A hard winter makes you think

  • Rhonda Claridge

 

After more than a decade of mild winters, we residents of this high-altitude town in southern Colorado finally 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 told by old-timers, those former miners who stayed on here long after our town had become a ghost town - stories that we had all but forgotten - have begun to recirculate, whirling around us like the snow devils in our unrecognizable yards.

Picture ants on a hill that has been 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. At 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 get to 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 the peaks like smoke, I envision Walpurgis Night, the devil and his coterie reveling up there. Even as our down-valley neighbors begin to stock sandbags in preparation for spring floods, we are thankful for all this precipitation after years of low snowpacks and runoffs. Lake Mead, the huge reservoir that the Colorado River replenishes, may be dry in just 13 years, according to a recent study by 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 partly because we know that spring is coming. If I pause on my way inside with an armful of firewood, I can smell spring now, tidings of warmth and dirt in the air. 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 North Atlantic, where the cold, salty water is dense enough to sink, generating the current's momentum. Because of global climate change, rapidly melting ice in the Arctic may dilute the North Atlantic with fresher, less-dense water, disrupting the conveyor and cooling Western Europe and Eastern North America.

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 meltwater 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 I was shoveling snow, I thought: Now is the time to think about these things, and how they could be happening to us.


Rhonda Claridge lives and writes in the high country near Telluride, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.