Changing Season, Changing Climate

It wasn’t your typical November day. The sun was high overhead, my weather app read 70 degrees, and my friends and I were climbing in shorts and t-shirts. Typically, American Fork is colder than the valley, and the thought of climbing there in late November prompted me to pack my puffy, gloves, hand warmers, and a base layer. As soon as we arrived to the base of the crag, I realized my mistake and swapped my base layer for my shorts. We were all psyched about the Indian summer. We lounged against the rock, defined the last bit of our Chaco tans, and enjoyed some high-quality PBR. At one point, as I gave my friend a belay on his project, he stopped, halfway up, and peeled off his t-shirt.

The extended fall left us wanting more. What if every year went like this? Wouldn’t it be awesome if our fall’s lasted until the first big dump of the winter? And then we’d be able to peter out the ski season with intermittent days of climbing in between?

This is the dilemma. As a lover of every season, I have a hard time seeing any of them go. At the end of winter, I shed silent tears while I pack away my skis in their summertime coffin. At the same time though, I’m stoked to unpack my climbing gear and rediscover the wonders beyond fluorescent gym lighting and well-protected whippers.

Fortunately, in Salt Lake, we are spoiled by the proximity of both the desert and high Uintas, which help prolong our seasons—the climbing in Moab is prime while the Wasatch is covered in snow, and even when the snow disappears from the Cottonwoods, the high elevation of the Uintas offers adventure for backcountry skiers until May or June.

This year, when we were working on our climbing projects in American Fork Canyon, all the resorts were desperately pumping out snow in suboptimal conditions. Nearly seven months had passed since we’d been on skis, and we started cracking jokes in dark humor: yeah climate change sucks, but these temps are awesome! Until Thanksgiving week, that is, when we all started worrying winter may never show up.

Winter did show up eventually though, and in a big way. Once the storms started rolling across the Great Salt Lake, they seemed to rest for no more than a day before covering us with another fresh layer of powder. Over 11 days in January, Utah resorts saw 119 inches of snowfall and enough face-shots on Instagram to make the rest of the world wonder why they’d booked their winter vacation to Colorado’s Rockies instead of Utah’s Wasatch.

I know I had my fair share of powder days this winter. I remember a particularly blissful day in January when my husband and I toured up Spruces to Powder Park 3. I finally understood what the “white room” meant, and how breaking trail on a powder day is the epitome of earning your turns. I also faced major disappointment, however, when our snowline melted to about 7,000 feet in mid-February. Within a couple weeks we went from skiing nipple-deep powder, to wind-blown sun-crusted hate skiing. The storms faced a resurgence in March, and again in April, with a freak powder day to close out the season. Not bad, right?
It’s hard to believe our planet is warming with winters like the one we just had. How can we receive record amounts of snowfall in the midst of global warming?

One thing that’s important to note is that climate and weather are not equal. According to NASA, “Because human-based warming is superimposed on a naturally varying climate, the temperature rise has not been, and will not be uniform or smooth across the country or over time.” This explains why the bomber winter we just had, and why terms like “global warming” can be confusing, and even misleading. It also explains how our planet can be warming while giving us repetitive and glorious powder days.

If one thing is certain, it’s easy to forget about our changing climate when we’re experiencing the greatest winter Utah has seen in years. One day on the chair lift at Park City Mountain Resort, I overheard two guys next to me joking about climate change. They were under the impression that our miraculous winter meant we’d solved the issue of climate change. Part of me wanted to interject with some hard and fast facts, but their extended commentary included phrases like “the sick pow, brah” and “that was some gnarly spray,” and I couldn’t agree more. The winter, regardless, is ours to enjoy.

However, climate change is no joke. In the 134 years since NASA began collecting data, all but one of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. It’s the reason our polar ice caps are melting at alarming rates year over year, why our snow melts earlier, and why cities at, near, and below sea-level are slowly drowning with the tides. We’ve definitely felt the heat in Utah. Last summer we had a record-setting average of 80.3 degrees in June and July, and we were two days shy of breaking the record for most consecutive 100 degree days. The increased heat lead to a toxic algae bloom in Utah Lake which left 100 people sick and farmers scrambling for clean water. Insane temperatures lead to the highest usage at Rocky Mountain Power in years and drove many Salt Lake residents into the respite of the mountains.

My parents came to visit Salt Lake for the first time in late July, during the midst of our heat wave. Because the mountains are easily ten to twenty degrees cooler than the scorching valley below, I had an excellent excuse to show them the incredible trails of the Cottonwoods. We hiked the Lake Blanche trail and passed dozens of other hikers, trail runners, and photographers.

These mountain environments we use to escape the heat, love to play in, and need for necessary resources, are first in the line of fire. Our mountain glaciers and smaller ice caps take up a mere 4% of total land ice area, however they are responsible for up to 30% of sea level rise in the 20th century. They are also home to many plant and animal species that have adapted for that specific environment. If these species are pushed out of their homes, or become altogether extinct, our alpine meadows, lakes, and backcountry trails may begin to lose the wildflowers and wildlife we enjoy on backpacking trips, backcountry tours, and while alpine climbing.

Some of the most sensitive ecosystems reside in mountain environments. In fact, about 40% of the world’s population lives in areas that indirectly rely on mountains for water supply, agriculture, hydroelectricity, and biodiversity. Not to mention the growing number of participants in snow sports across the globe. According to a recent study by Chase Lamborn and Steven Burr of Utah State University, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons see nearly 4 million visitors each year.

The biggest contributor to climate change, according to the NRDC, are fossil fuels. With coal as the leading force, fossil fuels emit 2 billion tons of greenhouse gasses per year. The transportation sector isn’t far behind with a net contribution of 1.7 billion tons of CO2 per year.

In Utah, our inversion is the direct result of fossil fuel, transportation, and agriculture emissions. The State Implementation Plan, or SIP, conducted by the Division of Air Quality, attributes cars and cows as the leading factors of our inversion.

Our increasingly potent inversion is just one of many issues facing Utah. Our representatives seem to be more interested in making money with the fossil fuel industry than they are in protecting our public lands. So it goes.

I recently attended the No Man’s Land Film Festival, put on by Wylder Goods, where a panel of local activists shared the issues they’re fighting, what impact we can have at the local level, and ways to get involved. Although every piece of advice was inspiring and hopeful, the best was this: find a cause you believe in and can stand by, and put your energy and passion into it. In the Salt Lake area, you can find a variety of nonprofits to get behind for some of the most important issues Utahns currently face.

HEAL Utah focuses on clean air and clean energy. Founded in 1998, HEAL Utah has worked diligently year round, and especially during legislative sessions, to ensure public voices are heard. Save Our Canyons, focuses on our watershed and educating citizens to protect our natural environment. Protect Wild Utah, works to preserve our public lands, and has been on the forefront of designating Lone Peak, Twin Peaks, and Mt. Olympus as wilderness areas. Other organizations, like the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, and Utah Avalanche Center work towards educating users in the backcountry and instilling environmental ethics in backcountry users.
Before I fell in love with the mountains I didn’t understand why we needed to protect them. Like most things in life, before you are emotionally connected, it’s hard to invoke the passion prescribed for protecting those people or places.

I took my first backpacking trip to Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon in October of 2015, about a week after I’d moved to the area. I’d never hiked through Aspen groves before, and their beauty overwhelmed me. Once we set up camp at Desolation Lake (200 feet away, of course), and spent close to an hour starting our fire, we sat back and enjoyed the diversity. I remember wanting to camp on the edge of the lake, not fully understanding the Wasatch watershed. When we got home, and did a little research, my husband and I both gained a greater appreciation for the ethics of the canyons.

This is the greatest barrier in protecting the places we love. In this age of technology, where it’s easier to stay inside, and where almost everything is convenient, it’s hard to convince people to pack out what they pack in, camp away from rivers and lakes, and leave their dogs at home. The prescription? More people having more profound experiences in the outdoors.

Environmental activists are born and bred in mountain environments. They are introduced to rock climbing, or hiking, or skiing, and soon their skill sets prompt them to explore deeper parts of wilderness. Once we realize all the mountains and natural world give to us, the easier it is to give back, to curb our impact, and to inspire others to do the same. The more tours I take in the Cottonwoods, the deeper my hikes go into the heart of the Wasatch, and the more climbs I tick off in American Fork, the more attached I become to protecting these places, and places like them.

Curbing our impact is not as difficult as it sounds. A simple Google search comes up with multiple “10 quick and easy” lists for reducing our carbon footprint. Some common suggestions are changing your light bulbs, consuming less meat, and carpooling. Just changing your light bulbs from incandescent to LED, uses 80% less energy and saves users up to $125 over the lifetime of the bulb. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas, with methane being 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If you add that to the amount of carbon emissions from production in factories, the cost to the environment is deadly. Lastly, the age-old combatant to climate change: using public transportation, carpooling when possible, and riding more bikes.

Our biggest asset, though, are the natural environments we love. Salt Lake has seen a boom in recent years. It attracts people near and far for the Greatest Snow on Earth, and more are finding out about all the other great outdoor pursuits our region has to offer. While the growing number of users has many of us groaning and dreaming of a time when you could go for a mid-morning tour and not see another soul, I think the uptick of backcountry users is a blessing in disguise. The more people to fall in love with the Wasatch, the more who are willing to donate their time and money to organizations that want to protect it.

As controversial and counterintuitive as it may sound, it’s imperative to spend as much time outside as possible, and to introduce our curious friends and family members to the mountain environments that have captivated us. I don’t wish for more crowding in our canyons and crags, but the more people who are deeply appreciative of our backyard, the more advocates we have to represent the issues we’re passionate about.

So grab your friends, wrangle them into a harness, and show them the ropes. Take your mom on a backpacking trip, and teach your dad how to stand-up paddleboard. Invite everyone you know to adopt-a-crag, and have more conversations about the issues that matter to you. Educate yourself and others about our inversion, how to become good stewards of the cottonwoods, and the ethics of Leave No Trace. Learn the names and contact information of the people who represent you and give them a call every now and then.

Our world is changing, and there’s not doubt we are the primary cause of its pace. Let’s use this information as a driving force to get outside, and enjoy the seasons we are given–whether that’s slaying powder in the Wasatch, or fishing streams in the Uintas. But let’s also use it as our driving force to promote and create changes in the way we live, and who we elect to represents us.

This winter, I spent every day I could in the mountains. I skied Silver Fork when the UAC compass read green at all elevations and aspects. I spent weeks, in total, skiing Tom’s Hill, Powder Park 3, Short Swing, and the Beartrap Glades. I drove down to Moab and Red Rocks and climbed in February. I hit up PCMR when the powder got too heavy in the backcountry. I want every winter to be like this one. Maybe they can be.

Rachel Carson said in Silent Spring, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” It’s time to use those reserves to protect the environments we love. The fight against climate change will call for us to work as hard as we play.

I believe we can. Mountain people are a unique, persistent, passionate breed, and when we come together we are a force. We are the force our environment needs.

One Response to “Changing Season, Changing Climate”

  1. Interesting article, are there photo credits for the pictures you’ve included?

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