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The unbearable lightness of winter

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Sarah Gilman | Apr 11, 2012 06:00 AM

Maybe it’s because my meteorologist mom used to load our family into our old Dodge van to venture forth onto the flats east of Boulder, Colo., every time there was a severe nighttime thunderstorm to park beneath and ogle (a van, she and my dad reassured my brother and I, makes a pretty good Faraday cage). Or maybe it’s because said mom used to regale us with tales of how she once flew in research aircraft through hurricanes. Or maybe it’s because the better part of my childhood vacations and later seasonal jobs were spent in places -- mountain tops, treeless plains -- where there was no shelter from thunderbolt or beating sun.

Whatever the case, I’m one of those people who think that talking about the weather is more than just tedious patter, and is, in fact, among the most scintillating of topics. And I can’t resist now either, I'm afraid, given the truckloads of crazy we're currently enduring.

About this time last year, I was blogging gleefully about the 200 percent of average snowpack crushing parts of California’s Eastern Sierra, the well-above-150 percent snowpacks in the Colorado Rockies. But now, all of us in the lower half of the West are left staring down the barrel of this, a sobering sight given our dependence on mountain snow for water, and in particular on the Colorado River, whose headwaters perch high in its namesake state:

Mountain Snowpack

Red areas indicate the least snowy bits; blue to purple, the most snowy bits. And check out the nifty interactive, real-time version at the National Resources Conservation Service.

In Colorado, the change happened almost overnight, reports the Summit County Citizens Voice, with statewide snowpack dwindling by almost a third in March alone -- usually one of our snowiest months -- thanks to warm temperatures and high winds. The last time things were this bad in Colorado was during a 1910 drought that gripped the state and much of the West, creating conditions that fed the famously ginormous Big Burn in Idaho, Montana and Washington. In the latest state of the climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which came out Monday, Colorado appears as a brick-red bulls-eye in the center of the country -- the driest state of all.

La Nina is apparently partly to blame. The ocean-temperature-influenced weather pattern, which tends to douse the Northwest and skunk the Southwest, is at work in our region for the second year in a row. And there's a 40 percent chance that it will continue into next year, reports The Pueblo Chieftain, in which case things may get even worse: “Three-year La Nina events have been associated with some of the driest periods on record for Colorado.”

Meanwhile, again according to the NOAA report, the first three months of this year were the warmest on record for the contiguous U.S. -- a full 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the longterm average -- with the East, Southeast and Rocky Mountain states taking the brunt of the warming, while the West Coast and Alaska stayed cooler and wetter than normal. During March alone, more than 15,000 locations logged record-breaking temperatures, with some night-time temps breaking previous records set during the daytime. Check out this alarming yet awesome animation:

Awesome animation courtesy of NOAA

 Though scientists have long hemmed and hawed -- and continue to do so -- about linking  weird weather events directly to climate change (rightfully so, since doing so muddles the distinction between human-caused climate change, long-term normal climate cycles and isolated weather events and can encourage backward thinking like this), some have started to describe the wild swings we've been seeing these past few years as "a new normal."  Jennifer A. Francis, a Rutgers University climate researcher, is working on the idea that the climate change-induced melting of Arctic Sea ice, and its influence on the jet stream, a river of air that crosses the nation west to east, might provide a direct link, according to The New York Times:

 Because greenhouse gases are causing the Arctic to warm more rapidly than the rest of the planet, the sea ice cap has shrunk about 40 percent since the early 1980s. That means an area of the Arctic Ocean the size of Europe has become dark, open water in the summer instead of reflective ice, absorbing extra heat and then releasing it to the atmosphere in the fall and early winter. ... (Francis') research suggests that the declining temperature contrast between the Arctic and the middle latitudes is causing kinks in the jet stream to move  more slowly than before ... “This means that whatever weather you have today — be it wet, hot, dry or snowy — is more likely to last longer than it used to,” said Dr. Francis, who published a major paper on her theory a few weeks ago. “If conditions hang around long enough, the chances increase for an extreme heat wave, drought or cold spell to occur.”

Whatever the cause, though, the consequences of the warm winter are real. Managing editor Jodi Peterson recently blogged for us on this year's early fire season and increased (at least in the Southwest) fire danger. The results for ski areas, meanwhile, have been mixed, with Colorado ski area visitation numbers dropping seven percent, and resorts in California's Sierra having to sit tight until late February -- enduring "double digit declines" in ticket sales -- before they started to get any significant accumulation. But that wasn't all bad, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. For those who weren't skiing went shopping instead:

"Over the Christmas holidays (in Colorado), the destination guests who came and didn't find snow to their liking" shopped, went to the spa, ate and partied, said Ralf Garrison, director of the Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program. "Vail's December sales tax was an all-time record. That's very surprising when you know there is no snow and skiers aren't coming until you realize the destination guest is really driving the economy. The numbers are really good on the destination side. Lift tickets, not so much."

There've been other interesting effects as well. The warm weather, for example, has only worsened the nation's glut of natural gas since people aren't using as much to heat with, further dropping prices. And apparently, the weather's also boosted home sales

Who knows what the rest of the spring holds, though. As they say in Colorado (and lots of other places in the West), if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. As I wrote this, a spring storm was edging its way through the region. I'll be crossing my fingers that all of those trees exploding into bloom thanks to the unseasonable  conditions will escape frost and actually bear fruit this year.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor

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