A hard winter makes you think

 


After more than a decade of mild winters, we residents of this high-altitude town in southern Colorado got a dose of the genuine article. Not since “Remember December,” when it snowed every day in December 1983, had anyone seen this much snow. But stories from old-timers, those remnant miners who stayed on here long after our town had become a ghost town -- stories that we had all but forgotten -- have begun to re-circulate, whirling around us like the snow devils in our unrecognizable yards.

Picture ants on a hill when it is poked repeatedly with a stick, and you get an idea of our winter turmoil. Closed roads due to avalanche debris or wind-packed snow regularly foiled transportation: no daycare, no commuting to work, no fire engine or ambulance access, no beer. In one fell swoop, our trucks disappeared under snow. I walked over the roof of one truck to get to my house. I became a creative shoveler, kicking steps in the eight-foot walls on the sides of our driveway to fling the snow overhead and away.

Stuck doors, stuck vehicles, dead batteries, frozen pipes, buried boiler vents, snow everywhere -- we’ve been busy. Of course, the backcountry skiing has been superlative, but the sheer tonnage of snow overhead gave any mid-winter venturing an edge. After hearing a valley-wide growl, we’d stop to listen: “Was that an avalanche or an airplane?” In January, a friend and I broke trail for hours to access what was the best powder skiing I recall of the winter; then a storm rolled in and we had to break the same trail all over again.

The hardest thing has been driving in and out of the valley after a few days of gale-force winds and major snowfall. Most of us crossed under nine slide paths. I’d never noticed some of these slides before now, such as the one named St. Louis, which dropped avalanche after avalanche. One resident blew right past it, only to see it slide down seconds later in his rearview mirror.

I’m not complaining. I can see the humor in the cosmic joke being played on us. We all made a Faustian bargain when we moved to this high alpine basin. Some evenings, as the setting sun turns the sky crimson over the north ridge, and snow banners stream from its peaks like smoke, I envision Walpurgis Night, the devil and his coterie reveling up there. Even as our down-valley residents begin to stock sandbags in preparation for spring floods, we are thankful for all this precipitation after years of low snow packs and runoffs. Lake Mead, the huge reservoir that the Colorado River replenishes, may be dry in just 13 years, according to a recent study of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Climate experts foresee reduced river flows due to climate change and an increasingly unstable supply of water in the Southwest.

We love winter with the knowledge of spring, and if I pause on my way inside with an armful of firewood, I can smell spring now, tidings in the air of warmth and dirt. But what if spring never came? Scientists believe the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt, a current with the flow of 100 Amazon rivers that girdles the oceans and distributes warm water into the North Atlantic, is key to maintaining the climates of North America and Europe. The conveyor belt’s engine is thought to be in the Arctic, where incoming salt water becomes dense and sinks, generating the current’s momentum. Because of global climate change, rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic may dilute the salt water and effectively halt the conveyor, plunging our part of the globe into near Ice-Age conditions.

According to reports from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the National Academy of Sciences, the last two times the North Atlantic region experienced endless winters coincided with the slowing or collapse of the conveyor, when glacial melt-water flooded out of the St. Lawrence River, suddenly adding fresh water into the Arctic. Each “cold snap” occurred abruptly; each lasted over a thousand years.

The heat the conveyor delivers into the North Atlantic from the Equator has been compared to “the power generation of a million nuclear power plants.” Without it, we might expect many years like 1816, the “year without a summer.” The cause back then was volcanic ash from an eruption that blocked the sun’s rays. Average annual temperatures fell 5°F in the North Atlantic region; snow fell in summer, winter storms and winds strengthened.

Today, while shoveling snow, this is the time to think about these things, and how they could be happening to us.

Rhonda Claridge is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in the high country near Telluride, Colorado.
Anonymous
Apr 01, 2008 02:50 PM

Just a quick, but key clarification: The ocean conveyor belt's engine is NOT thought to be in the Arctic. The incoming salt water to the North Atlantic, which makes water more likely to sink and drive the conveyor, comes from the North Atlantic Current, an extension of the Gulf Stream, whose salty waters are produced by more evaporation near the warm equator (the evaporation adds water vapor to the air, but leaves salt behind in the ocean). The Arctic Ocean can play a key role, however, by possibly adding LESS salty, less dense water (from melting sea ice and freshwater rivers draining into the Arctic Ocean) into the North Atlantic, which might slow down the conveyor. Seeing "Interrogating the Great Ocean Conveyor" (http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=20727) or "Is Global Warming Changing the Arctic? (http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=9206&archives=true).

Lonny Lippsett

Managing editor

Oceanus magazine

 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution