalanche Information Center would use the video and his first-person account to help educate other skiers and snowboarders. Maybe the lessons he learned from his close-up with an avalanche could help others avoid slides. 

So when Summit County prosecutors used the video to anchor a criminal case and seek restitution for an avalanche mitigation device damaged in the March 25 slide, Hannibal argued that the charges could sway other backcountry travelers to stop sharing information with the avalanche center and its investigators. 

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, acting an attorney for the state’s avalanche center, last week agreed with Hannibal, arguing that Summit County’s plan to call avalanche center director Ethan Greene as an expert witness “could have an unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact on the CAIC’s ability to gather important information.”

Weiser’s office filed motions to quash subpoenas issued by the Fifth Judicial District Attorney requiring Greene and avalanche center forecaster Jason Konisberg to testify as expert witnesses in the upcoming jury trial of Hannibal and his backcountry partner Tyler DeWitt. 

The two experienced backcountry snowboarders face charges of reckless endangerment and restitution of $168,000 after they reported an avalanche on March 25 that buried a service road above the west portal of the Johnson Eisenhower Memorial Tunnels and destroyed an avalanche mitigation device. 

It’s a first-of-its-kind case in several respects. 

Backcountry travelers have never faced criminal charges connected to an avalanche in Colorado. Last month Summit County Court Judge Ed Casias rejected the pair’s argument that their rights were violated when the helmet video was turned over to police as evidence of a crime. 

And now the top lawyer in Colorado has waded into the fray, asking Casias to reject the prosecution plan to have state employees testify against the snowboarders. 

“There is genuine concern by CAIC that if CAIC employees appear as an expert witness in a criminal matter it could adversely impact their ability to gather relevant information from persons involved in an avalanche,” the motion filed by Weiser’s office reads. “The more involved CAIC is in this criminal matter, the more it looks like they are working in coordination with law enforcement, rather than in cooperation with local law enforcement, resulting in a chilling effect to the detriment of CAIC’s mission.”

Weiser also argued that the subpoenas requiring Greene and Konisberg to testify for two days is “unduly burdensome, unreasonable and oppressive,” taking them away from avalanche investigations and forecasting. 

“To command that Mr. Greene step away from his diverse responsibilities, during the CAIC’s busiest month of the winter season, is unreasonable and impactful to the important work of this agency generally and Mr. Greene specifically,” reads the motion. 

James Moss, an attorney with more than 35 years of experience in recreation law, said the loss of Greene and Konisberg could hinder the prosecution’s case. Without those two testifying as avalanche-science experts, Moss said, the district attorney will be challenged to explain the report compiled by the avalanche center or explain why that avalanche mitigation device was placed in that particular location.

But more importantly, Moss said, is the threat to CAIC’s mission, which involves educating the public on avalanche risks using information gathered from backcountry travelers. 

“The motion stated quite clearly that this is going to screw up avalanche research and avalanche reporting in Colorado forever,” said Moss, who has no connection to the case but is urging all backcountry travelers to avoid talking with the CAIC

“You never report to CAIC from here on out, period,” Moss said.

“And I’m a big supporter of the CAIC. They do phenomenal work. It’s a horrendously difficult job that saves a lot of lives,” he said. “But this case is threatening future lives for a $170,000 piece of equipment and a road that gets buried probably every other week in the winter season.”

THE GREAT ART BEHIND HUNTER S. THOMPSON’S RUN FOR SHERIFF ~ NYT

A new show in Manhattan displays the visceral posters for the gonzo journalist’s “Freak Power” campaign in 1970.

Thomas W. Benton’s “Thompson for Sheriff,” (1970), silkscreen on paper.
Thomas W. Benton’s “Thompson for Sheriff,” (1970), silkscreen on paper.Credit…Thomas W. Benton, via Poster House

By Brett Sokol

  • March 4, 2021

If you’re going to curate an exhibition of vintage artwork related to the unorthodox and self-described gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, prepare for the process itself to become a bit, well, gonzo.

Daniel Joseph Watkins learned this lesson the hard way. He had to figure out how to move “Freak Power,” an exhibition featuring the visually striking campaign posters designed for Thompson’s 1970 run for county sheriff in Colorado, from his Aspen-based gallery to Poster House in Manhattan, where it’s open through Aug. 15.

The posters, designed and silk-screened by the artist Thomas W. Benton, a close friend of Thompson’s and a fellow Californian turned Aspen activist, fused gut-punch electioneering (“Sell Aspen or Save It”) with visceral imagery (a clenched fist set against a sheriff’s badge). Surviving samples in pristine condition now sell for upward of $25,000. But that price tag pales in comparison to owners’ intense emotional attachment. “It would have been much easier to borrow a Warhol or a Rothko from some of these people,” laughed Watkins.

“Unfortunately, later in his life, Benton became consumed with a drug habit and had been trading and selling his artwork to several drug dealers,” he continued. One of those figures was willing to loan out several key Benton pieces. But he made it clear that if anything happened to them, filing an insurance claim would be the least of Watkins’s problems.

Hunter S. Thompson giving his concession speech on election night, Nov. 3, 1970, at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo.
Hunter S. Thompson giving his concession speech on election night, Nov. 3, 1970, at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo.Credit…David Hiser, via Poster House
A campaign worker for Thompson in Aspen on Election Day.
A campaign worker for Thompson in Aspen on Election Day.Credit…David Hiser, via Poster House

A suitably warned Watkins felt there was ultimately one person he could entrust to ship the posters east: himself. So last month he loaded up a U-Haul with the contents of the exhibition and personally drove it the 30 hours and nearly 2,000 miles to Poster House’s front doors.

“At night, I slept in the back of the truck with the artwork. I had a little bed there with a heated electric blanket. And I had a club,” he recalled matter-of-factly. “I had a friend following me in another car in case anything went wrong, and we would pull over to sleep in various Walmart parking lots.”

Poster House, the first museum in the United States devoted to the art of posters, opened in Chelsea in 2019, and the exhibition, co-curated with the artist Yuri Zupancic, is one of three on view in its gallery spaces. In addition to three dozen Benton posters, this show includes kinetic ink-splattered drawings by Ralph Steadman, whose illustrations accompanied many of Thompson’s articles; campaign trail photographs by the Aspen photojournalists David Hiser and Bob Krueger; and issues of The Aspen Wall Poster, a broadsheet newspaper designed by Benton and written by Thompson.

Installation view of “Freak Power,” on view through Aug. 15 at Poster House.
Installation view of “Freak Power,” on view through Aug. 15 at Poster House.Credit…Charles Shan Cerrone, via Poster House

For Angelina Lippert, Poster House’s chief curator, the exhibition’s range of material offers a fascinating dichotomy. “Hunter S. Thompson is a chaotic figure,” she said. “We’ve all seen ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’” the 1998 film with Johnny Depp portraying an unhinged Thompson. Steadman’s frenetic drawings echo that pinwheeling personality. Yet, “all of Benton’s posters are so reserved, quiet and direct in comparison,” Lippert went on. “It makes an incredible contrast to see these two guys expressing the same ideas in such powerfully different ways.”

To be fair, Thompson as a candidate couldn’t have been more different from Depp’s onscreen caricature. Instead, as seen in candid footage from Watkins’s own “Freak Power” documentary(2020), running daily as part of the Poster House show, Thompson was thoughtful and articulate — though his attitude toward politicking could be playfully wry. (Prepping for a public debate with the incumbent sheriff, Thompson secretly shaved his head so he could walk out onstage and — in the conservative parlance of the era — snidely refer to “my longhaired opponent.”) Most importantly, he was uninterested in mere symbolism, dismissing Norman Mailer’s 1969 New York City mayoral bid as “more a form of vengeance than electoral politics.” Thompson was running to win.

His “Freak Power” ticket signaled a pivot point for many Aspenites’ self-identity — catalyzing a movement to preserve the local environment with strict limits on real estate development; overhaul a police department, seen as wildly out of control; and legalize marijuana use. Once derided as merely “freak” concerns, they’ve since been embraced by local law enforcement or moved to the statute books.

“Freak Power: the Ballot or the Bomb,” a film poster by Ralph Steadman.
“Freak Power: the Ballot or the Bomb,” a film poster by Ralph Steadman.Credit…Ralph Steadman, via Poster House
Benton’s “Patriots Arise,” silkscreen on paper.
Benton’s “Patriots Arise,” silkscreen on paper.Credit…Thomas W. Benton, via Poster House

“Anybody who thinks I’m kidding is a fool,” one of his local newspaper ads declared. “739 new registrations since the September primary is no joke in a county with a total vote of less than 3,000. So the time has come, it seems, to dispense with evil humor and come to grips with the strange possibility that the next sheriff of this county might very well be a foul-mouthed outlaw journalist with some very rude notions about lifestyles, law enforcement and political reality in America.”

In the end, Thompson fell short, as outlying areas of the county came out strongly against him, causing him to lose the election by nearly 7 percentage points. “We ran an honest campaign, and that was the problem,” he quipped to The Associated Press.

Nonetheless, Watkins insists you can lose a battle and still win the war: Thompson-aligned candidates, relying on his voter base and a fresh series of Benton posters, took majority control of the county commission in 1972 and the sheriff’s office in 1976. By 1986, the sheriff was a former Thompson campaign worker. Implementing Thompson’s ideas brought its own fallout, though.

“There were unintended consequences of some of the limiting of development, in that it limited the supply so much that demand went off the charts,” Watkins said of a resulting housing crunch. “It led to the transition of Aspen being more of a wealthy place. People come to Aspen now and ask, ‘Where did all the hippies go?’ There’s definitely some bitterness and disappointment about that.”

If nothing else, Watkins hopes “Freak Power” rescues Thompson’s legacy from the cartoonlike mythology that has built up around him. “When I bring up his name, sometimes people say, ‘You mean Hunter Thompson, the guy with the drugs and the guns and the craziness?’ No, I mean Hunter Thompson, the prescient political thinker who transformed a community with a radical campaign.”


Freak Power

Through Aug. 15, Poster House, 119 W. 23rd Street. 917-722-2439; posterhouse.org; timed tickets required.

WISCONSIN HUNTERS KILL OVER 200 WOLVES IN LESS THAN 3 DAYS ~ NYT

The gray wolf lost Endangered Species Act protections last year, prompting a recent hunt that killed at least 216 wolves — far exceeding a quota set by state wildlife officials.

The Trump administration announced last year that the gray wolf would no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Last week, hunters in Wisconsin killed more than 200 wolves. 
The Trump administration announced last year that the gray wolf would no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Last week, hunters in Wisconsin killed more than 200 wolves. Credit…Dan Rozak/Alamy

By Maria Cramer

  • March 3, 2021

Hunters in Wisconsin killed more than 200 wolves last week, far exceeding the state’s limit as they scrambled to take advantage of Trump-era wildlife rules that they worry may be tightened by the Biden administration.

At least 216 wolves were killed in less than 60 hours, exceeding the state quota of 119 and prompting Wisconsin to end what was meant to be a one-week hunt four days early, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Environmentalists, who fought unsuccessfully in state court to stop the hunt, said the killings had occurred during breeding season, when gray wolves are especially vulnerable. They said the large number of wolves killed in such a short time underscored the need for President Biden to put the gray wolf back on the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“These animals were killed using packs of dogs, snares and leg-hold traps,” Kitty Block, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said on Tuesday. “It was a race to kill these animals in the most cruel ways.”

The hunt, reported by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, follows the gray wolf’s January removal from the Endangered Species Act. In October, the Trump administration announced that the species, which had been all but exterminated in the lower 48 states by the mid-20th century, had rebounded enough that it no longer needed federal shielding.

The removal of the wolf from the list was one of many rollbacks of environmental regulations under the Trump administration, which last summer announced new rules that would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species.

The resurgence of wolves in certain parts of the country has been called a success story for conservationists. But as their numbers grew, ranchers have had to contend with wolves’ appetite for cattle and sheep. Conservationists counter that wolves keep deer, elk and other species in check and therefore help prevent more vegetation loss.

The last time wolves were hunted in Wisconsin was 2014, after President Barack Obama said the wolf could be removed from federal protection.

A federal judge later rejected the Obama administration’s efforts to keep the wolf off the list.

Wisconsin is the only state in the country that requires a yearly wolf-hunting season if the animal is not protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to Nicholas Arrivo, a lawyer for the Humane Society.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

HISTORIC DROUGHT DEEPENS IN THE WEST AS WINDOW FOR RAIN, SNOW CLOSES ~ The Washington Post

Water supply and wildfire concerns grow for the dry season

This Feb. 17 image shows rows of trees stretching across a farm in Corrales, N.M., as snow covers the Sandia Mountains in the background. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

By Becky Bolinger and Andrew FreedmanMarch 3, 2021 at 12:07 p.m. MSTAdd to list

The year 2020 is going to be remembered for a lot of things, many of them not so good. Included in the not-so-good list is the drought that has plagued the West, lasting into 2021. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which has published weekly maps since 2000, the 2020 drought is the worst, in terms of its geographical scope, in more than 20 years.

Almost 80 percent of the Western U.S. is in drought, with nearly 42 percent of the region in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

Much of the region experienced developing drought in the summer, following a warm and dry spring. Since then, conditions have deteriorated, and the precipitation deficits continue to build. At its maximum extent in January 2021, 47 percent of the West was in extreme drought or worse. Nearly a quarter of the area was in the worst drought category, an event with a probability frequency of once every 50 to 100 years.

This giant climate hot spot is robbing the West of its water

February did bring an active weather pattern with it. The Pacific Northwest received more than 10 inches of precipitation last month. Much of the interior Rockies through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado received between 1 and 5 inches of moisture for the month. The Sierra Nevada in California received between 2 and 6 inches, much of that in the form of snow.

Drought monitor showing the extent of drought across the West as of Feb. 23. (USDA/NOAA)

However, despite the precipitation, some areas are still struggling. Blue outlines in the map below show where snowpack increased last month. The Southwest was much drier in February.

Where the purple outlines overlap on this map, these areas are above average for snowpack now. Outside of the purple outlines, snowpack is still largely below average. Areas outlined in orange experienced a decline in the percentage of average snowpack since the beginning of February.

February precipitation in the West. (National Weather Service) 

And red outlines show the areas where snowpack is extremely low compared to normal. The evidence is clear — February was beneficial for many, but it was not a drought buster, and drought continues to maintain its stranglehold on the West.ADhttps://548e45179891f91d487d0534a7ca47d2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

So, what would it take to get out of drought? To answer that, we first need to know the magnitude of these deficits. It’s not as simple as comparing the past year’s precipitation to normal and making up that difference.

Water in the West relies on a complicated relationship between what’s in the ground, what’s stored on the surface, what accumulates in the winter over the mountains, and what trickles down in the spring.

The deficit started in the spring of 2020. Snow water equivalent (commonly referred to as snowpack, this is the amount of water in the snow that’s accumulated) in the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas peaked well below average.

Across the interior Rockies, snowpack usually reaches its peak in late March/early April and begins its slow melt — adding water to the rivers and eventually filling the reservoirs. While 2020 snowpack peaked around the time we’d expect, it melted out too fast, thanks to anomalously warm temperatures and no new snowstorms.

Does how it melts make a difference? You bet! Check out this water supply forecast for Lake Powell from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

Water supply forecast for Lake Powell. (Colorado Basin River Forecast Center)

Forecasts in the blue shading started out a bit below average (the green line is the average supply into Lake Powell). With each passing month, that forecast got a bit lower. And what actually happened was at the very low end of what was forecast (the orange line is the observed supply into Lake Powell for 2020). The actual inflow into Lake Powell was 3.4 million acre feet below average.

An acre foot, which is a measurement commonly used by water resource managers, is equivalent to more than 300,000 gallons of water. That’s quite a big deficit to start things off!

Deficits for Lakes Powell and Mead are significant. Both are connected to the Colorado River Basin and supply water for millions throughout the West. Long-term deficits have been building since the turn of the century, and each drought exacerbates the situation.

Fast forward to a hot and dry summer. With the exception of a couple of isolated locations in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana, most of the West experienced much above average temperatures and below average to record low precipitation for June-September last year.

In the Southwest, July-September typically ranks as the wettest time of year, which is largely a result of the North American Monsoon. Monsoon moisture in the late summer is key for replenishing soil moisture. Without an active monsoon, soils dry out just before the beginning of snow season. And unfortunately, that happened in the fall of 2020.

Soil moisture as of Sept. 2020. (NASA) 

Modeled soil moisture at the end of September shows the extremely dry soils in the West. As we entered the cold season, this soil moisture was “locked in.”

The high elevation ground freezes, and that is the state the soil moisture will be at when the thaw begins in the spring. Start the season with dry soils, and that is the first “bucket” that needs to be filled when the snow starts melting.

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center estimates that much of the Colorado River Basin needs 10 inches or more of precipitation for soil saturation. Averaged over watershed basins, normal snowpack peaks around at around 20-25 inches.

But to get the snowpack needed and cover the soil moisture deficits, these basins would potentially need 120-150 percent of average snowfall for the season. Can we expect that much snowpack this season? Unfortunately, no.

Climate change is playing a significant role in influencing water supplies in the West, with early spring snowmelt, hotter and drier summers and warming winters all acting to exacerbate drought conditions.

Climate change has stolen more than a billion tons of water from the West’s most vital river

In fact, a study published last year found that a vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years. A megadrought is loosely defined as a severe drought that occurs across a broad region for a long duration, typically multiple decades.

The study found that warming temperatures and increasing evaporation, along with earlier spring snowmelt, have pushed the Southwest into its second-worst drought this millennium. The drought analyzed in the study dates back to the year 2000.

Within the context of this larger scale megadrought, there is still climate variability. There have been wetter winters, such as the heavy winter rains in 2017 that resulted in the failure of California’s Oroville Dam, or the snow season of 2019 that resulted in Lake Powell inflows reaching 145 percent of average that summer.

But the dry years become more frequent. And, even by 21st century standards, this drought is particularly severe and widespread.

This map shows all the stations in the west that measure snowpack. As of Feb. 28, stations colored orange and red have below average snowpack for this time of year. The Sierra Nevadas in California are well below average for snowpack. With a typical peak date of April 1, there is only one month left to add to that snow cover. And considering they receive almost no moisture during the warm season, this month is extra critical.

Snow water equivalents compared to average. (USDA)

For the mountain ranges throughout Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, snowpack is also below average. For the Colorado Headwaters region, there are roughly 45 days until normal peak snowpack, but the likelihood of a normal snowpack is decreasing by the day.

For the areas that struggled this winter, the Climate Prediction Center’s outlookis discouraging, with increased chances of below average precipitation and above average temperatures for the March-April-May time period.

The good news is that recent February moisture and a decent spring forecast have helped alleviate drought conditions in the Cascades and Pacific Northwest.

The bad news is that it’s increasingly likely severe drought will continue in other parts of the West as we head toward summer. Agriculture, water supplies, and forests are likely to be impacted. Expect crop losses and selling of livestock; watering restrictions may begin as temperatures warm, and the risk of large wildfires will return again this summer.

Beyond that, let’s hope for ample spring and summer soakers, a strong monsoon, and a fresh start to a better snowpack next fall!

Becky Bolinger is the assistant state climatologist for Colorado and a research scientist at Colorado State University.

Arctic Survivors ~ NYT

.

Photographs by Peter Mather
Text by Henry Fountain

February 11, 2021

On Alaska’s North Slope, treeless and snow-shrouded for much of the year, it isn’t easy being a wolverine. The sinewy, solitary animals survive through a constant search for food, burrowing into snowdrifts to rest.

But the Arctic is rapidly changing, warming much faster than any other region, and the snow is melting earlier. Researchers want to understand how wolverines will adapt.

Peter Mather, a photographer, documented researchers’ fieldwork over several seasons. The images provide a rare glimpse at wolverines in the Arctic wilds.

With their large feet, wolverines can pad their way across the snowy tundra as if on snowshoes. But there is little place to hide from their main predator, the Arctic wolf. They have the stamina to chase caribou for dozens of miles if necessary, and the strength to kill the much larger animals.

But wolverines are also scavengers, using their strong jaws to feast on carcasses left by wolves.

Since 2014, the Wildlife Conservation Society, together with partner groups, has been studying Alaska’s wolverines. The goal, says the project coordinator, Tom Glass, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is “to understand ecological relationships between this species and the environment in this quickly changing place.”

Over two years 24 animals were trapped, anesthetized and given satellite-tracking collars that transmitted data about their movements and behavior.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~