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.
Some water experts fear that a long-held aspiration to develop more water in the Upper Colorado River Basin is creating another chance to let politics and not science lead the way on river management.
“Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers,” a white paper released in February by the Center for Colorado River Studies, says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, we need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo.
Estimates about how much water the upper basin will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the paper.
The paper says unrealistic future water-use projections for the upper basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — confound planning because they predict the region will use more water than it actually will. The Upper Colorado River Commission’s estimates for future growth are unlikely to be realized and are perhaps implausible, unreasonable and unjustified, the paper says.
“The projection of demand is always higher than what is actually used,” said Jack Schmidt, one of the paper’s authors and the Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “We said you can’t plan the future of the river based on these aspirational use projections when there’s a clear demonstration that we never end up using as much as we aspire to use.”
The Center for Colorado River Studies is affiliated with Utah State but draws on expertise from throughout the basin. The paper is the sixth in a series of white papers that is part of The Future of the Colorado River Project. The project is being funded by multiple donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Utah Water Research Laboratory and two private donors, as well as by grants from the Catena Foundation, which is a major donor to Aspen Journalism’s water desk.
According to the paper, consumptive water use in the upper basin has remained flat between 1988 and 2018 at an average of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. This figure is based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports. The UCRC’s most recent numbers from 2016 show future water use in the upper basin — known as a “depletion demand schedule” — at 5.27 million acre-feet by 2020 and 5.94 million acre-feet by 2060.
“In percentage terms, these UCRC projections for 2020 are already 23% higher than actual use and would be more than 40% higher than present use in 2060,” the paper reads.
And future water use is unlikely to increase because of three main reasons: thirsty coal-fired power plants are on their way to being decommissioned; land that was formerly used for irrigated agriculture is transitioning to residential developments, which use less water; and there are regulatory and political barriers to more large transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the river to the Front Range.
The white paper’s authors say these unrealistic future projections of water use make it harder to plan for a water-short future under climate change.
“Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations, very low Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage content and greater Lower Basin shortages are inevitable,” the paper reads. “Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”
The issue is twofold: With climate change, there is not enough water for the upper basin to develop new projects without the risk of a compact call; and if the past three decades are any indication, the upper basin is not on track to use more water in the future anyway.
Avalanche forecasting has come a long way since the 1950s, when forecasters relied solely on weather to predict when and where snow might slide. But it still requires scientists skiing and digging into the snowpack. That’s changing as satellites, aircraft-mounted sensors and ground-based remote monitoring fast-track the evolution of snow science, giving experts comprehensive insight into the uncanny nature of avalanches.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has been testing satellite imagery to detect avalanches. The technology is building a more accurate library of avalanche activity over a winter season, and year over year. And not just for the most trafficked zones, said Mike “Coop” Cooperstein, the center’s lead forecaster for the northern mountains.
“We have really good information along the highways, in the really popular recreation spots — Berthoud Pass, Loveland Pass, Red Mountain Pass. But it’s pretty close to the road,” Cooperstein said. “So we wanted to look into those deeper areas, a few miles from the trailhead, and see what’s happening, because we are forecasting for those areas.”
With 11 avalanche fatalities in Colorado this winter, and 32 nationwide, avalanche forecasters like those at CAIC need all the resources they can get to create accurate forecasts for backcountry regions. But methods of gathering good information are decades old. Emerging technologies may help, but it could be years before they are operational or affordable enough for avalanche forecast centers to use on a daily basis.
Relying on observations shared by travelers on roads and skintracks yields only a partial picture of avalanche activity, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the hazard spread across entire ranges. As a result, during any given avalanche cycle, forecasters may miss part of the avalanche activity because it wasn’t witnessed, and wouldn’t be able to warn their audience of backcountry goers. The other issue is not being able to verify whether their forecast was correct after the fact, making it difficult to identify patterns of inaccuracy and improve forecasts over time.
An avalanche record biased toward easy-to-access areas also leaves researchers in the lurch as they have only a fuzzy quantitative idea of what “normal” is as far as avalanches go. This could complicate understanding how avalanche activity shifts away from historical trends because of climate changes.
To balance and fill in the record, researchers, avalanche forecast centers and private companies are leaning on new technologies.
Late last year, Norway began using satellite-mounted radar to detect avalanches across the country.
The system was developed by a team from the Norwegian Research Center, known as NORCE, using synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, mounted on the European Space Agency’s two Sentinel-1 satellites. When a slide was detected it was automatically reported to Norwegian avalanche forecasters. Because the SAR device emits microwaves toward the Earth’s surface, rather than sensing natural light, this method allows the satellites to capture images on cloudy days or at night.
When an avalanche releases, the debris pile left at the slope’s base is both rougher and more dense than the surrounding snow, which scatters the microwaves emitted by the SAR so that fewer of them return to the sensor on the satellite. The NORCE team has built what’s called a data processing chain that recognizes this increased “backscatter” and flags it as potential avalanche debris.
The method is not perfect — with accuracy varying on how much water is in the snowpack — but technology is helping the Norwegian avalanche forecasting agency identify thousands more avalanches than any field-based efforts would, said Markus Eckerstorfer, the NORCE researcher who developed the data processing chain.
“In general, the method is very promising,” Eckerstorfer said. “It’s probably better than anything else. If you have a certain region, you could never cover the entire region as you do with a satellite. But you’re still not able to detect everything.”
In 2018, Eckerstorfer received funding from the ESA to test the method in Colorado, teaming up with CAIC. But the test fell flat.
Colorado’s mid-latitude played a role in the poor results: Because the Sentinel-1 satellites are polar-orbiting, moving between the North and South poles, the closer a region is to the equator, the less coverage it receives. Norway, being so far north, receives daily passes, while Colorado is passed every six or so days. Additionally, during the winter of 2018 one of the pair of satellites stopped sending images of Colorado because it needed time to recharge for imaging Europe and countries that paid to put the constellation into orbit.
An image every 12 days was far less useful for CAIC, and interest in the project dropped off.
“We wanted to have pretty close — a day or two at the most — of detection so that we can, after our forecast, look and see if what we think happened, happened,” Cooperstein said. “For that, there just isn’t enough coverage. There aren’t enough passes over Colorado to do that kind of work right now.”
Research using the method continues elsewhere in the states, though, which may one day come back to benefit Colorado.
An avalanche forecasting center in Idaho and another in Montana are using a rudimentary version of NORCE’s automated avalanche detection from Sentinel-1s, led by Zach Keskinen, a snow science master’s candidate at Montana State University.
Keskinen said the technology would not replace forecasters on skis, but it can be yet another tool in the high-consequence science of predicting avalanches.
“It’s starting to show promise to where [an avalanche forecaster] could say, ‘Hey, this is where you should go for your field day.’” he said. “Hopefully it will help to guide field days for forecasters and just make their field time more powerful.
Keskinen expects satellite coverage in the states to improve. The U.S.-Indian NISAR satellite scheduled for launch in 2022, will have SAR sensors.
Despite the low utility of radar in Colorado to date, satellites are still in the mix at CAIC. The organization is using optical imagery instead of radar to review the once-in-a-century avalanche cycle from March 2019, when historic slides swept over Interstate 70, blew out massive swaths of forest and spiked four of Colorado’s avalanche advisory zones into “extreme” avalanche danger.
“We can pick out avalanches from that cycle pretty well with, you know, 90% confidence that we’re picking out avalanches,” Cooperstein said.
CAIC staff can look at destruction of vegetation, or signatures of decaying vegetation, to see where an avalanche has cleared forest, documenting slides that may otherwise have been missed.
“The thing there is it takes such a large avalanche to destroy trees,” Cooperstein said. “That avalanche cycle, I’ll probably never see another one of those in my career, that’s that big. But [optical satellite imagery] has really good promise and we have pretty good results from doing that.”
Lasers can detect avalanches, too, specifically light detection and ranging, or LiDAR.
Jeffrey Deems, a researcher at University of Colorado and co-founder of Airborne Snow Observatory (an offshoot of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), uses LiDAR mounted on aircraft to measure snow in basins across the western U.S. While the goal of these flights is to map how much snow—and therefore water—a river basin holds so that water managers can better plan how to allocate runoff, they also detect avalanches.
The method works by “mowing the lawn,” as Deems puts it, flying a plane with a LiDAR instrument scanning every foot of an entire river basin. Such a flight path is done in the summer without snow to create a baseline, then again in the winter, allowing Airborne Snow Observatories to subtract the summer image from the winter one to determine snow depth.
In 2019, flights in the Upper Gunnison and Roaring Fork river basins revealed large avalanches that had not been documented. LiDAR offers a more detailed look into an avalanche than other optical or radar imagery.
“With the LiDAR technology, we can actually see the change in snow depth, so we can actually get a better metric, or a better understanding of the volume of snow that had to move, rather than just mapping the extent of it,” Deems said.
Deems, with colleagues from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, operate ground-based LiDAR on Loveland Pass and Arapahoe Basin ski area as well, where the fixed sensors allow managers to measure every 10 centimeters of new snow and even slab thickness after a storm.
Private companies are supplying high-resolution satellite imagery as well, albeit with a price tag that’s beyond the budget of most avalanche forecasting centers.
Planet, one of the largest private satellite imagery companies, employs more than 130 satellites to provide clients with 3- to 5-meter resolution images, according to the company’s website. Clients can choose what geographic region they want covered, at what frequency — up to multiple times a day — and for how long a period.
Such rich data would no doubt benefit mapping avalanches and filling out the avalanche record, Cooperstein said, adding that the cost of such services are becoming more affordable.
In Colorado, field-based avalanche detection and forecasting — in which avalanche forecasters scour the mountains on snowmobiles and skis in search of the most unstable snowpack — aren’t going away any time soon. While these technologies are exciting, most aren’t operational, or simply cost too much for widespread use in Colorado’s diverse and wide-ranging backcountry.
“LiDAR and radar and camera technologies from ground-based or drone-based platforms, I think we’ll see those in increasing use for ski areas and highway departments who need real-time feedback on evolving conditions and the success of avalanche mitigation,” Deems said.
But the need for more avalanche-detection methods that are consistent from mountain range to mountain range and state to state remains if scientists and practitioners hope to better connect weather dynamics to avalanche activity, Deems added.
It may be key to planning for the future as well. Most mountain areas lack data-based projections of how climate will affect avalanche activity, because avalanche datasets are full of big holes, Eckerstorfer, the NORCE researcher, said. The sooner these datasets are filled in, the sooner plans can be formed to mitigate avalanches in a changing climate.
“If you live in a mountain environment, you need to start preparing now for what’s to come in a couple of decades,” Eckerstorfer said.
Behind the Slickrock Curtain is a novel — literary fiction, with a pinch of post-modern mystery and environmental thriller thrown in. It’s a novel of place, a road trip book, a tome for our post-truth age, and a tragicomic romp through the Anthropocene, replete with searing, irreverent, abrasive, satirical, and occasionally sad commentary and insight.
The narrative unfolds in the spectacular sacrifice zone known as the Four Corners Country, taking readers from a winter’s night on Cedar Mesa some twenty years ago, to near-future Tucson, Winslow, Farmington, and Durango, before returning to Utah. Most of the action takes place within the original (pre-shrinkage) boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.
Malcolm Brautigan is one of the protagonists — if someone as flawed as he is can be a protagonist. He once was an environmental journalist, writing byzantine wonk-fests for the Tucson Tribune. Then Brautigan’s marriage fell apart, and, under pressure from the Tribune‘s corporate owners, he penned a widely-read, but partly fabricated article exposing a sleazy bit of collusion between a local environmental group and a “green” developer of a “sustainable” desert community of 10,000 people. Not a good idea, particularly since the developer was dating Malcolm’s soon-to-be-ex-wife at the time. Malcolm lost his job and, after slaving away for a “content mill,” found a new path: Producing fake news. He is now the editor-in-chief of Alt-News.org. He manages to pay his rent and stay stocked up with Bombay Sapphire gin, his chosen salve for a chafed conscience.
Eliza Santos is Malcolm’s partner in protagonism. She is an artist, creating sculpture/dioramas — entire worlds — from books, clay, and found objects. As of late she’s been far more productive artistically than her husband, Peter Simons, despite the fact that she’s working full-time as a librarian to pay the family bills. To her, Malcolm is as much an irritant as he is a hero of this tale. She’s witty, brash, and principled. Her major flaw: She spends an inordinate amount of time devising harebrained business schemes with her friend Ann in hopes of making enough cash to live a truly Bohemian lifestyle lolling around in the sunshine and eating sardines in a small village in Portugal.
Peter Simons is Eliza’s husband, Malcolm’s oldest friend, and a moderately successful painter who has abandoned that medium to focus on far less lucrative environmental/land/performance art (e.g. a pyrotechnic dance performance on a uranium tailings depository, Tang-orange breed of corn planted to commemorate the Gold King Mine spill, etc.). His latest project is in this vein, but is also a mystery. We only know that it is inspired by his belief that the Gold King Mine spill was the ultimate piece of environmental art. He’s obsessed with originality in his work, possibly due to a dark secret from his past. A couple of weeks before the Summer Solstice he heads out into southern Utah to do research for his art installation. He doesn’t return.
Plot: Eliza and Malcolm set off for the canyons of San Juan County, Utah, in search of the missing Peter, their only clues a series of mysterious files found on Peter’s laptop relating to tar sands, adventure resorts, and an ethically suspect Secretary of Interior. They are drawn into a dangerous dance with petroleum engineers, the ghost of a uranium tycoon, energy developers, corrupt politicians, adventure capitalists — and a “monster” and its “daughters.” Along the way the book delves into journalism in the post-truth era, art, beauty, environmental protection, the deadly legacy left by the nuclear age, and the power of friendship — all with a healthy dollop of sexual and intellectual tension and humor.
“Thrilling …. riveting … a real page-turner! It’s a joy to ride along with post-truth heroes Santos and Brautigan on this saucy, sassy romp through the Anthropocene!”
— Juan Lopez-Shapiro, Editor-in-Chief of Alt-News.org
“It’s okay, I guess, but what’s up with that pumpjack sex scene? Is that what they mean by post-modern?”
— Chad, some guy on the street
“If you combined Carl Hiaasen, Lydia Millet, Chuck Bowden, and … Wait? It’s kind of perverse to do that, isn’t it? And do you have their consent? Anyway, maybe if you twisted all of their writings together you’d end up with something kind of like Behind the Slickrock Curtain. Or not.”
— Michael Baines, Culture Editor at Alt-News.org
— Laurel, journalism professor and Brautigan’s former editor at the Tucson Tribune
“First there was the War on Christmas. And now Behind the Slickrock Curtain?!? What’s this world coming to?”
— Brad Melcher, Political Reporter at Alt-News.org
They are like a garment that protects our vulnerabilities and allows us to express ourselves.
The city of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, where we live, was quick to enact a strong response to the coronavirus and, as a result, the city has one of the lowest case rates in Mexico. But its citizens, already economically battered, have been depleted by the pandemic.
Southern California farmers spend their winters watching the snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, and what they see is the climate crisis hitting hard. When it melts, the snow that falls on these peaks will, eventually, make its way into the Colorado River, which connects the Southwest like a great tendon, tying the Continental Divide in Colorado to Southern California’s hayfields, where the Imperial Irrigation District is one of the country’s largest, and pouring from the faucets of urban users in Los Angeles and San Diego.
From California’s perspective, the view upriver is not encouraging. More than half of the upper part of the river basin is in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while the Lower Basin is even worse off: More than 60% of it is in the highest drought level. In January, water levels in Lake Powell, the river’s second-largest reservoir, dropped to unprecedented depths, triggering a drought contingency plan for the first time for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has seen a sustained period of less water and hotter days. This is, as climate scientists like to say, the “new normal.” But within this new normal, there have been exceptional drought years. One of them was 2020. Last year began with an encouraging snowpack in the Colorado Rockies. But a warm spring followed, and, then the seasonal summer monsoons never came to drench the Southwest. The lack of precipitation persisted into the fall and early winter, leaving the basin in a condition dire enough that water policy wonks—not a crowd known for melodrama—have begun using words like “scary” and “terrifying.”“In the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”
“In the 20th century on the Colorado River, nature was bent to human will,” the study stated. “Because we are now fully consuming its waters, and inflows are expected to decline, in the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”
The current version of the Colorado River Compact—the legal agreement that governs the river—expires in 2026. It will be renegotiated over the next several years amid a patchwork of interests, including seven Southwestern states, myriad agricultural districts, the Mexican government, some of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, including Las Vegas and Phoenix, and many tribal nations, whose legal claims hve historically been discounted. A compendium of policies, historic water rights, court rulings, laws and agreements, the Colorado River Compact allocates water for tens of millions of people and some of the most important agricultural regions in the country.
The impending renegotiation will determine how that water is distributed as the demand for water outstrips the river’s dwindling flow. Meanwhile, according to numerous models, the impacts of climate change will only intensify. A recent study from the Center for Colorado River Studies predicted that the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona could be forced to reduce their take from the river by up to 40% by 2050.
“It’s a red alert,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Everyone knows the red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.”
OF ALL THE VARIOUS METRICS available to measure this challenge, storage capacity at the Colorado River’s important reservoirs is one of the most useful. In January, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Lake Powell could dip below a crisis threshold by 2022.
This forecast is not the most likely one, but the study triggers a drought-planning process—an acknowledgement that the worst-case scenario could come to pass for one of the country’s most important water storage sites. In 2019, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., hit its own version of this threshold, which led Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to voluntarily limit their Colorado River water use for the first time ever.
Put together, both Mead and Powell are on track to reach their lowest recorded levels ever in 2021, KUNC reported. Water levels in Mead and Powell languish at about 40% capacity, according to the most recent figures.
This future complicates the amalgamation of treaties, policies, laws at various levels of government, court decisions and agreements that make up the governance of the river, stretching all the way back to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the original interstate agreement. To give just one example, the Upper Basin states have long planned increased water use—water that the over-allocated basin can’t afford—thereby increasing the likelihood, according to the study, of a situation where the Lower Basin states would not receive their fair share of water. The result would be a “call” on the river, with the Lower Basin states demanding more water and legally mandated cutbacks for more junior water users higher on the river, including the city of Denver. The ensuing legal fights would be ugly.
This grim future hangs over the next several years, as both the Upper and Lower Basin states renegotiate the rules governing the Colorado River and work to reduce the water they use and keep crucial reservoirs filled. But these negotiations are difficult and political, with self-interest competing against the need to do right by the basin as a whole. Meanwhile, sensing profit in scarcity, Wall Street and hedge funds are pushing to privatize Colorado River water and allow markets to trade the resource as a commodity, according to a recent New York Times investigation.
The problem with vast water negotiations like the Colorado River Compact, said Marcus, the Stanford water policy expert, is that every entity, from governments down to people watering their lawns, come to expect the current amount of available water—even if that availability is an outlier or set to change. “Farmers can’t expect that they can plant whatever they want or not expect water to be expensive,” she said. “Urban areas need to get way more efficient, people need to ditch way more lawns.”
Note: This story was updated to clarify that states are renegotiating the rules that govern the river, not the Colorado River Compact itself.