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Climate change and skiing in New England

Weatherman

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Today's post goes out by special request of @Los. He asks:

Quote

Hi Bryan, 

Would you consider posting your thoughts on climate change and the future of skiing? I've invested so much in this sport/lifestyle, in so many ways, and it's the primary thing that I do with my kids. I think of it as giving a them a gift that will last a lifetime... except that it won't because there won't be any snow in 30 years. 

It's incredibly depressing. I'd be very interested to know what your thoughts on all of this. Is there any reason NOT to be as pessimistic as I am in your view? 

That is a depressing thought! The good news is that your children will not be facing a world without snow, thought they almost certainly will live a much warmer world than you did. We live in warmer world than our grandparents did. Remember the prolonged cold of the winter of 2014-15? That used to be a typical winter a century ago. Though with increasing greenhouse gas emissions it's likely the changes over the next century with be even starker than that.

It's important to remember that global climate change is indeed global, but not uniform. Climate changes are greater toward the poles, a process known as polar amplification. During warm periods, the temperature gradient between the poles and equator is reduced. You can see this in temperature trends to date.

59ced01cbe921_ScreenShot2017-09-28at6_45_48PM.thumb.png.cabd263cf50187fac4de414ea5c103da.png

Although the warming is clearly amplified over the Arctic, it's not as clear what the winter temperature trend has been in New England over the more recent past.

59ced01bdf6de_ScreenShot2017-09-28at6_46_06PM.thumb.png.78ebc659e81f2918032ac7d185da4330.png

Note the very strong warming over the Arctic, but a noticeable cooling over Eurasia and central North America. There has been essentially no trend over New England. So what is going on? That's a controversial question. It seems to be clearly linked to systematically weaker Arctic polar vortex. As the Arctic warms, the vortex breaks down and cold air is no longer "locked" in the Arctic. It is free to spill down to mid-latitudes resulting in the more frequent cold air outbreaks over the continents. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a warming global climate may actually not (yet) be negatively effecting our winter winter here in New England.

But why is this happening now? My favorite explanation is that it's all about the dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice, but the physical link between the loss of sea ice and weakening of the vortex remains to be clearly established. There are a number of contributing factors to the decline of sea ice, especially melting from below due to warm water transport into the Arctic Ocean. The science isn't quite there yet, and there is no guarantee that this recent trend continues.

Feeling better yet? Unfortunately the mid-winter trends don't apply to the fall and spring shoulder season. There is very strong evidence that the duration of winter is shortening on both ends, even though the core of winter isn't changing much. Until about 15 years ago, this trend was largely being offset by an increase is snowmaking coverage resulting in ever longer ski seasons, but that is no longer the case. While snow guns are becoming much more efficient to operate, they haven't changed the basic underlying thermodynamics. Ski season is starting later and ending earlier., and this trend is expected to continue. The figure below shows the expected number of days with snowcover under two different emission scenarios according to a climate model. The model predicts the snow season to shorten by at least two weeks on each end.

jcli-d-13-00520.1-f12.thumb.jpeg.c1ab32791a443f4dc1a3470da0c04140.jpeg

I hope this gives you a better idea of how climate change is likely to impact skiing in New England. Low-elevation ski areas, especially in southern New England are likely to suffer the most. The impacts will be most dramatic on their ability to open early season as warming temperatures make snowmaking temperature less certain in advance of the Christmas season. On the plus side, skiing at Jay Peak and Wildcat is likely to become significant more tolerable. Don't think the industry is in denial. Why do you think Les Otten has such a keen eye on the Balsams?



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