Snowpack is getting less reliable in American winters. And in many places, that's not just an environmental problem, but an emotional one, too.
Today, On Point: What we lose if snow disappears.
Justin Mankin, climate scientist. Director of the Climate Modeling and Impacts Group at Dartmouth College.
Tony Wood, reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Author of "Snow: A history of the world’s most fascinating flake."
Benjamin Moser, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.
Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.
When I was a kid, we actually have pictures of us. The snow was so deep this time of year that we climbed on top of the snowbanks along the side of the road, and we were taller than the street signs.
And when I moved to Denver 25 years ago, we usually got four to six inches of snow, three to four times a month. December, January, February.
The wind would kick up swirling vortexes of snow and build large drifts along the sides of the road. In the spring it would thaw and freeze, making a thick, icy top that me and my father used to cross sled on.
I vividly remember that when I was little, we often had first snow around Thanksgiving, and my mother has mentioned that we occasionally had snow as late as Easter. Winters in this little valley were quiet. The snow blanket lying deep over the old fields for months at a time.
I grew up in this area my whole life. I grew up in Niagara Falls. I was a senior, the blizzard of '77, senior in high school, and our graduation was delayed until almost the 4th of July because of the snow.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, and sure snow can be a pain in the butt, I know. But for folks who grew up with long winters, snow also carries memory with it of ethereal beauty, hard slogs, and hard times overcome of crystalline joy. I grew up in a place with a pretty temperate, very rainy winter.
So when I moved to New England and experienced my first big blanket of snow, I was left with only one feeling: pure magic. Now though, for listeners who shared those stories with us that you just heard, they were from upstate New York, Utah, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Washington State, Maine, Iowa, Ohio, the Dakotas and more.
For all of them, winter is very different. Because the magic feels like it's fading away.
I'm standing in my front yard and there is a tiny bit of ice that used to be snow that's melted in the shade, and we've had almost no snow.
It's February 2nd and I live in Western New York and there is no snow today. The ground is bare. I can see grass. This is completely different from what I experienced when I was growing up.
I have a four-year-old golden, who's only ever played in a few inches of snow. Has no idea what it's like to run and fly and bound through endless puffy snow.
This year's snow amount is quite depressing.
I think our snow drought is contributing to our overall drought that we've been experiencing in eastern Iowa over the last five years or so.
This year for the very first time, when I go outside, sometimes I occasionally find flies or mosquitoes or bees, and so to me, seeing insects that are typically not around during the winter months. It tells me there's clear change happening.
I miss the snow. I miss watching it fall. I miss how it muffles the noise and just makes things so peaceful and quiet.
I really miss having snow for Christmas and for the kids to play sled and built snow forts.
When my kids were growing up, they were outside all the time. Now our young grandchildren can't really go outside so much and all the time. Because it's a mud pit instead of a snow mound. So it's hard.
The roads in town are as oddly bare as the trails here and one local businesses' electronics door front sign captures our community's collective sentiment. It keeps flashing "Pray for snow."
CHAKRABARTI: It is true. Snowfall is becoming less reliable and snowpacks are shrinking. Winter snowpack in many parts of the continental U.S. have shrunk by 10% to 20% per decade over the last 40 years. That's according to a study published last month in Nature. There is some annual variation, but overall winter and its signature precipitation are changing.
Snow has a way of creating a shared identity, a sense of wonder, a sense of fun for people who live in those cold places. It binds communities together. So what do we lose when that snow melts away? Joining us now is Tony Wood. He's a veteran reporter, has been reporting on the environment for decades with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he's also the author of the book, "Snow: A history of the world’s most fascinating flake."
Tony, welcome to On Point.
TONY WOOD: Hey, thank you so much for inviting me.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so where'd you grow up, Tony?
WOOD: I grew up in the beautiful city of Chester, Pennsylvania, which is south of Philadelphia. It is a town where you would possibly confuse the factory smoke for clouds.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. (LAUGHS)
WOOD: And I think it is one reason why I really got into snow because snow just transformed the town.
It was suddenly a magic kingdom.
CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more about that. Yeah, what did it look like and what did you do and what did it feel like?
WOOD: I used to just, I'd walk to a churchyard where I went to school. And the thing I remember most is there were two, there were these fantastic gravestones of the first pastors, that they were curbed. And there are these just snow piled on top of them.
And it was just the most beautiful thing I ever saw as a kid. And there was a dirt alley outside my house and when it snowed, all of a sudden, it was a magic runway. And I just remember looking out in the yard and I had this feeling that, you know what? Everything is now complete.
I can just go out and take a step into the snow and leave that first footprint, and I'd get really mad if one of my brothers did it first. But it was just this wonderful experience. And of course, the other thing that I have to admit is I really hated school. And when I found out that snow could close a school, I would just, I was hooked for life.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) It was like a literal godsend, right?
WOOD: Yeah. But yeah, the last few years we certainly have been deprived. I haven't given up on snow. And the world's getting warmer. For guys who love winter, it's very depressing, obviously, but you know, it still does snow.
And I think it will continue for a while. Unfortunately, it may not last as long as it used to.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. That's what we heard from a lot of listeners. That it still snows in the places they live, but it goes away very quickly. Between storms, you described it as a magic kingdom and as I had mentioned earlier, I first moved to New England in the year 2000 and I was a snow novice, let me put it that way. And I was, of course people, there's always the pain of having to shovel and salt and the traffic problems caused by snow and the cold, and it can definitely take down power grids, etc. But to me, I just saw this wonder world of plows, like they were like moving through the streets in lockstep and clearing out the snow.
And then one night as I was taking the public transit over the Charles River here in Boston, it had completely frozen over. There was a thick blanket of snow over the river, and the lights were shining on the river as we were going over the bridge. And I saw this single pair of footsteps across the middle of the river. Someone had walked across on the ice, and it just felt miraculous to me.
What is it about snow that creates that sense of identity with a place that people tend to share?
WOOD: I like to say that snow is poetic. Rain is, except it's, unless it's a tropical storm. Rain is prosaic to me. But there's something about snow that really speaks to our inner beings in a way that no other weather can.
And I think it's actually a mystical process. It's almost something you can't articulate. I'll say in my book, my original title had the word metaphysics in it. And my publisher said immediately, "That's gotta go." So that's how we ended up with a title that we did.
But there is something about snow that speaks to your inner life. And when you first see a snowflake, really a snowflake, say one lands on your black coat and you look at it, it's an incredible structure. It's a work of art. And we're lucky that we have the Great Bentley who's now long, long departed.
But Bentley was the first one who actually was able to capture an image of snow with a camera. And we now just know that there's infinite variety of flakes. And I'm sure you've heard that. People say no two snowflakes are alike. That's not quite true. They're not, they're very much alike.
They're just not identical. Just the molecular composition of the flake is such that you, they can't possibly be replicated. So every one is different. And it is amazing how this complex architecture become this beautifully even coating of white.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Tony, it's so absolutely true.
And it's also this like bright white in the middle of the darkness of winter.
WOOD: Oh yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: We have to head to a break here, Tony, forgive me for interrupting you, but I want to hear a lot more about what we lose emotionally and environmentally with less snow. But first, let's let this listener from the mountain West take us to the break.
This is On Point.
NICK EWAN: My name is Nick Ewan. I live in Anaconda, Montana in the southwest corner of the state. And as I'm standing here on February 2nd at six in the evening, there is no snow in my yard, and I have a steady downpour of rain this evening. Snow for us has always been a sense of identity.
People here's lives revolve around it. It starts the day with managing the snow, ends the day with managing the snow. So there's not so much in the morning to take care of. Everything about this is bad. There's a heightened fire danger, less water to refill the already low reservoirs. And there's really nothing that can be done about it. We just make do.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, and this is Tom who lives in Maine.
TOM: Last several storms have started out in snow and turned to rain. That would be something unheard of in years past. I'm 67 now. In 67 years, we've never had this. I just have continually watched our snowfall change, ice on the ponds, less dependable, ice outs far earlier by months than usual.
We miss our snowfall. We miss being able to sled off the roof when the kids were little. Now sledding off the roof is impossible or treacherous. I've had and have pictures of snow up over our first-story windows. We continually say to one another, my wife and I, that you need to live in a cold climate to see the real effects of global warming. And we've been watching it for years.
CHAKRABARTI: That's On Point. Listener Tom from Maine. We are talking about what we lose both environmentally and emotionally with the slow but inexorable reduction in snowpack across the United States, and also the lack of reliability in snowfall as well. Tony Wood joins us today. He's author of "Snow: A history of the world’s most fascinating flake." And Tony, hang on for just a minute because I want to bring Justin Mankin into the conversation.
He's the director of the Climate Modeling and Impacts Group at Dartmouth College. Justin, welcome to the show.
JUSTIN MANKIN: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: A little earlier I read that quite concerning statistic from a study that was published in the journal Nature last month, that in the continental United States, snowpack in parts of the country have shrunk by 10% to 20% per decade, over the last four decades.
So does that actually mean that in some place's snowpack reduction could be as high as 50%?
MANKIN: Yeah, exactly. So that study was led by my excellent graduate student, Alex Gottlieb, who's a PhD student here at Dartmouth. And the two of us noticed there wasn't actually a clear assessment of how much snowpack has actually declined from global warming, despite the fact, as all of these callers have pointed out, that we have this clear narrative in our minds that a warmer world means less snow.
The reason this attribution of snow changes to global warming had been elusive, is because it's actually really difficult to observe snowpack itself at large spatial scales, the types of scales that we would want to be able to make a climate assessment. And so yeah, we confronted those observational uncertainties and provided an answer to the question of how much has human-caused global warming impacted snowpack across the northern Hemisphere?
And you are absolutely right. We find losses in many North American river basins to be on the order of about 4% to 10% per decade over the last 40 years. So that's totaling over the last 40 years since the early 1980s. Something between 16% to 40% relative to the amount of snow that listeners would've expected to have occurred when they were kids.
CHAKRABARTI: We've had, we had callers say that because of that reduction in snowpack, they may not live in those higher elevations, but lower down, their entire environment relies on the snow melt from that pack in order to rejuvenate the trees and the plants and the world around them.
And they've noticed quite a big difference because of the reduction in the runoff and the groundwater replenishment that they get usually from a healthy snowpack here. But does that relate at all to the sense of the lack of reliability in snowfall in places, or are they just two completely separate things?
MANKIN: Yeah, you're absolutely right that snow has this incredible cultural and social and economic value. It also has this incredible geophysical value, reflecting sun, sunlight, influencing weather patterns that we experience. It insulates ecosystems like tree roots from cold winter air.
It ensures pests don't survive the winter, and it also has this essential role as a reservoir, melting out in spring, pulsing nutrients and water into riverine ecosystems. Precisely when people and ecosystems start to demand more water, during spring and summer, the question of snowfall itself, I think, increasingly we are seeing that as atmospheric temperatures increase due to human-caused climate change, that the fraction of winter precipitation falling as snow is decreasing for a lot of regions. And that certainly influences the amount of snow that's accumulating on the ground.
And we're seeing that in terms of rain on snow events, which bring their own host of hazards.
MANKIN: And just less snow accumulation, but we're still getting snowstorms. The thing about global warming is, you know, that snow is confounded by the fact that it's both controlled by temperature variability and precipitation variability, right?
And so if you just happen to have favorable temperatures, when you have a winter storm coming through, you're going to get a big snowstorm and that's going to be the case going forward. The trends we're talking about here are just a general lack of reliable snow covering the ground over the winter season.
You're going to get way more days, snow-free days. And those are going to be muddy and dark and unpleasant to be in. It's a totally different experience.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. We're talking about unreliable weather patterns, essentially, but reliability is what societies environments. Entire ecosystems are built on. So that variability is quite concerning. Tony Wood, let me come back to you, because your book "Snow: A history of the world’s most fascinating flake.", it's a cultural analysis. It's a historical one. So I'd like to lean on that history part a little bit.
How would you describe what the relationship, love-hate relationship with snow was several centuries ago? Because obviously, let's just state first the obvious, the indigenous peoples of North America had a great amount of experience in --
WOOD: Oh yes.
CHAKRABARTI: Living with snow. It was the colonists who came over who were perhaps a little overwhelmed.
WOOD: Yeah, of course. Thing to keep in mind is that England, especially around southern England, London, it's not a particularly snowy area and that's because they're on the other side of the Atlantic and winds blow west to east, and they get moderating temperatures off of the ocean and at ease of the golf stream.
When the colonists got here there, all of a sudden, they're on the other side of the Gulf stream and they're getting this incredibly cold air coming down from the continent. And that's interacting with the warm ocean water blowing up these in unbelievable storms. Cotton Mather was just astounded at the two and three-foot snowfalls that were common in the Boston area.
And Collins in Jamestown froze to death. And the perplexing thing is though they were a thousand miles south London in latitude. So they expected it to be a warmer place, and I think they got embedded into the American consciousness. You go look at the journals and the letters that people were writing back home, and they're just full of this sense of wonder.
They didn't know what the heck they got themselves into. And I think that in American history, this became such a part of the legacy. You probably have heard a million times about George Washington's March across the Delaware, to the attack in Trenton, that was a classic winter storm.
On the East coast where there was snow that mixed with sleet and freezing rain. And they marched through the ice all the way to Trenton and only about 10 inches of snow. But now Jefferson was in Charlottesville, and he got two feet. Because he was farther from the ocean. And these things are just, snowstorms are such a part of our history that it's to being an American is the deal with snow. No offense to our friends in Florida.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I was gonna say, we've got listeners, we have a lot of listeners who probably would object to that, but yeah.
WOOD: I don't know. Judah Cohen, who is a very respected polar scientist, is heading to Miami next week.
And he is very upset because he thinks he's gonna miss a snowstorm in Boston.
CHAKRABARTI: Here I am in Boston. I'd welcome the snow quite frankly because it's been a very dull winter here. But hang on for just a second. Both Tony, you and Justin here, because the idea of how snow is just very much embedded into an individual's and a community's psyche.
We had listeners calling in quoting poetry to us that was about snow. One of them was I think New Hampshire listener wanted us to read Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem The Snow-Storm. Now it's a bit long here, but I'll just read the first stanza.
It goes like this, "Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, arrives this snow and driving over the fields seems nowhere to alight. The whited air hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven, and veils the farmhouse at the garden's end. The sled and traveler stopped. The courier's feet delayed. All friends shut out. The housemates sit around the radiant fireplace, enclosed in a tumultuous privacy of storm."
So that's just one way. That's Emerson, that snow lends itself to art. Here's another one. This one combines history and art because we spoke with Benjamin Moser, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. He's an American, but has lived in the Netherlands for more than 20 years, and his most recent book is about the artwork produced during the Dutch golden age in the 16 hundreds.
It's called "The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters," and there's one painting in particular he highlights in the book. Hendrick, or excuse me, Painter Hendrick Averkamp and Moser says, Averkamp specialized in painting colorful winter scenes of merrymaking atop the ice of frozen Dutch canals.
BENJAMIN MOSER: And these pictures were so famous and still are, I promise you your grandmother has a jigsaw puzzle with one of these paintings or sends you a Christmas card or something. They're so warm and fun and Dutch and they're like novels. Because the whole society comes out onto these frozen canals and does their thing.
CHAKRABARTI: You've seen that puzzle, that image he's talking about, young couples skating hand in hand, horses pulling sleighs, a man losing his hat as he goes bottom up on slippery ice. Moser says the appearance of that ephemeral ice created a moment each winter when the social hierarchy that defined Dutch life in the 17th century just fell away.
MOSER: You have this phenomenon locally, inside the Netherlands, which is, it's like Carnival in Brazil, which is, the great thing about Carnival is that everybody is equal. Everything is just a free-for-all. And ice, and the role that this plays, is it just, all the rules are off. You can do anything you want.
Everybody mixes. It's not really moralistic, ice was always really fun.
CHAKRABARTI: Averkamp's joyful winter scenes have been exported and reproduced around the world. They also created a popular understanding of a Dutch way of life that according to Moser, no longer exists.
MOSER: They shaped this idea of Holland as this kind of fun, zany, wacky place. And you as a foreigner, at least in my case, coming here, you hope that you're going to be out on the canals, skating around with some frolics and countess, and then you get here. And what do you find in the age of global warming? Is it just rains a lot. It's overcast, it's depressing.
You don't have that incredible moment of excitement that I think we all need in the winter.
CHAKRABARTI: So that is Benjamin Moser. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, including of the book "The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters." Now, Justin, the reason why that example from the Netherlands was so potent, I think is because obviously this is going around.
This is happening everywhere around the world, in places that are used to having winter snow. Can you just take a minute though to explain a little bit more about why climate change, what's the process that's reducing that fraction of precipitation that's falling as snow as you had said earlier?
MANKIN: Yeah, sure. I think there are two ways to think about this, right? Which is first is how is global warming impacting winter precipitation, full stop, right? And that would include snow or rain during the winter season. And then, should snow fall? What does winter warming from global warming do to the accumulation of that snow and its melt?
And the thing about global warming is that it's impacting both of those things, right? We have a simple story that we tell about snow, which is that you heat it up and it melts. And that's generally true, but because of the fact that global warming doesn't simply warm atmospheric temperatures and ocean temperatures, it's also changing patterns of precipitation.
And so if you just have kind of weather variation, you can have situations where you have precipitation falling on a day that happens to be below freezing, and you're going to get snow accumulation. So the thing about a warmer atmosphere is its tendency is going to be to increase precipitation, right?
So we expect a world with global warming to be, and to have heavier downpours, right? Whether those are snow or rain. And there's documented evidence of that. We're seeing that across the planet right now, of enhanced precipitation and heavier downpours with the sets of hazards that come along with that.
So you have these two levers being pulled on both snowfall and snowpack. And the first is temperature and the second is precipitation.
CHAKRABARTI: Gotcha. We have to head towards a break here. So Tony Wood and Justin Mankin, stand by for a second. We're talking about what we lose with the lack of reliability in snowfall across the United States, and we'll head to the break with a listener from the Midwest.
This is On Point.
WILLIAM LESTER: My name is William Lester. I live in Piqua, Ohio. I've lived here for over 40 years. I shoveled the snow out on Blizzard of '78. When I was about 12, I haven't seen snow like that since. We have snow occasionally now, but more freezing rain and slush than we do snow. We get some cold occasionally.
Polar cold sometimes, but it never seems to match up with the precipitation. Just doesn't seem to be sinking up the water and the cold. I love a fully thick layer of snow, though. It's a wonderful feeling to go out in the evening time and walk. My grandfather used to take me out and we called it walking on the moon.
Fresh snow is a beautiful thing. We just don't get much of it anymore.
CHAKRABARTI: You're back with On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
LaRAE: I grew up in Northeast South Dakota. I am 67 years old and still live here. I grew up on a dairy farm and went to a country school until eighth grade. In the last few years, we have had very little snow cover compared to when I grew up. There were winters where my dad had to plow a path from the house to the barn, so we were able to milk the cows.
This would've been in the 1960s. We had one or two winters where the snowbanks were as high as the second level of the house with snowbanks into late April. Snowplows did not come out very quickly, and there were times when my dad had to drive us to school with the tractor and trailer and pick up neighbor kids on the way just to get to school.
CHAKRABARTI: All that memory comes to us from LaRae in Aberdeen, South Dakota. We are talking about the reduced reliability of snowfall in the Continental United States and the reduction, some in some places, quite dramatic, of the snowpack in the United States. And of course, trying to understand why that's happening, exactly why that's happening, because of climate change. And the impact environmental and emotional and community impact that a reduction in snow reliability has on the communities who are used to having it in the winter time. And I'm joined today by Tony Wood. He is a veteran reporter for the Philadelphia, Inquirer, and author of Snow, A History of the World's Most Fascinating Flake.
Justin Mankin is also with us. He's director of the Climate, Modeling and Impacts Group at Dartmouth College. Tony, I'm going to come back to the considerable ground that you cover in your book about a relationship with snow.
But Justin, there's another question about climate that I'd love to get some clarity on, and that is, how is it that climate change is reducing snowpack in some places, now we're talking globally, not just in the United States, but also increasing snow in other places. It sounds like it's more complicated than it just gets warm. There's less snow, and so everything gets reduced.
MANKIN: Yeah. I think the simple story we tell about snowy winters really belies the complexity of their causes and their consequences.
And in this work, what we were trying to be able to do, is given the uncertainty in our observations of snowpack, how do we make an attribution about how climate change has influenced it? And in doing this attribution, what we found is a really fundamental thermodynamic relationship, right? Where cold places that are really cold over the wintertime, have average wintertime temperatures well below 17 degrees Fahrenheit or minus eight degrees Celsius. Those places are very insensitive to warming, in terms of seeing meaningful reductions in their snowpack.
And in fact, some of those places enjoy the benefits of the enhanced precipitation from global warming itself. A warmer atmosphere tends to hold more moisture. And that, in wintertime, if you have a precipitation event and you're cold enough, it's going to fall on snow. And so cold continental interiors in Siberia, for example, have actually enjoyed enhanced snow accumulation, in part, attributable to global warming.
So those cold places are pretty insensitive to snow. That is, you don't see, you're not able to detect meaningful reductions in snowpack due to the global warming that has already occurred. But only about 500 million people live in those river basins, despite the fact that they're the majority of the 170 or so river basins we examined in this analysis. Where people live, about 2.1 billion people, and where they put competing demands on the water from snowpack.
Those are the places where we're able to make a really robust attribution of snow declines, and it comes back to this fundamental thermodynamic relationship, whereby your sensitivity, the sensitivity of your snow, to a one degree of global warming, say, that's a highly nonlinear relationship. Meaning that as your winter, average wintertime temperatures approach up this threshold that we identify of 17 degrees Fahrenheit, your expected snow loss with a degree of warming just goes up nonlinearly exponentially, right?
And that first degree of global warming, if your wintertime temperature on average are about 17 degrees, maybe you'd expect a 5% decline in your snowpack, but that second degree of global warming would take an additional 20%.
CHAKRABARTI: I see.
MANKIN: So it's an extremely sensitive thing and it's this highly nonlinear sensitivity.
MANKIN: That snow has to warming, it clarifies why such warning in the observations at a kind of a hemispheric scale have been elusive. And it also says why waiting until the impacts of snow loss to actually manifest could be too late for a lot of places, that place these competing demands on snow water.
CHAKRABARTI: I got you. Okay. So then also that's why we heard from so many listeners whose they don't just have an emotional relationship with snow. Their entire communities have a very strong economic relationship with snow, and it seems like they're really feeling the exponential rise in that impact that you're talking about, with every additional, even fraction of a degree, of the winters they're experiencing.
So here's one example. A lot of folks who are avid cross-country skiers may know it. It's a big cross-country ski race. North America's biggest, the American Birkebeiner. It traverses 50 kilometers between the towns of Cable and Hayward, Wisconsin.
BEN POPP: It really is this entire community opening up to host the world. And I think it's transformed who we are and what we are and why we do it, and is really the backbone of everything from our identity to our economy and everything in between.
CHAKRABARTI: So that's Ben Popp, the executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. He says 15,000 skiers are registered for the race this year. It's set to take place on February 24th, but course conditions right now --
POPP: There's not a snowflake on it. It's pretty grim, unfortunately.
CHAKRABARTI: In the Berkebiner's fifty-year history, the race has only been cancelled twice due to lack of snow.
And they were in 2000 and 2017. Yes. So after the turn of the millennium. In a warming world, it's a possibility that worries Popp more and more.
POPP: I often tell people it's like trying to have, you know, the NFL Super Bowl, but the field is only there every fifth year or something. You have to have this medium to create these experiences, and if you don't have the medium, you can't create the experiences.
CHAKRABARTI: So Popp told us he wants his grandkids to experience the magic of the Birkebeiner. That's why the race is invested in artificial snowmaking. They're also looking into other ways to adapt to a waning snowpack, like shifting the course out of Wisconsin's iconic backwoods, and onto places like golf courses.
Status of this year's race, by the way, is still up in the air. So Tony, this is also another major area of exploration in your book about snow, just the economic relationships that communities have with snow reliability. Talk to me about that, sort of now, in terms of the challenges that you see communities facing.
WOOD: Yeah, there's no question. There's, snow is just such an important part of the agricultural economy, and obviously it's so important to ski country. Which fortunately, we've made so many advances in snowmaking that the ski country's been able to pretty much neutralize the deleterious effects so far.
But of course, that also has an environmental impact that we certainly would like to avoid, to put all possible. And let's face it, when you, if you're removing a resource like snow, you're going to have just tremendous impacts. And it does have some upside, obviously.
Road departments are saving some money on road spearing. State governments are saving some money they spend on snow fighting. But overall, it is unquestionably a net negative. And Justin, just you made some really fascinating points. I just wanted to point out one thing real quickly.
I like to tell our readers that snow is brought to you by the Megabucks lottery, around here anyway. We, once in a while, we hit the jackpot on snow, but that happens very frequently. And of course, the big loss for us is that lack of consistent snow cover. And the one impact it has in the economy, you probably don't think about, is that supermarkets really hate winters like this.
WOOD: Around here there's mass panic and people buy stuff. And the supermarket people will tell you that it evens out because people buy supplies for days, but that's not really true. They buy a lot of perishables. And the last couple years have been brutal for them in winter.
CHAKRABARTI: Justin, did you want to jump in there?
MANKIN: Yeah, I had some thoughts about the economic consequences.
MANKIN: One of the things that we do in our group is, not just think about the future, but historically document the impacts of climate change to date. And in particular, try to put cost estimates on those losses.
And while we haven't done that for snow particularly, I think, while snowmaking can maybe help manage some of the losses, in terms of snow consistency for some of these mountain resorts, the operating costs for those resorts is just skyrocketing right? To provide that stable snowpack, it's a lot more work. And you're seeing essentially the business model of the ski industry, a $30 billion industry here in the United States getting squeezed into a shorter season, with lower quality slow. And I think, in terms of this broader question of the pattern of vulnerability, right?
And the incongruity of places that are snowy places, that are insensitive to warming, and snowy places that are extremely sensitive to warming. You essentially have a situation where the most vulnerable are always being targeted by global warming. And I think the same holds true for snow loss.
And when you look at it, for example, in the ski industry, right? A lot of these little mountains, particularly in places like New England, where I live, and I have a local mountain here and I think there's a lot of wisdom in the anecdotes that your listeners have been calling in with, right there in this case.
I think there's a lot of wisdom there. I'm seeing it on my local mountain where the snow making imperative is just increasing and really outpacing what what's possible. And I worry that the place where I take my two daughters to go skiing, it's not going to be viable in the next decade.
And I think that's a real tragedy.
CHAKRABARTI: Small temperature changes that you were talking about, Justin, because if I have this right, there are places in the United States, I'm particularly thinking in the Western United States and the Sierra, for example, that had a really low snowpack for years and it was a huge problem for California. But the Sierra Snowpack is growing right now. Is that right?
MANKIN: It is. Yeah. We're still in a situation where four out of, every four out of five river basins in the Western U.S. currently have below average snowpack.
Though this last several weeks we've seen some really heartening increases in snowpacks. The difference there, right, the loss of snow does not imply the same impacts everywhere, right?
MANKIN: The risks of snow loss are not the same for New England as they are for the Southwest, and in Colorado or in California.
Snow is just playing this crucial role in the water supply portfolio and helping to manage warm season droughts, which have really punctuated the climate of the American West for the last 20 years.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and just again, to remind everyone, we're talking about long-term trends, right? Not just individual years.
Because there could be, I don't know, maybe next year we've got a lot more snow, but overall, over decades, it's been going down. Just super quickly, Justin. Can this be turned around?
MANKIN: Gosh that is an incredibly challenging question. I think, you know, what we've identified here is this fundamental nonlinear relationship.
MANKIN: Meaning that as we continue to warm, and we are committed to warming, we're going to see larger and larger reductions. The obvious thing here is there's a mitigation lever, meaning reducing our consumption of fossil fuels as our source of energy on earth. And that will slow the pace of additional warming, but there is warming baked into the climate system that has yet to manifest. And the question of geoengineering, that is reducing the effect of warming or the magnitude of warming going forward, that is an incredibly contentious topic. But then there's also adaptation, right?
And what we're showing here is snow is not a great canary in the coal mine for documenting the pace of global warming. Owing to the fact that it can increase it in some places and really rapidly decrease it in others.
CHAKRABARTI: But the change is undeniable and that's really why we appreciate having both of you on the show today.
Justin Mankin, director of the Climate, Modeling, and Impacts Group at Dartmouth College. Thank you so much.
MANKIN: My pleasure.
CHAKRABARTI: And Tony Wood. Tony Wood, author of "Snow: A history of the world’s most fascinating flake." Thank you, Tony.
WOOD: My pleasure.
CHAKRABARTI: And by the way, thank you to all of our listeners who sent your absolutely profound observations about changes in the snow. We're going to close today with this memory from Lauren in Smithfield, Rhode Island. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.
LAUREN: There's a picture of my mother from early February 1978, almost exactly 46 years ago, standing at the end of the old farmhouse driveway in the aftermath of the iconic blizzard of '78.
Technically, I'm in the photo, too. I would be born four months later that summer. But the piled-up snowdrifts easily reached my mother's head. This wasn't a singular phenomenon, though. We never really had a blizzard of those proportions again, through my high school days in the early mid '90s, there were routinely enough heavy snowstorms to pile drifts up to hip-height mountains on either side of our front walk.
Now, on the same street, on almost the same day as the blizzard of '78, I'm looking out at the grass in our backyard. The trees in the woods beyond barren of leaves, the ground soft and wet, but from rain rather than snow. And just a few sad white clumps are left here and there at the edges of the lawn.
We've had a few small snowstorms this winter, but nothing that lasts. But I miss the quiet, the peacefulness that a really deep blanket of snow brings to the world.
This program aired on February 9, 2024.