Winging my way on a commercial jet toward Resolute Bay Northwest Territories (now Nunavut Territory), Canada in 1984 I looked out the window on a perfectly clear day over the ice-capped Queen Elizabeth Islands – stretching north to the closest land to the North Pole – 400 miles off the coast of Elsmere Island. Even here, 200 miles north of Pt. Barrow Alaska, and even that long ago – it was sad to see the distinctive brown smudge of our carbon-burning civilization extending along the entire northern horizon.
In 2003 I stood with my teen-aged sons by a sign marking the 1967 terminus of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, Canada – telling my boys this was where this large glacier ended when I had last visited it. We could not see the glacier from this demarcation point; it had receded over six miles in 36 years.
My college studies at Michigan State started with a major in Glaciology, an interest seeded by four field seasons spent on the Juneau Icefield. My studies impressed upon me the tipping points the climate often reaches – beyond which the weather can change radically. Within years and not decades temperature shifts can result in the global climate tumbling over a precipice – likely carrying modern civilization with it.
To understand how the ice age we live in ramps back up to the formation of continental ice sheets in the northern hemisphere start with the current reality very little snow falls on the ice covered Arctic Ocean or on the 9,200 foot high South Pole ice dome– both polar regions are simply too cold and surface water available to evaporate and fuel snow storms is locked up under ice.
As the planet warms we are reaching a tipping point where the dark color and open water of an ice-free Arctic Ocean can fuel a warmer, water charged atmosphere resulting in snow dumping on the now dry reaches of Siberia and Northern Canada and mountain regions like ours. Thus might begin an ice age – a possible counter intuitive result of global warming.
A more sudden change than plunging into an ice are changes in the Gulf Stream (we are seeing early warning signs evidenced by huge rain and snow events in England and the Alps). A relatively mild Europe sits as far north as the sub-arctic climate of Canada, the warm Gulf Stream fuels what is really a false climate. As the Arctic ocean ice cap disappears cold currents running south in the Davis Strait west of Greenland combine with similar currents into the North Atlantic may – within very few years – stop the warm waters of the Gulf Stream leaving a densely populated Europe an altogether different and colder place to live.
What might be in store for our mountain home? The mountains around us were carved by glaciers. Our climate, more similar to the poles than to the majority of the planet, is already changing more quickly than it is at lower elevations. Under the ice age scenario we would be faced with longer, wetter and colder winters portending a possible return to glacial times of the past. Although I wonder how many powder days it would take before we doubted if we could continue to live here, I am afraid the more likely global climate change scenario for us is warmer and drier times stretching an already overburdened natural water system and threatening our ski season based economy.
This year we may escape the long warm mid-winter thaw which nearly wrecked the last three winters. Global warming leaves us positioned well to be an escape from what will become unbearable summers in lower elevation climes. As winter becomes shorter and drier, I believe we should prepare to depend on a summer dominated economy. This means we should fund trails – our number one summer economic driver – and other summer recreation amenities.
Understanding our changed future is unpredictable but will most certainly contain super-charged storms we must prepare for flooding. Our artificially controlled creeks impeded unsubstantially by a string of small dams and canals can easily be overwhelmed by summer monsoons and/or by a huge winter followed by a suddenly warm spring. Our critical infrastructure, including the valley’s grocery store, is in harm’s way.
We are basically behaving like cave people gathered around a smoky fire wondering why in the hell we are choking to death. We are more than capable of taking on climate change as a challenge; we certainly have the tools and must allocate the financial resources to work toward solution. Save our winters, save our community – but most importantly we must save our wonderful blue planet – we have no other home than this.