It was Sunday evening when I heard the news that several people had been killed in an avalanche at Steven’s Pass. I’ve never been very familiar with winter sports and being from the Pacific Northwest has never really required me to, so this news felt strange and foreign, as though I was on vacation, reading news headlines of a place that was not my home. I’m sure skiing accidents and even fatalities are an annual, and fairly common occurrence in winter sport communities, but hearing of this devastation on a 50 degree February evening in Seattle felt wrong. Of course it was partly because three people were killed and no matter who or what the loss represents, a loss of life is truly a tragedy. But it seemed like there was something more.
There has been research done in Europe, Canada and the United States concerning the effects that climate change may have on the occurrence of avalanches. Avalanches are most commonly caused by unstable snowpack conditions. Research has shown that climate change will likely cause increased snow at higher elevations and increased (non-snow) precipitation at lower elevations along the snow line. Also because of the increased variability in weather patterns and the high occurrence of snow fall closely followed by periods of thawing, the snowpack created is more unpredictable and prone to instability, which could lead to avalanches. Another element to consider is the effect that climate change has on glacial structure. Because the thawing of glaciers has been proven as a side effect of climate change, the weakening of glacial structure could contribute to the likelihood of regional avalanches and play an important role in predicting where avalanches are more likely to occur. Statistics show that most avalanche danger areas in the world are identified with unstable seasonal snow-cover. Therefore, popular ski resorts and other seasonal winter recreation areas could see more occurrences and as a result, avalanche related injuries and fatalities could increase.
John Clague, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, says climate change could make the unstable snowpack conditions on B.C. mountains a common occurrence in the future, and this would undoubtedly also be the case for similar mountainous regions around the world. ”You could with global warming get repeated thawing and freezing in the winter and in that situation the snowpack develops an icy crust called hoar and when you get powdery snow on that icy snow, you have an inherently unstable situation” said Clague.
A couple of months ago, I heard a Saturday morning special on National Public Radio that discussed Washington’s winter sport communities economic struggles because of the unseasonably warm weather. NPR explained the likelihood that the weather variance was related to climate change and discussed the economic implications of how drastic changes in weather would greatly effect regional business. It seems common knowledge that agriculture would be effected be changes in regional climates, but I had never thought of the effect that it would also have on businesses that are dependent on a specific type of weather to maintain their livelihood, such as winter sport communities. It was interesting and sad to hear the worry in the voices of the small business owners who rely solely on the profits they make during ‘ski season’ to support themselves and their businesses the remainder of the year. Washington, at least the western side I am most familiar with, maintains such a constant, temperate weather related norm. Even when we experience a ‘snow storm’ or ‘heat wave,’ it’s generally tame in comparison to other parts of the country. However, hearing the concerned community members of Crystal Mountain debate about whether or not to artificially create snow just to get some people up on the mountain spending money gave me a different perspective.