DEEP: The Future of Snow
A road trip to document our disappearing snowpack. First stop: Oregon
This series follows a yearlong, global project to document disappearing snow in the Northern Hemisphere. We’ll be interviewing meteorologists, scientists, skiers, farmers, and anyone who knows anything about snow along the way. The coverage started in Portland, Oregon, on a trans-Rockies road trip, and will continue across the U.S. and Europe. The two-party story will appear in volume 42 of POWDER.
February 13, Mt. Hood, Oregon
Forecast: Occasional snow. High near 31. West wind 17 to 20 mph, with gusts as high as 25 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80 percent. Total daytime snow accumulation of 2 to 4 inches possible.
We started in Portland on Wednesday in a Prius v. The car is long enough to hold a pair of skis and efficient enough to chase powder for 1,500 miles without feeling too guilty about polluting the atmosphere. (Which we are, just not as bad as if we were in a F-150.) Toyota says the car averages 40 mpg, but we’re seeing more like 35.5 mpg, probably because of all the hills in the Cascades. They are, in a word, steep.
The Mt. Hood Highway wends through a rainforest before arriving in a brilliant white alpine wonderland. All it takes is a few degrees on the thermometer to change the rain that soaks western Oregon to snow in the mountains. Which is why climatologists are worried that the snowpack in the Pacific Northwest may not fare well in a warming world.
The average snowpack in the Cascades has already decreased by 25 percent over the last 40 to 70 years. Downscaled climate models—assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow—speculate that the average temperature here will increase by 2F by the 2020s, 3.2F by the 2040s, and 5.3F by the 2080s. That means a 70 percent decrease in snowpack by 2050.
You wouldn’t know it by looking out the windshield. It’s snowing hard by the time we reach Government Camp. We head straight to Valian’s Ski Shop to talk with Bud Valian—who’s had his business at the base of the Timberline Highway since 1968. He says recent winters have been great, especially this one. Timberline has 381 inches so far, more than twice Vail’s 165 inches. He also said the snow level has risen 1,200 feet since he first came to Government Camp in the 1950s. Something the National Weather Service forecasters in Portland verified. Government Camp, at an elevation of 4,415 feet, is seeing 30 percent less snow than it did 40 years ago.
We hit Ski Bowl Wednesday night. The Bowl is the largest night skiing area in the country. The lights above the chairlift towers are spooky in the fog and snow, each chair emerging out of the mist like in a dream. At the top I peel off and head straight down. After driving for two days the sensation is incredible. No turns, no stops, just follow the contours through the old growth spruce trees until I can see the bonfire at the basecamp and silhouettes of skiers wandering up to the lodge for a beer.
Next Stop: Stevens Pass.
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