Climate change and the future of skiing
By Ian Ferguson
Over the years I became fanatical about skiing, and the sport brought me many things – a high school racing championship, employment as a snowmaker and ski instructor, and the impetus to move to Washington state. Last year, winter never came to New Hampshire. In a land where it’s rare not to have a white Christmas, fall lasted from October to March, and the ski season was abysmal. So I headed for the mountain with the most snowfall in the world, and here I am a year later, a season pass-holder to Mt. Baker’s white room, which is open for business on an extremely reliable basis.
Two photographs I saw on the wall of Village Books in Fairhaven reminded me that although I had run from snowless winters, my future ski seasons (and those of my progeny) are not secure.
The photos were elevations of Mt. Baker taken from the same vantage 100 years apart. One was taken in 1912 by E.D. Welsh, the other in 2012 by John Scurlock. The glaciers in the most recent image have receded far upslope from the earlier photo, and that simple combination of images illustrated as well as anything that the future of skiing is in jeopardy.
If you spend enough time in the hills, you learn that the only thing permanent up there is change. The mountains themselves were uplifted by monumental geologic forces and are constantly being worn down by weather and ice. The Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire’s state symbol, crumpled off the mountain two years ago, and the largest known rock deposited by a melting glacier is a house-sized hunk of granite called the Madison Boulder. It’s a few miles from where I grew up. My grade school teachers informed me that glaciers carve the landscape as they advance and retreat in accordance to how warm or cold the climate is, which makes them both the cheese graters and the thermometers of the earth.
Soon after seeing the photos at Village Books, I watched the documentary “Chasing Ice” at the Pickford Theater, in which the photographer James Balog documents the melting of arctic glaciers. After superhuman effort, trial and error, and blown-out knees, he captures stunning time-lapse footage of gigantic glaciers disappearing before our eyes. Aside from the irony of a guy who flies thousands of miles in jet-fueled airplanes to get this footage, the documentary succeeded in illustrating the colossal power of climate change. I wanted to stand up in the movie theater afterward and yell to the audience, “Sell your SUVs! Buy a bike and invest the balance in alternative energy stocks!”
I needed to talk to some scientists about climate change to learn about the future of skiing. The North Cascades are home to more glaciers than can be found in Glacier National Park, and our region attracts some of the best climate scientists in the world. These people study glaciers, climate and geology all day, everyday, because it’s their job and their passion. If anyone can tell me about the future of winter, it’s a North Cascades geologist.
Runaway train. Mauri Pelto directs the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project from Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. He has been traveling to glaciers in the North Cascades every year since 1984 to measure their annual mass balance, which is the difference between how much mass a glacier gains in the winter and how much it loses in the summer. He explained that glaciers are fluid objects that advance and retreat depending on yearly snowfall and temperature. A glacier that loses more mass to snowmelt in the summer than it gains in winter snowfall is out of equilibrium, and will retreat if the negative balance is sustained.
“Annual mass balance is the most sensitive climate indicator on a glacier,” Pelto explained, “because it is affected by changes in both temperature and snowfall.”
His study of 10 glaciers in the North Cascades, including Rainbow and Easton glaciers on Mt. Baker, shows a cumulative loss of more than 43 feet in glacier thickness since 1984.
“The cause of the negative mass balances is temperature rise,” he said. “Precipitation has actually increased over that time period, but snowpack has not, which would indicate more winter rain and melt events.”
More rain and less snow make me nervous about the future of skiing, but what does a New Englander know? I talked to an expert from the Northwest. Andrew Fountain is a professor of glacial geology at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. He conducted his doctoral dissertation on the South Cascade glacier just outside of Darrington, Washington.
Fountain and his colleagues use ground and aerial photography to analyze change in surface area of glaciers across the western U.S. They study the correlation between this data and changes in local, regional and global climate.
Fountain said the glaciers on Mt. Baker have lost an average of 25 percent of their surface area since 1900. Mt. Baker’s glaciers have fared better than those in the surrounding Cascade Range, most of which have lost closer to 50 percent of their surface area. At 10,781 feet, Mt. Baker stands much higher than the surrounding peaks, so it gets snowfall even when the surrounding peaks are getting rain. That high-elevation snowfall sustains Mt. Baker’s glaciers, but the line between snow and rain is moving up the mountain.
“Precipitation hasn’t really changed that much in the last 100 years,” he said. “What’s changed is air temperature. In the Pacific Northwest, snow is fairly warm compared to places like Utah, so we might have a ton of precipitation that falls as rain at the lower elevations, but as the regional temperature rises, the elevation at which rain turns to snow also rises. At the same time, summers are getting warmer, so glaciers are melting more each summer.”
Fountain pointed out that this level of melting is not unprecedented in our region. He said the glaciers on Mt. Baker were the same size or smaller than they are now in the late 1940s. Glaciers generally retreated from around 1900 until the 1950s, and actually advanced from the ’50s to the early ’80s as the climate cooled slightly, before receding again. There is evidence of rapid melting of the ice caps as the Earth warmed after the last Ice Age, and dozens of recorded advancements and recessions in the glacial record since then.
What’s different about this melting period, Fountain said, is the cause.
“In the past, the fingerprint of change has been natural, because humans weren’t around. But now, the change is human-caused.”
I asked Fountain how climate change would affect the future of skiing. “You know,” he said, “We’re on a runaway train. If you took humans away right now, the earth would still warm up for 100 years because of a lag effect. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, we’re talking five or six degrees of warming. There wouldn’t be any more glaciers. Forget the ski industry – it’s gone. In general, wet places will get wetter, dry places will get dryer, but it’s hard to accurately predict the type of havoc that amount of warming would wreak on air currents and weather systems. When they get into the five to nine degree models, I just stop reading,” he said. “It’s too depressing.”
Fountain was hopeful that the status quo scenario is unlikely to continue as people begin to wake up to climate change and make efforts to reduce their energy consumption. He mentioned habits like turning out lights, carpooling, bicycling more and making energy-conscious purchases.
“These are all small, dopey sounding things,” he said. “But if everybody does them, they can have a major impact.” As an example, Fountain said he rides his bike the five miles to work when it’s not raining or freezing outside. “In the grand scheme of things, it may not make a difference, but at least I can consider myself part of a larger movement to reduce my energy footprint.”
Global problem. Doug Clark, a geology professor at Western Washington University, is our local glacier expert and a lifelong skier. He has skied Mt. Shuksan – that sharp, craggy spire to your left as you ride up Chair 8 at Mt. Baker Ski Area. Clark has brought students to the terminus of the Easton glacier every spring for 10 years, and the images he’s collected every year since 2000 show the bulbous, 20-foot cliff face at the head of the glacier not only retreating up the mountain, but also wasting away until it is a tapered plane of ice angling to the dirt.
Clark reiterated that the glaciers on Mt. Baker have melted beyond this point before, and that glaciers always cycle between growth and recession. But he said the current warming period, from about 1900 on, is significant because it isn’t natural.
“If you look at all the natural factors in the backdrop, things like changes in the solar output, changes in El Niño-La Niña cycles, Pacific decadal oscillation, and the other natural climatic input, we should have been on a cooling trend over that whole period, and instead what we’re seeing is dramatic warming,” Clark said.
“If no major changes are made, where do you see the ski industry in 100 years?” I asked.
“Probably not at Heather Meadows,” he said. “I don’t know, that’s a really good question. Even in the higher elevations, it’s going to be really hard to imagine a viable ski industry with good snowpack every year as opposed to rain. There will be a few higher elevation ski areas that might make it, or maybe you’ll have to go to Alaska if you want to ski. But that’s looking at the status quo, and I think there’s a lot we can do to prevent that.”
I asked him if he meant turning out the lights.
“I think the small things can work to a degree, and we all have to take part in sharing the effort, but fundamentally, it’s a global problem,” he said. “We really do need to, at some point, address it as a global community.”
When asked about the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, Clark said there were a lot of reasons the terminal is a bad idea locally, but his primary concern was that the terminal would promulgate the burning of coal, which is the worst offender for CO2 output.
“Yeah, China will probably get it from somewhere else if it’s not through us,” he said. “But they’ll have to pay more, and that will motivate them to find a more sustainable source of energy. Anything we can do right now to end the burning of coal will be good for the planet in the long run.”
Clark admitted that he has become a bit evangelistic about climate change over the years. “I’m trying to be reasonable about this. I’m a logical scientist, not an emotional tree hugger, but this is important stuff that’s going to affect my kids, my grandkids and everybody on a global scale, and it’s frightening to the people who work on it.”
Clark compared climate change denial to the debate over cigarettes in the ’70s, when Big Tobacco paid so-called experts to testify before congressional committees that cigarettes are safe.
“It’s egregious,” he said. “Status quo is not a viable option for anybody who studies climate. The survivability of human society – I won’t say humans as a species – but as a modern, functioning society, is headed for a pretty nasty cliff.”
And skiing is a part of that society.
“I love skiing,” Clark said. “I grew up skiing, and I would hate for my kids or my grandkids not to have it. It’s wonderful recreation, it’s clean, and it’s part of the human experience. I don’t think it’s trivial at all. But it’s linked to the health of our climate, and that’s under threat.”
Clark made a point of stressing that all is not lost when it comes to our climate and the future of skiing.
“We can make the necessary changes,” he said. “It will be a challenge, and it will take a collective effort.”
Coming in from the cold. When I was 18, I took my six-year-old brother to the rope-tow hill at King Pine, the same place I learned to ski. I was more of a big brother than a teacher: “Okay, Jesse, just point the skis downhill and stand up tall.” He flew down the slope carrying speed toward the lodge, and I yelled at him to fall down before he ran into the building. Luckily he did, and despite the scare, he fell in love with the sport just like I did. It’s a joy to hear Jesse’s stories about tooling around the hill with his 10-year-old buddies now, and the idea that our grandchildren won’t be doing the same is a sad one.
I bought a used bike the other day. It’s purple and rusty, and the gears don’t always shift when I want them to. But it feels good to ride it around town, and after a cold bike ride in the Pacific Northwest winter, any building I go into feels like a ski lodge. X
Ian Ferguson is a writer from New Hampshire who recently moved to Bellingham. An avid climber and skier, he is consistently blown away by the beauty of the North Cascades.