Backcountry Skiing News Roundup – Growing Glaciers, Avalanche Jams and Weasel Teeth

Post by blogger | July 9, 2008      

While many of the world’s glaciers are shrinking, some grow. It’s said a warmer ocean is producing more moisture and thus more snowfall in some areas, thus the reach of some mountain icefields is expanding (since glaciers grow due to accumulated snow that’s a function of amount versus the summer melt rate). Case in point is Mount Shasta, California, where glaciers have grown considerably, with some more than doubling in length since 1950. As I’ve mentioned here before, warmer air holds more moisture. Basic science. So will global warming bring moister air and more snow to various other areas? We indeed might be experiencing that here in Colorado, though a few good winters don’t necessarily mean much in terms of a climate shift. So we shall see…

If warmer air brings nice heavy winters, then the need for avalanche safety won’t be obviated by global warming any time soon (though heavy winters in Colorado tend to have fewer avalanche deaths, because our lighter winters have such unstable snow). To that end, here in Colorado our annual “fun” raiser for our state-wide avalanche forecasting center is now on schedule. Be there for the Avalanche Jam on September 5, from 5 to 10 p.m. outside Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder.

How about our friends down south of the Equator? They were dancing with some warm winds in New Zealand that melted resort runs and caused some closures, but a big arctic storm rolled in and changed the picture. Talk about shifting weather, that kind of stuff makes you wonder if there is such a thing as atmospheric Prozac.

You’ve heard about lynx concerns dictating major land use decisions, now bring on wolverine. Environmental lawyers of Earthjustice is are intending to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of 10 conservation groups. The lawsuit will contend that the population of about 50 wolverines in the U.S. is close to extirpation, and needs more protection under the Endangered Species Act. Of course, if the Act is triggered that’ll mean ever more public land use decisions will be based on providing habitat for nearly non-existent animals (that’s what happened in Colorado with lynx.)

As pundits have predicted, this new wolverine lawsuit indicates that groups such as Earthjustice will continue to file (and probably win) lawsuits that cause far reaching changes in land management policy, based on animals that may not even exist in many areas.

What does this mean to backcountry skiers? According to Louise Lasley, public lands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, “just the presence of even ski tracks can alarm a denning [wolverine] female and cause her to abandon her denning site.” (We don’t know if Lasley is qualified to know this as a fact, but it shows the sort of thinking that surrounds these issues — thinking like this is already impacting our public land rights.)

Wolverines are not warm and cuddly creatures that shy at the slightest sight of person or animal. They’re actually one of the most agro creatures out there because they’re smallish scavengers (between 20 and 60 pounds) who have to steal or defend food from larger animals. And when they get hungry all bets are off — they’ve been known to kill a moose. There were wolverines around here in Colorado back in the 1960s, one of my friends dogs got attacked by one back in the day. He was able to fend it off by using a log as a club, not not before his dogs were severely injured.

Ever heard the term “weasel teeth,” as in “weasels ripped my flesh?” As with other “mustelid” (weasel) mammals, wolverines possess a special upper molar in the back of the mouth that is rotated sideways, towards the inside of the mouth. Purpose of the scary tooth: To tear off meat from frozen prey or carrion and also to crush bones for marrow extraction. Wolverine are doing fine in Canada, and perhaps don’t need more land. But if they do want to frolic up at our favorite backcountry skiing area, something tells me they really won’t mind our ski tracks. We might even need Kevlar leggings.

Mountain rescue is in the news. Near Aspen, lightning struck a group of hikers (all survived). People nearby helped out with CPR that revived one victim. Everyone eventually walked out with the help of local rescue volunteers and Forest Service workers. Every time something like this happens I’m reminded of how we alpinists count on our fellow mountaineers and our mountain rescue groups to help out when things get beyond our own ability to cope.

To that end, here is a personal BIG THANKS for all the work our local SAR groups do (Mountain Rescue Aspen & Garfield County Rescue). Sometimes we joke about what fanatics some of you guys are, but the jokes stop when you show up and fanatically get the job done — especially when your work involves someone close to us.


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11 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Roundup – Growing Glaciers, Avalanche Jams and Weasel Teeth”

  1. Mark July 9th, 2008 9:10 am

    I heard some hikers were knocked to the ground by lightning in Rocky Mountain National Park yesterday–below timberline! Two days ago I skied the Sundance Mountain Bowl and upon reaching the half way point ascending back out, thunder got bad so I decided to quickly descend and hitch out to my car. Some very nice folks from Aurora picked me up. Thunder makes for some quick adrenaline fixing when you’re out in the open! Interestingly, as I was getting rained on during my escape to Fall River Valley, the Continental Divide actually got a skiff of snow. Nice to see.

  2. Lou July 9th, 2008 9:18 am

    Pray for snow!

  3. Dongshow July 9th, 2008 10:28 am

    I grew up in Michigan (the wolverine state) where a wolverine hadn’t been spotted in the state for nearly 130 years before we began importing trash from Canada, when soon afterwards 2 were spotted at a landfill outside of Flint. I think there lies your answer.

  4. Lou July 9th, 2008 10:47 am


  5. Charlie July 9th, 2008 11:15 am

    Could the heavy snowfall be related to lack of sunspots? The theory being that sunspots burn off clouds, especially at high altitudes. The sunspot cycle does seem to inversely mirror Colorado’s heavy snow cycles. Looking forward to a big snow year in 2008-2009!

  6. hunter July 9th, 2008 12:07 pm

    How can we not want the animal that inspired one of the great single word war movie quotes of all time: “WOLVERINES!!!” from Red Dawn?
    Being that the movie took place within 60 miles of where i grew up in Colorado and came out when I was probably 14, I have to support the animal, although I’ve never seen one…

  7. Lou July 9th, 2008 12:53 pm

    I support all animals, within reason.

  8. Magnus July 9th, 2008 8:44 pm

    I was procrastinating and suddenly felt inspired to comment here… One major theory as far as I know regarding sunspots, which is also a major opposing theory to the commonly excepted theory of human made global warming, is that sunspots are areas of intense magnetic resulting in solar flares which are related to solar radiation. This theory suggest that solar radiation assist in the formation of clouds through helping molecules to bind (very simply put), and thus increase the greenhouse effect which in turn increases the temperature on our dear planet. A period of cooling in the 17th century known as as The Little Ice Age correlates with a period of very little sunspot activity. But scientists still don’t know for sure the effects of solar radiation on our climate.

  9. Peter July 9th, 2008 9:03 pm

    Yes, warm air holds more moisture. The problem is that moisture in the air doesn’t help us–we need it to precipitate out of the air and fall to the ground. This is what happens with orographic precipitation: warm, moist air is forced up in elevation by mountains, the air cools, dewpoint falls, and we get rain or snow. If the air at high elevations will be warmer in the future, it won’t squeeze as much moisture out of the clouds. Seems like this one could go either way for us skiers.

    People who study these things tell me that the current global circulation models are really bad at predicting future changes in precipitation at a regional scale. The one generalization that seems to be emerging is that areas north of 40-45 degrees latitude are likely to get wetter (Shasta is 40.6), while areas south of 35 are likely to get drier. Most of the skiing in Colorado and Utah falls into the uncertain zone in between.

    I like to remind myself that year-to-year variability is huge, so we will still have great years well into the future, but they might not be as frequent.

  10. Randonnee July 10th, 2008 12:04 am

    Quote from the glacier article:

    “Although Mt. Shasta’s glaciers are growing, researchers say the 4.7 billion cubic feet of ice on its flanks could be gone by 2100.”

    That kind of dogmatic propaganda is tragically hilarious. Unfortunately that stuff is throughout the enviro-agendas. To steal the phrase- “if you are not outraged (about enviro-propaganda) you are not paying attention!”

    In regard to the furry, endangered critters, someone will conjure some proof of endangered Wolverines leading to Gov’t. actions to the detriment of humans and human-use…

  11. Lou July 10th, 2008 8:02 am

    Good point Peter.

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