January 2016 - Snowpack in a weird and wonderful world

Jan 22, 2016

Captain's Log Starship 1XE, Day 13 in the month of January in the Earth Calendar Year of 2016.

As winter settles into the Rocky Mountains we, who live here, hunker in and watch. We watch the snowflakes fall, watch fingers and toes when the cold gets extreme, watch our friends' faces for frostbite, and watch the forecasts for the next big dump bringing fresh powder and smiles on the faces of skiers, and frowns on the faces of the pilots. Unless, of course, the pilot also is a skier☺
Another important thing we watch is the snowpack. The snowpack is a history of the storms that cross our region. The snowpack is also a harbinger of what kind of summer we can expect. Here in the Central Rockies near Aspen, Colorado we are currently near normal for snowpack but it sure seems like the new normal, as a recent flight showed our high peaks as wind-scoured and devoid of much snow.
Earlier this week I took a few of my Mountain Rescue friends to exercise 1XE and fly over our spectacular Elk Mountains, documenting the snowpack, and comparing it to similar photos taken throughout the years. Our snowpack helps feed the Colorado River, which is the lifeblood of the West. Peter McBride (one of our infamous board members) photographs, films and writes about Big Red, and the incredible journey these snowflakes take in an attempt to reach the Mexican Delta, below Yuma Arizona.
On this day the temperatures are cold, the air smooth, the light gorgeous and the mountains in deep winter slumber. We observe various point release slides, some slab avalanche events and the occasional backcountry ski track descending into the Maroon Bells Wilderness.
The elephant in the room is climate change, and it is easy to observe and document this from the air. Repeat photos have become a valuable tool for scientists and meteorologists to record and communicate the effects of global warming. As winter progresses, in recent years we have experienced what we call global weirdness setting in. Warm dry spells interspersed with wet storms (even rain) have become the norm during winter, affecting the snowpack. Another recent recurring phenomenon is 'red snow', when wind-driven dirt and sand is deposited on the slopes in late winter from nearby Utah. Some say it is the magnitude of the wind storms driven by global weirding, others say it is created by soil disturbance from the massive amounts of earth being moved by natural resource extraction such as oil and gas drilling and uranium exploration, and the naysayers of course say it has nothing to do with climate, and it is what it is. However, in my many years of living in the mountains, I have only seen this red dirt in the last few years. It is detrimental not only to my spring skiing but also, more importantly, it radically affects the dynamic of our spring runoff, making irrigation difficult, water capture more challenging, and accelerates the melting of the snowpack, potentially increasing the chance of flood events. El Niño is huge this year, and we are expecting more weirdness in the coming months, and will not be surprised by anything Mother Nature throws at us.
The debates over climate change will continue, but EcoFlight is privy to the informative and breathtaking aerial perspective of our snowpack that will hopefully shape the debate and balance the vitriolic dialogue. Today it is a bluebird day with the mountains accumulating their share of water content; the elk and deer snuggled down in the valleys, and 1XE bringing back information that hopefully will lead to more education and advocacy, which is our mission.

Bruce Gordon