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Know the West

A hard winter makes you think


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.