I grew up in Vail, Colorado, a mountain town that revolves around tourism from the ski resort. As I was growing up I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time in the outdoors, appreciating all the wonderful aspects of nature. From a very young age I learned how to ski and I fell in love with the sport. I even had the opportunity to compete in mogul skiing throughout highschool. Since moving to Oregon, I have also come to love skiing at Mt. Hood. One thing that I have recognized throughout my years of skiing is the many ways that the world has been changing. The biggest change that I have seen over the years, through my personal experiences and in "Environment" is a word so embedded in environmental discourse and scholarship that it has effectively disappeared. We all know what the environment is—or do we? And what do our unexamined assumptions about environment mean for how we approach environmental issues? A careful examination of the word might lead us to... More Studies classes is that the amount of snow that falls from year-to-year every winter is decreasing. Seasonality is also changing, the winter season is becoming shorter and shorter each year. These are just some of the reasons why I am interested in the various effects of snow loss and why I am focusing my area of interest on this topic.
In the Environmental Studies department one thing that we focus on is addressing climate change through an interdisciplinary lens, and also how our world is getting warmer from multiple perspectives. This is one of the main things that is currently effecting the amount of snow that is seen decreasing year-to-year. “Analysis of Northern Hemisphere spring terrestrial snow cover extent (SCE) from the NOAA snow chart Climate Data Record (CDR) for the April to June period (when snow cover is mainly located over the Arctic) has revealed statistically significant reductions in May and June SCE.”(Derksen 2012). These changes in the climate significantly change the amount of snow in arctic regions and mountainous areas around North America and the world. In the below graph the changes in Snow cover extent are shown, from the 1978-2007, for the months of April, May, and June.
At a maximum, snow can cover more than half of the Northern Hemisphere land area and one-third experiences seasonal snow cover. Snowpack development has impacts on many things including soil microbiology, rapid runoff during periods of thaw, implication of leaching solutes, and many other things (Edwards 2007). These rising temperature changes that have led to decrease in snow have various effects on many other earth systems, including runoff processes. “In a warmer world, less winter precipitation falls as snow and the melting of winter snow occurs earlier in spring. Even without any changes in precipitation intensity, both of these effects lead to a shift in peak river runoff to winter and early spring, away from summer and autumn when demand is highest”(Barnett 2005). The runoff processes that are fed by the mountain snowmelt are being effected by changes in snow, because there is less snow, there is subsequently less water in the river from runoff each year. So as the demand for water increases to be used for snowmaking at ski resorts, there is an increase in winter runoff and a decrease of runoff happening in the spring, which then leads to dryer summers (Vanham 2009). Another thing that I have learned is that not all areas are being effected the same when it comes to diminishing amounts of snow. An article that I read talks about the effects of snow loss on different altitudes and how various altitudes are affected differently by these issues. Warming is effecting all areas, but the loss is overproportional in lower altitudes (Breiling 1999).
One of my first questions when I started learning more about the effects of snow loss was, what are all the different impacts of snow loss? These effects of snow loss are what have led me to my first key question, what are the consequences of the diminishing snow on the tourism industry, economic costs, changes to runoff processes, ecosystem changes, and more?
As I have learned there are many harmful effects with diminishing amounts of snow, some of these include economic loss, changes to water runoff, ecosystem changes, changes in veralization, melting permafrost, and more. As talked about above one major effect of snow loss is to the runoff processes, with these systems always changing to different conditions, city planners have to find a way to manage these waterways to use them for water supply. In the city of Portland the Bull Run Watershed is the main source of water for the city, this watershed is mainly fed from the Bull Run Lake that relies heavily on snow melt. Because of climatic changes the city has had to make plans in order to have a sufficient amount of water. Climate change may impact a municipality’s ability to provide water to existing customers and their planning for the future. New sources of water may be required, and the evaluation of these new sources should consider potential climate change(Palmer, 2019). Adaptability is key in the current times, because climate change is occurring so rapidly and aggressively.
Another effect snow loss has to the ecosystem, are specific changes to plant cycles. Plants have evolved many systems to sense their environment and to modify their growth and development accordingly. One example is vernalization, the process by which flowering is promoted as plants sense exposure to the cold temperatures of winter. A requirement for vernalization is an adaptive trait that helps prevent flowering before winter and permits flowering in the favorable conditions of spring. (Kim 2009). Snow depth and spring temperatures influence snowmelt timing, determining the start of plant growth and forage availability. Delays in winter onset affect tundra carbon balance, faunal hibernation, and migration but are unlikely to lengthen the plant growing season.(Cooper 2014). The importance of snow and the cold temperatures that snow brings is vital to when plant cycles start and if the conditions are favorable for growth or not. These relationships can be seen in the graphs below, with the rise in air temperature and the decrease of snow depth.
One more key impact of snow levels is albedo, snow’s albedo, or how much sunlight it reflects back into the atmosphere after hitting snow, is very high, reflecting 80 to 90 percent of the incoming sunlight. By contrast, trees, plants, and soil reflect only 10 to 30 percent of sunlight. Snow cover yields the largest influence during springtime (April to May) in the Northern Hemisphere, when days become longer and the amount of sunshine increases over snow-covered areas. Snow’s high reflectivity helps Earth’s energy balance, because it reflects solar energy back into space, which helps cool the planet (National Snow and Ice Data Center). Albedo from snow is a positive feedback loop, so it has very large implications when it comes to climate change, because it is a never ending cycle of warming, melting, and more warming. Serious change needs to occur in order to interrupt this pattern of warming.
If I can first understand all of the effects of snow loss then the next step is to start to think about solutions and ways to help mitigate the effects, which leads to my next question. What ways can mitigation of snow loss help in stopping the decrease in snow from year-to-year? “Today, adaptation strategies are predominant in tourism (e.g. artificial snow production). As an industry that will be severely affected by climate change, however, tourism will increasingly have to focus on mitigation strategies (e.g. less greenhouse gas emissions by tourism traffic)”(Elsasser 2002). This article talking about the ways that tourism and recreation are adapting to these changes, and as of now most places are only working on adaptive strategies, when more detailed mitigation strategies is what is needed to stop these changes from causing further damage.
Related Work and Next Steps
During my time at Lewis and Clark my experiences in the Environmental Studies major have been greatly defined by the topic of snow loss and the interest I have found in what can be done about it. I feel these experiences and this area of interest has guided the different classes that I have taken at Lewis and Clark. It started in ENVS 220 when we first defined our areas of interest. At the time I was very interested in snow loss and the effects that it had on people, specifically the effects that it had on winter tourism. But throughout my various classes I have learned that the effects are much greater than that.
Through my Global Resource Dilemmas and Global Environmental History class taught me that these are issues that are being felt all over the world and these issues need to be dealt with globally. Through my Environmental Engagement class I was able to work on a project surrounding the Bull Run Watershed in Portland and learn about the various ways that runoff and water management are being effected by climate change. In my Environmental Philosophy and Environmental Econ classes we discussed who is responsible for the cause of these problems and what that means for the solutions to these problems. In my Climate Science and Fundamentals of Hydrology classes I learned about the geological and hydrological processes that are happening in relation to snow, and I have a better understanding of runoff and climate systems.
I feel like all these classes have taught me so much about my area of interest and have laid the foundation for my upcoming capstone project. For my capstone there are a few different directions that I could situate and focus my research. The first way that I could situate the project is by focusing on the runoff processes and how snow loss is effecting the different hydrological systems. Another way that I could situate the project is specially, in Colorado and Oregon and do a comparative study. And the last way that I could situate the research is with a more human focused view of these issues, and to look at the many ways that humans are being impacted by these changes in snow and vice versa. I feel that there are many different paths that I could take when it comes to my capstone and I look forward to doing more research and figuring out where I take that project.
Barnett, T. P., J. C. Adam, and D. P. Lettenmaier. 2005. “Potential Impacts of a Warming Climate on Water Availability in Snow-Dominated Regions.” Nature 438 (7066): 303–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04141.
Breiling, M., and P. Charamza. 1999. “The Impact of Global Warming on Winter Tourism and Skiing: A Regionalised Model for Austrian Snow Conditions.” Regional Environmental Change 1 (1): 4–14.
Cooper, Elisabeth J. 2014. “Warmer Shorter Winters Disrupt Arctic Terrestrial Ecosystems.” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 45 (1): 271–95. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-120213-091620.
Derksen, C., and R. Brown. 2012. “Spring Snow Cover Extent Reductions in the 2008–2012 Period Exceeding Climate Model Projections.” AGU Journals. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. October 10. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2012GL053387@10.1002/(ISSN)1944-8007.GRLCMIP5.
Edwards, Anthony C., Riccardo Scalenghe, and Michele Freppaz. 2007. “Changes in the Seasonal Snow Cover of Alpine Regions and Its Effect on Soil Processes: A Review.” Quaternary International, The Soil Record of Quaternary Climate Change, 162–163 (March): 172–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2006.10.027.
Elsasser, Hans, and Rolf Bürki. 2002. “Climate Change as a Threat to Tourism in the Alps.” Climate Research. April 26. https://www.int-res.com/abstracts/cr/v20/n3/p253-257.
Kim, Dong-Hwan, Mark R. Doyle, Sibum Sung, and Richard M. Amasino. 2009. “Vernalization: Winter and the Timing of Flowering in Plants.” Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology 25 (1): 277–99. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.cellbio.042308.113411.
“National Snow and Ice Data Center.” 2020. Snow and Climate | National Snow and Ice Data Center. January 10. https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/snow/climate.html.
Palmer, Richard, and HahnMargaret. n.d. “The Impacts of Climate Change on Portland’s Water Supply: An Investigation of Potential Hydrologic and Management Impacts on the Bull Run System.” Accessed February 18, 2019. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/34508/2.pdf?sequence=1.
Vanham, D., E. Fleischhacker, and W. Rauch. 2009. “Impact of Snowmaking on Alpine Water Resources Management under Present and Climate Change Conditions.” Water Science and Technology. IWA Publishing. May 1. https://iwaponline.com/wst/article-abstract/59/9/1793/31491.