The feeling of losing snow


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Snow is an essential part of how people in cold climates experience the winter, and a key source of water in many parts of the world. But new research shows that the snowpack—snow that stays on the ground in cold weather—is disappearing at an alarming rate as temperatures rise. I chatted with my colleague Zoë Schlanger, who wrote about the new paper in The Atlantic this week, about how diminishing snow would change daily life.

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In-Place Homesickness

Lora Kelley: Could you walk me through what this new research found about the relationship between rising temperature and snowpack loss?

Zoë Schlanger: This paper showed the relationship between changes in temperature and shrinking snow levels over time. There’s still a lot of variability year to year—this research doesn’t suggest there won’t be one-off years that are very cold and snowy—but the long-term trend is made very clear, and it’s not good at all.

What this paper found was that in places where average winter temperatures were still quite cold, the snowpack was pretty stable, as long as temperatures stayed at or below an average of 17 degrees Fahrenheit. But as soon as temperatures hit this “snow-loss cliff” everything starts going haywire. The snowpack starts diminishing at faster and faster rates.

Lora: Beyond the emotional experience of missing snow, which I want to discuss in a minute, how will reduced snowpack affect people’s lives?

Zoë: On the East Coast, where I am, losing snow will for now be largely about losing winter recreation, like skiing. But in the American West, many areas rely on the snowmelt in the spring for their water supply, when melting snow comes down the mountains in a way that can be used to fill reservoirs. Losing snow could mean simply not having enough water to live. Utah gets 95 percent of its water supply from spring snowmelt. In California, closer to 30 percent of the water supply comes from the snow melting in the spring. That’s still a huge amount, and it’s such a populous state.

But less snow doesn’t necessarily mean less precipitation. That moisture may come down in the form of rain, which can lead to violent flooding that destroys infrastructure and communities. As one scientist put it to me: Where you once had a resource, you start to have a hazard.

Lora: Could precipitation in the form of rainfall provide a sufficient water supply to those states?

Zoë: That’s a tricky question, and scientists are still looking at that. But the problem with rainfall in winter is that if you get too much at once, it just runs down the mountains into the ocean. It doesn’t do a lot to recharge drinking-water supplies.

Lora: Let’s talk about the emotional impact of losing snow. What would it mean for people to lose this dimension of life in wintertime?

Zoë: One of the hydrologists I spoke with was a former ski-patrol person, and he was talking so beautifully about what it meant for him to ski on a cold, bright day high in the mountains in Utah with perfect powder. It was just so vital to his enjoyment of life. For future generations, snow could just become slush, or not be there at all.

I don’t ski. I don’t live in the mountains. But even for me, there’s a sense of loss. It makes me think of a word that an Australian philosopher coined a number of years ago: solastalgia, which is essentially the sense of homesickness for an environment that you never left, but is leaving without you in some way. I feel like we’re all experiencing that when there are these touchstones of the year that seem to not be there anymore. It’s a strange sense of in-place homesickness.

Lora: This strikes me as a really stark example of climate change affecting how people experience nature. How do you think about these more obvious losses versus less visible, more incremental changes to the environment?

Zoë: Snow is a reminder that, actually, a lot of the changes we’re dealing with aren’t that incremental. We may not be able to see rising temperatures in quite the same way. But in many cases, those changes are just as sudden and dramatic and are happening faster than people thought they were. The wildfires we saw last year, for example, were wildly out of proportion from anything we’ve seen before. Records aren’t getting broken by small degrees now. They’re getting broken by leaps and bounds.

Lora: Can the loss of the snowpack be slowed?

Zoë: If we find a way to slow down and halt warming, that will change the trajectory for snow loss everywhere. It’s all about how high we let the temperature go. It won’t get better, but there’s potential that it won’t get worse.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The Pentagon released a report raising concerns that U.S. and European officials cannot completely account for more than $1 billion worth of weapons sent to Ukraine. The Pentagon’s inspector general told The New York Times that there is no record of this high-risk equipment being inventoried.
  2. Donald Trump spoke in his own defense on the final day of his $370 million civil fraud trial in New York City. He maintained that he was “an innocent man,” accused the judge of having “an agenda,” and claimed that New York’s attorney general “hates Trump and uses Trump to get elected.”
  3. The Federal Aviation Administration launched an investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX 9 after a fuselage panel blew off midair on an Alaska Airlines flight last week.

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Evening Read

An illustration showing the logo of the Skull and Bones club
Illustration by Tyler Comrie

Skull and Bones and Equity and Inclusion

By Rose Horowitch

One evening in 2019, in a windowless building known as the “tomb” in the center of Yale’s campus, the members of Skull and Bones snapped. There they were, having been granted membership to the most elite secret society at one of the most elite universities in the world—part of a rare group that for generations included individuals from the most powerful families on the planet. Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Buckleys have all been in Skull and Bones. Three Bonesmen would go on to become president of the United States. Their traditions (including oaths of secrecy upon admission) and antics (stealing the gravestone of Yale’s founder), and the rumors about them (that the Bones tomb contains several human skulls), are legendary—and an intense source of campus gossip.

But there in the tomb, surrounded by oil portraits of former Bonesmen—all white, all chosen by the society’s alumni board—the current members felt overcome not by the achievements of those who had come before them, or by the possibilities that lay ahead, but instead by the organization’s long history of exclusion. So the students did what they felt had to be done: They pulled the portraits down, and replaced them with homemade signs criticizing the secret society’s record of keeping people of color out of its ranks.

Read the full article.

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Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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