Photos: Devin Ream
It’s late February, and the ski lift chairs at Hoodoo’s Ski Resort in the Santiam Pass swing noisily against blowing wind. Aside from the wind, the chairs sit motionless and silent. No humming motor, no cranky chain pinging off of the metal track and no din of human voices mingle with the sounds of nature – just the whistle of wind through the trees and the occasional squeak from a chair caught in one of the gusts. Other than the few Hoodoo employees in the lodge, the entire resort is deserted.
“I’ve never had to deal with this before,” Anne Nolin says. “Usually, there’s so much snow that we have to worry about how long it’s going to take to dig the snow pits. But right now, there’s nothing.” Every year, Nolin, a 56-year-old snow hydrology and geography professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, takes a van full of her students into the Santiam Pass to perform field measurements and observations, “to understand the mechanistic aspects of snow accumulation and melt in a warming world.”
At only nine percent of normal, this winter saw the lowest snowpack on record for the Western Cascade mountain range. Snowpack results as heavy layers of snow accumulation freeze solid under its own weight. Where Nolin took her students – places that typically have ten to 12 feet of snowpack that late into winter – had barely three or four inches, causing some ski resorts to suffer greatly. The Hoodoo ski resort was only able to open for 11 of its normal 150-day season. And, according to Hoodoo’s Ski Patrol Director Tom Egan, even if it had snowed enough to make opening a possibility, by late February all the oriented employees (who had effectively been laid-off at that point) had likely found other work. The season was lost by early January.
What happened at Hoodoo is only one result of the climate change Nolin says we’re already seeing. “Like this winter, in Oregon, we had the average precipitation, but it was warmer. It was so warm that there was almost no snow. You couldn’t ski, you couldn’t snowmobile, you couldn’t even go out and build a snowman. The snow parks were just dirt. There was no sledding. It was like the winter that never was.”
The Life-Blood of the Mountains
The Willamette Valley, one year removed from the 2014 winter storm that smothered every city from Eugene to Portland in one to four feet of snow, only saw rain in 2015. But with precipitation maintaining normal levels, there is confusion about how lessened snowpack will affect Oregonians, if at all.
“Snow is the life-blood of the mountains,” Nolin says. During summer months, if there’s been adequate snowpack during the winter, the snow melts, literally cascading into a series of environmental benefits – adding to reservoirs, recharging streams, and supporting agriculture in valley farmlands through irrigation. The effects of lessened snowpack cascade equally far though they’re more deleterious, bringing shorter growing seasons, longer fire seasons, decreased fresh water reserves and lowered tributaries, which feed into larger streams that act as spawning highways for fish (particularly Oregon salmon); those fish are also food for Oregon wildlife like bears and eagles. That’s not even mentioning snowpack’s effect on human life. “All of the drinking water in Eugene comes from the McKenzie River,” Nolin says, “which is replenished by snow melt.”
So what will it mean if the mountains don’t get an adequate snowpack? “We don’t know yet,” Nolin says. “It means we might end up with some other novel eco-system – we don’t know.” She says what Oregon is experiencing now has never been seen before. “It causes me anxiety thinking about it. This year in particular is really unusual.” As the eastern half of the U.S. was inundated with epic snowstorms from January to March, Oregon had been showing signs of spring mere weeks after the New Year. By mid-March, as Boston was officially recognizing a record snowfall for the 2014 – 2015 winter season, much of the Willamette Valley was hitting temperatures in the low 70s. At the same time, California is experiencing a devastating drought and the Sierra Nevada Range’s snowpack levels are also at historic lows.
A Natural Curiosity
Nolin moved to Corvallis in 2003, taking her position at OSU. A long-time skier, she truly became interested in climate research while earning her Ph.D. in geography under the tutelage of Jeff Dozier, a well-known climate scientist, at UC Santa Barbara. As a doctoral student, Nolin learned how vital snow is to the water supply of California. She moved to Boulder, Colorado to study for her post-doc, and spent the following ten years working as a researcher. Her next adventure took her to Greenland, where she studied polar climatology, drilled ice cores, and performed remote sensing.
Something about Oregon, however, had always interested her. “I have a natural curiosity about how the world works, and I love the snow,” Nolin says. “It’s beautiful, it’s glittering, it’s bright, and it’s a really unusual substance on our planet, if you think about it. What else covers half the land surface of the Northern Hemisphere for a good part of the winter and then melts and goes away? Vegetation doesn’t do that. Soils and rocks don’t melt and turn into something else – at least not in our typical environment. But snow is this incredible substance that covers the land surface and transforms it into something really bright and white, storing water. And then, in the spring, its fate every year is to melt.”
At OSU, she teaches “several flavors of classes in the realm of geography,” she says, and also runs the Mountain Hydro-Climatology Research Group (a graduate student research class). She teaches remote sensing of the environment in the fall, snow hydrology and digital image processing in the winter (alternating years, respectively), and climatology in the spring. Occasionally, she teaches a Surface of the Earth class, “Which is just a fancy name for physical geography,” she says.
Along with her academic duties, she also mentors students, writes manuscripts, provides outreach, and works with the advocacy group Protect Our Winters as an adviser. She keeps busy, to be sure, and it’s all in the interest of educating the next generation of Earth enthusiasts to the realities of our ever-changing world. She hopes to spark an interest in Earth science and geography, but at the most basic level she wants her students to develop an appreciation for the value snow provides to our ecosystem.
“My strength is that I can teach people about how the world and the climate works,” Nolin says. “And through my enthusiasm about snow, I can engage them in a better understanding about snow and mountain environments. Mountains are deeply neglected and misunderstood places here in the western US. We always think of mountains as first-world vacation destinations, right? But in most of the world, like in the west, mountains are the major source of water, whether it’s from snow or glaciers. Mountains are the water towers of the world.”
It’s Nolin’s hope that increasing numbers of people will acknowledge that and make an effort to protect our shared planet. “I think it’s really time to stop the debate on climate change,” Nolin says. “Let’s move toward a productive conversation about solutions, and let’s push our representatives in Congress to talk about those solutions. They’re the ones who really should be doing something. Don’t be afraid to talk about it, and inform yourself. It’s not too late.”
How To Do Science
At an elevation of 4,668 feet, the wind cuts. Even though the actual temperature is hovering at around 30 degrees, the wind chill doesn’t help. “It may feel cold to us,” Nolin says, smiling at her snow hydrology students, “but it’s not cold to the snow.” Her students, six in total, are bundled from head to toe in the best quality cold weather gear. Had it not been for the wind, it would have hardly been necessary. As they donned their snowshoes, the students exchange incredulous looks. Three inches of snow doesn’t usually constitute the need for snowshoes, but they brought them as a rule and Nolin refused to squander an opportunity to wear them.
On Feb. 28, two days after a storm wound its way through Santiam Pass – a storm that many had hoped would provide much-needed snow to the suffering Hoodoo resort – Nolin took her class of undergraduate earth scientists on a field trip to measure snowpack depth. Though they didn’t find what they had hoped to, experiencing the mountain and the harsh reality of humanity’s effects on its health is essential for budding geologists.
Trips to the mountain provide invaluable hands-on opportunities to conduct research in a real-life setting that classrooms could never provide. Steve Galer, 32, an undergraduate in geology, says, “These trips are really valuable because they show you how to do science.” Even though their efforts were thwarted by the lack of snow, they all snapped on their cumbersome footwear and followed a happy Nolin up an unused ski slope.
“We kind of know what to expect, but it’s more of the physical aspect of going out and doing it,” Anthony Pentimonti says, ice chunks collecting in his thick, black mustache. The 24-year-old geography and earth science undergrad understands full well the implications of what’s happening at Hoodoo, but he maintains a positive outlook. “This resort may never open again,” he says. “It’s kind of sad, but at the same time, things will always change. Humans will always adapt.”
Climate change has been occurring throughout the past 70 years. Since 1941, there has been a 70 percent decline in peak snowpack, and it has been widely reported that this past decade was the warmest on record. To react appropriately to world governments’ imposed regulations on carbon emission levels – regulations that seek to limit the increase in temperature to two degrees Celsius – requires an understanding of human adaptive capacities for the areas that aim to be affected. “Here in Oregon,” Nolin says, “what that two degree temperature increase means is that we will likely lose on the order of 25 to 50 percent of our snowpack in the western Cascades simply because we’ll have much warmer storms, and the snow that we do get will melt that much earlier.”
Warmer storms, though they provide reservoir water, do not accomplish the same tasks as the snowpack that results from cold storms. The evaporation and melting of snowpack provides longer lasting benefits to ecology on a much larger scale than rain can. Evaporating snow sustains moisture in the air that doesn’t exist with rainfall alone. As far as the economy is concerned, if all we continue to get is more rain Hoodoo may have to revolutionize mud skiing.
“What that means for rural and mountain communities that depend on income from ski areas,” Nolin says, “is that those smaller ski areas like Hoodoo, Ski Bowl and Willamette Pass will have a much higher frequency of warmer winters, and whether or not their economic model – their operating model – will be able to bear that will be the real challenge.” The managers at Willamette Pass and Hoodoo ski resorts were understandably unwilling to comment for this article.
Changing The Way We Live
“[I think] the biggest problem with climate change,” Pentimonti says, “is that…[the US] has to tell these large, developing countries, like China and India, ‘No, you can’t have all the luxuries we had through the 1900s. You have to be green and give up a lot immediately.’ It’s hard to justify that. How do we get to control the world and deny them their hundred years of luxury?”
Fortunately, the US isn’t entirely alone on the world’s podium in acknowledging the need to make serious concessions in the interest of preventing further climate change. Climate scientists all over the world are hard at work collecting data that will be available for politicians to use in establishing solutions for positive changes. However, there are US representatives who challenge the efforts being made by making dramatic arguments (like throwing snowballs on the floor of the senate), to refute the reality that climate change is real. Ellen Svadlenak, a 22-year-old earth science undergrad, says it can be challenging when research methods and data collection are challenged by politicians with an agenda. “I feel like that’s why it’s so important to keep a record of your procedure, which is something we always do – something we’re taught to do in science.” A good defense naturally stems from conducting good research, she says, especially if you can explain why you did something a certain way.
“If we really are going to try to make an impact with climate change and reduce what’s happening,” Cady Gebharte says, “part of it is finding new renewable resources, but it’s also changing the way we live – our spending habits and our water usage habits.” Gebharte, 21, though one of Nolin’s students, is actually majoring in mathematics. Still, she maintains a passion for the field, as well as ambitious opinions about how to promote positive solutions to climate change.
“This summer is going to be pretty dry then?” Gebharte asks, while Nolin attempts to show her students how to take a snow sample, frustrated by the soil and vegetation corruption due to the snowpack’s shallow depth. “We just don’t know yet,” Nolin responds, before she begins to pack up her snow measuring equipment for the long ride back to Corvallis. It wasn’t a wasted effort, the students agree. It was just a bit disappointing.