Amory Lovins’s long, soft, and creatively optimistic path — The Mountain Town News

Amory Lovins has harvested bananas 61 times from his solar-passive house near Aspen since the early 1980s. Photo used with permission, ©Judy Hill Lovins via The Mountain Town News.

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Lovins recently traveled from his home near Aspen to talk about growing bananas at 7,100 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The house was built in the early 1980s, he told an audience at an energy conference held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and since then he’s had 66 harvests.

But his point wasn’t really about the bananas. It was about the energy used to grow the bananas.

Temperatures in the Aspen area then could reach 46 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, he said. “But my house has no combustion (furnace),” he went on to say. “That is so 20th century.”

Lovins, considered by many to be among the most important thinkers about energy of the last half-century, has told about his bananas many times and in many places. It’s his look-see visual proof for the enduring theme of his career. For decades he has been saying that we need to embrace energy efficiency through both more thoughtful design and readily available technology.

His thoughts cohered In 1976 a seminal essay published in Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” He was a young scholar at Oxford then. An Arab oil embargo in 1973 had left people in block-long lines waiting for their chances to refuel cars at gas pumps. The United States was binging on construction of new coal-fired power plants and also enraptured with nuclear energy even as the arms race of the Cold War continued.

In his essay, Lovins defined the soft energy path as a future where energy efficiency and renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.

Lovins, a friend of David Brower, the famous long-time leader of the Sierra Club, argued not environmental ethics but rather the business case. You should do it because you will save money, he said.

He made that same case in Fort Collins, at a conference sponsored by the Center for the New Energy Economy. His house near Old Snowmass, he explained, is designed with 99 percent passive solar and 1 percent active solar. Naturally, it’s super insulated, but even the stale air is processed to recover heat. The payback on this 1982 technology was about 10 months. The house, he added, has now inspired 40,000 such passive-solar houses.

On the dais at the energy conference, Lovins barely paused, the numbers and facts and thoughts rolling out precisely, pleasantly, and always with supreme authority, as if he was the smartest guy in the room. That confidence annoys lots of people, but they concede: He probably is the smartest guy in most rooms where he speaks.

Elizabeth Kolbert, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was among those who have been to Lovins’s house to see his bananas and hear his gospel. “He is routinely described, even by people who don’t particularly like or admire him, as a ‘genius,’” Kolbert wrote in a 2007 report for the New Yorker. The story was headlined “Mr. Green: Environmentalism’s optimistic guru Amory Lovins.”

Responding to that profile, David Roberts, then with Grist, conceded Lovins’s genius. “Reading Lovins for the first time can be a life-changing experience, one of those moments when your entire perception of the world shifts and you see everything in a new light,” Roberts wrote. “But there’s the nagging thought. Lovins can always talk and explain and persuade better than we can—he’s a friggin’ genius—but the intuitive question keeps returning.”

Responding to that profile, David Roberts, then with Grist, conceded Lovins’s genius. “Reading Lovins for the first time can be a life-changing experience, one of those moments when your entire perception of the world shifts and you see everything in a new light,” Roberts wrote. “But there’s the nagging thought. Lovins can always talk and explain and persuade better than we can—he’s a friggin’ genius—but the intuitive question keeps returning.”

That intuitive question in 2007 was why wasn’t this happening, this new world of energy that Lovins had then been describing for three decades. The Economist, which has tracked Lovins’s work frequently through the years, in 2008 said this:

“Though he is now 60, Mr Lovins shows no signs of slowing down. The Sage of Snowmass is still busy coming up with big new ideas, though if history is any guide, they will take a while to catch on. Watch this space—for ten to 20 years.”

Almost a decade later, it does appear finally that Lovins’s predictions are coming true. Whether it is happening quickly enough given the ever-more troubling news about global greenhouse gas emissions is the big question.

But Lovins, as the New Yorker headline in 2007 suggested, has always been one to look into the future with a sly, knowing smile, not a frown. At the recent conference, Colorado’s former governor, Bill Ritter, asked about optimism vs. pessimism.

In his answer, Lovins cited the counsel of his late friend, the Sierra Club’s Brower, who had described optimism and pessimism as being on “opposite sides of the same coin, the same irresponsible surrender to fatalism, in which you treat the future as fate and not choice, and not taking responsibility for creating the future you want.”

“We call it applied hope,” Lovins went on to say, referring to his think-tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute. “It’s not theoretical hope. It’s not anywhere near blind optimism. It’s making choices each day to create a world worth being hopeful about,” he said.

“You can’t depress people into action,” he added.

Tankers, presumably carrying oil, roll through downtown Denver. Photo/Allen Best

Earlier in the program, Lovins had described the industrial titans of the early 20th century: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John Rockefeller. The three men changed the world in ways that are now very much familiar.

Until very recently, with the arrival of LED lighting, most of our light came from incandescent bulbs, little changed from Edison’s invention. We’re mostly still driving internal-combustion cars fueled by the oil that made Rockefeller a name synonymous with wealth.

But we’re on the cusp of great change “because we have 21st century technology and speed colliding head-on with 20th century and even 19th century institutions, rules, and cultures.”

“The first two of these great industries are coming together to eat the third one.”

Lovins sees a dramatic reduction in demand for oil and tough times ahead for utilities that try to stick to existing business models. We’re on the cusp of massive adoption of electric cars. (See MTN story about adoption rates in Colorado). The batteries of those EVs will then be connected to the electrical grid, storing renewable energy. More renewable energy can be generated locally, instead of the giant central station power plants favored by utilities for the last 60 years.

Wind now undercuts all other new energy sources; power-purchase agreements with utilities last year averaged 2.5 cents a kilowatt-hour and some recently have come in at 1.2 cents a kilowatt-hour. That’s lower than coal, lower than gas, lower than just about anything. The resource has been enlarged by two-thirds, he added “not because the wind blew harder, but because we got better at capturing it.”

Electric cars, cheap renewables, and what do you get? “This is a perfect storm brewing for the oil and car industries,” he said.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter interviews Amory Lovins at the Center of the New Energy Economy conference on Oct. 30. Photo/Maury Dobbie

Lovins frequently invoked his 2012 book, “Reinventing Fire,” and its “rigorous” research that shows how to triple U.S. efficiency and quintuple renewables by 2050, eliminating the need for coal, oil, and nuclear energy and a third less natural gas. This would “save $5 trillion in net-present value, grow the economy 2.6 fold, strengthen natural security and cut carbon emission 282 to 286 percent.”

This can all be accomplished by adoption of smart policies at the state and local levels and driven by businesses seeking to maximize profits. For inflexible utilities and oil and gas companies, though, these changes pose an existential risk, he said.

“You’re really a markets guy,” said Ritter, the former governor, before asking whether Lovins thought markets could achieve what its needed in a timely manner.

“Where allowed to work, yes, but policy and other factors can get in the way,” Lovins answered. But markets are good at short-term allocation of scarce resources. They were never meant to substitute for politics, ethics or faith.

Referring to “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution,” a book Lovins wrote with his ex-wife, Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken, he said that “markets make a great servant, a bad master, and a worse religion.”

Don’t renewables get subsidies? Yes, but they are being phased out, Lovins answered—and besides, other forms of energy also have received subsidies and continue to get them.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler, who once worked at Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute, believes that the big story is that “the trends have caught up to his predictions. Solar, wind, and batteries have finally started to decline in cost in ways that can enable a takeover of traditional technologies; and nukes, coal, and combustion engines are going extinct for all the reasons Amory has long argued,” he said in an e-mail.

“The challenge has always been how quickly this will all play out, and whether markets, such as they are, will be enough to get us to the finish line before the planet is cooked. For all the good news, the unfortunate fact is we’re not making it, as global emission data released today show.”

That was on Nov. 13, the start of the world climate conference in Bonn. In the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists reported a 2 percent increase in burning of fossil fuels in 2017 after nearly no growth in 2014, 2015, or 2016, mostly because of increased burning of coal by China. “It was a bit staggering,” said one of the scientists, Ralph Keeling, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We race headlong into the unknown.”

Carbon dioxide emissions measured by Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in April 1958 were 317 parts per million. By the time Lovins’s Foreign Affairs essay was published in 1976 they were at 334 ppm. Now, they’re at 409.

The message from Colorado State, though, was don’t get depressed, but do get active—and make a buck along the way.

This was in the Nov. 15 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine sent to subscribers. For subscription details, see click here.

For access to the videotape of this and other sessions at the conference, see: http://energytransition.colostate.edu/symposium-2017/videotaped-sessions-2017/

The conference was sponsored by Energy Institute and the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, both at Colorado State University, and the Center for the New Energy Economy.

#Drought news: D1 (Moderate drought) expanded in W. #Colorado, Four Corners

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Summary

With a few exceptions, dry weather dominated the contiguous 48 states this past week, particularly in areas already experiencing dryness and drought. Heavy precipitation fell on the orographically-favored areas in the West (specifically, the Sierra Nevada, windward slopes of the Cascades, and much of the coastline from northern California to the Canadian border). Anywhere from 4 to locally 12 inches doused much of these areas. Between 2 and 4 inches fell from central and eastern Illinois eastward across central and northern sections of Indian and Ohio, Michigan, and northwestern Pennsylvania, and similar amounts were more isolated across the higher elevations of the northern Idaho Panhandle, south-central Idaho, western Wyoming and adjacent areas, and a few scattered areas in northern sections of Nevada and Utah. Southern New England and eastern Maine recorded 1 to locally 3 inches of precipitation. Elsewhere – the vast majority of the country from the Great Basin and Southwest eastward across most of the Rockies and Plains, the Mississippi Valley, the Southeast, and the mid-Atlantic region – only a few tenths of an inch of precipitation was recorded, if any…

South and Central Plains

Negligible precipitation, if any, was observed in areas of dryness and drought from Missouri and Kansas southward through Texas and Louisiana. As a result, short-term dryness continued to intensify at a fairly rapid clip, particularly from central Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma southward. D1 and D2 conditions expanded in southeastern Oklahoma, part of southern Arkansas, northeastern Texas, the northern half of Louisiana, and west-central Mississippi. More limited growth of D0 and a small D1 areas was assessed from central Kansas southward through central and western Texas. For the last 3 months, accumulated precipitation deficits exceed 8 inches in most areas across northeastern Texas, central and western Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southern Missouri; shortfalls one foot in a small part of west-central Arkansas…

Northern Plains

Very little precipitation fell on northern Minnesota, the Dakotas and the dry areas of Montana, but this is a dry time of the year climatologically for the region, so no substantial increase in precipitation deficits was noted, and last week’s depiction was not changed…

West

In the northern Intermountain West, light to moderate precipitation fell on the D0 areas in southern Idaho and interior Washington, with only scattered light amounts reported across interior Oregon; however, despite this week’s unimpressive precipitation, impacts resulting from below-normal precipitation have gradually eased over the past several weeks, and all abnormal dryness was removed from the region. Farther south, little or no precipitation fell on the Four Corners States and Southwest, as was the case in most of the other dry areas across the country. Drought evolves more slowly in this part of the country than in the climatologically wetter parts of the country, but some limited deterioration seemed appropriate in a few areas. Abnormal dryness was introduced in central Utah, leaving only the northwestern part of the state free from dryness. Farther east, moderate drought expanded into southwestern and west-central Colorado, east-central Utah, and the adjacent fringe of northwestern New Mexico…

Looking Ahead

The next 5 days (November 22-26) look similar to this past week, with most of the contiguous 48 states expecting little if any precipitation. Marginal relief may come to northern Florida and southeastern Georgia, where up to 1.5 inches of precipitation are forecast, and similar amounts should moisten the dry areas of eastern Maine. Moderate precipitation is also possible in far northwestern Montana and adjacent Idaho, but for the rest of the country, including the vast majority of the Nation’s dry areas, little or no precipitation is anticipated. In addition, the dry weather may be exacerbated by well-above-normal temperatures from the Plains westward to the Pacific Coast. Temperatures are expected to average at least 9 degrees F above normal across the western half of the 48 states, reaching as high as 20 to 24 degrees F in central and northern sections of the Rockies and High Plains, as well as the central Intermountain West.

During the 6-10 day period (November 27- December 1), abnormally light precipitation once again looks to dominate the 48 states. Odds favor below-median precipitation in the Southwest, central and southern sections of the Rockies and High Plains, most of the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley from South Dakota and central Minnesota southward to the Gulf Coast, and throughout the Nation east of the Mississippi River, save part of the northwestern Great Lakes Region. Odds favor above-normal precipitation in North Dakota and Montana, which would bring some needed moisture into the broad areas of D2 and D3 covering much of those states. The warmth observed in the central and western U.S. is expected to spread eastward to cover the entire country west of the Appalachians, though the intensity of the abnormal warmth may modify.

Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

Mountain Home Reservoir via The Applegate Group

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Proposed water projects in the San Luis Valley literally span from one end of the Valley to the other — dam improvements at Mountain Home Reservoir southeast of Fort Garland to a pipeline at the Mineral County Fairgrounds in Creede.

Both projects are receiving funding through the Valley-wide water organization the Rio Grande Roundtable, which heard requests for funding on Tuesday for five future projects and approved funding requests for two projects that had already made presentations to the roundtable, including the Mineral County project.

The roundtable board approved a request for $9,190 for the Mineral County project, which involves piping water from a recently replaced historic ditch head gate under reclaimed (capped and vegetated) mining-contaminated soil to the Mineral County Fairgrounds. Zeke Ward, who presented the request, said piping the water was more economical and would require less maintenance than a new ditch, which would have to be lined.

Ward said there are many benefits to the project including preserving a historic water right and benefitting the environment. He said it is not a big project but is important in getting water from the headgate to the land that needs to be irrigated.

Ward said the approximately $9,200 from the roundtable funds would be matched by about $1,500.

A much larger project that was approved on Tuesday was a funding request for $64,480 in basin-allocated funds for a three-year water education proposal. The Rio Grande Watershed Conservation & Education Initiative, directed by Bethany Howell, is taking the lead on educational and outreach efforts that range from web site content to video vignettes. For example, six video vignettes on water topics are proposed to be completed in the next three years. The funding will also be used to update and maintain a web site, produce newsletters and produce educational articles.

The other projects that were presented on Tuesday were previews, with the actions on funding them to occur at the next meeting in January.

The Trinchera Irrigation Company is seeking $50,000 from funds allocated to the Rio Grande Roundtable and $822,438 from statewide funds towards a $993,863 project to make necessary dam repairs at Mountain Home Reservoir. The roundtable has supported feasibility and design phases on this project in the past, consultant Nicole Langley reminded the roundtable board when she gave the presentation on Tuesday on behalf of the Trinchera Irrigation Company. The current funding request will go towards implementation of those designs.

Langley said the 1905-constructed Mountain Home Reservoir has provided irrigation and recreational uses for a long time and is still functioning, but the state engineer has some safety concerns about the current gate valves. One is in poor condition and the other two have never been used and have deteriorated over time.

Another important aspect of Mountain Home Reservoir operating to its full capacity, Langley added, is that it is also a state wildlife area under an agreement with the Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

She added that the Trinchera Irrigation Company is seeking other support such as Louis Bacon Moore Foundation and Great Outdoors Colorado via the Town of Blanca.

Two of the projects involve funds for conservation easements. One of the conservation easements is proposed on the Lazy EA Ranch along Pinos Creek near Del Norte. The total cost of the easement will be $202,951, and Colorado Open Lands is seeking $36,213 from the Rio Grande Roundtable, with other funding including $101,000 from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), $15,000 from Colorado Open Lands and approximately $50,738 from the landowner match, depending on the land appraisal. The plan is to get the conservation easement in place by next September, Judy Lopez told the Roundtable board.

Lopez, who is a conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands, explained that a conservation easement on this piece of property is important for protecting it from development. She said there is just a narrow band left along the river corridor for farming and ranching. Encompassing 80 acres of flood-irrigated pasture, the property is used for hay production, is a corridor for wildlife and encompasses wetlands.

The land was originally homesteaded in 1849 and has a water right of 1.4 cubic feet per second.

RiGHT (Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust) is seeking funding for another conservation easement, this one on the Paulson Ranch in the Monte Vista area near Swede Lane and the Rio Grande. There are other conservation easements in the area, RiGHT Director Nancy Butler explained, making this conservation easement a good fit. The 180 acres that would be under conservation easement encompass senior water rights, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher habitat and wetlands.

RiGHT is seeking $18,000 from the basin-allocated funds and $157,000 from statewide water funds administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The total project is estimated at $405,000, with $100,000 to be sought from the Gates Family Foundation and $130,000 in landowner contribution, depending on the final appraisal.

Another project, seeking $46,000 from the basin-allocated funds and $300,000 from the statewide pot, as part of a half-million-dollar total project, is the “Conconco to the Confluence” project upgrading the Richfield diversion and diversions on the Conejos. This project will help correct some of the sedimentation problems. Nathan Coombs, SLV Water Conservancy District director, said sedimentation at the Richfield diversion, for example, is a big problem because the area is so flat. Irrigators are not able to use their water rights, he explained.

This project will also correct inconsistent measurements at the Conconco gage, which is not currently functioning properly, a problem not only for irrigators but also for Rio Grande Compact compliance.

Probably the most “dynamic” project presented on Tuesday was a project presented by Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited, to use dynamite to fell trees around the Spruce Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness area. Terry explained that two reservoirs, seven miles in from the Continental Divide, are clogging up with dead spruce trees, with more trees near the lakes threatening to cause further problems.

This is a problem not only for the water rights associated with the reservoirs but also for fish habitat.

Terry said since the lakes are in an area designated as wilderness, the tools that are permitted to be used there are limited. So far the efforts used to remove the dead trees have included large horses pulling the logs out of the reservoirs and using handsaws to cut down dead trees.

Trout Unlimited is working with the Forest Service and the owners of the reservoirs on what may be a more efficient and innovative manner of taking down the trees that threaten the lakes. They will use explosives to fell about 430 trees near the reservoirs. When it is finished, it will look like winds took down the trees, Terry explained.

The project will cost about $84,000, with the request for basin allocated funds being about $65,500. Half of the cost is for the explosives themselves, Terry explained.

Eagle River Watershed Council restoration projects update

The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

From the Eagle River Watershed Council via The Vail Daily:

The Eagle River Watershed Council recently completed two riparian habitat restoration projects in collaboration with Vail Resorts’ EpicPromise. The Watershed Council worked with more than 160 volunteers from Vail Resorts to complete projects that restored and enhanced degraded riparian areas, which can cause diminished in-stream water quality and reduced wildlife habitat.

At the Edwards Eagle River Restoration Site, more than 100 EpicPromise volunteers helped install nearly 5,000 willow transplants along areas of the Eagle River that have experienced degradation due to undirected social trails and bushwhacking. Educational signage was also installed reminding riverside residents not to disturb these critical riparian plants by trampling them. The new willow plantings will help create wildlife habitat and improve water quality.

The Watershed Council used the help of more than 50 Vail Resorts volunteers for a second project, which was funded by the Colorado River District and the Forrest & Frances Lattner Foundation. The volunteers helped the Watershed Council improve a stretch of habitat along the Eagle River just outside of Eagle-Vail by planting 200 native trees and shrubs.

This area was selected for restoration because of significant impacts associated with storm water runoff from a recreational bike path, U.S. Highway 6 and Interstate 70. The establishment of a healthy riparian area will improve water quality by filtering sediment and pollutants that would have otherwise entered the Eagle River.

More information on other volunteer opportunities with Eagle River Watershed Council can be found in the organization’s monthly newsletter or online at http://www.erwc.org.

Transportation is the Biggest Source of U.S. Emissions — Climate Central #ActOnClimate

Graphic credit Climate Central

From Climate Central:

The busiest travel day of the year brings a renewed focus on transportation, and for the first time since the 1970s, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from transportation have eclipsed emissions from electricity generation as the top source of greenhouse gases.

The change comes as U.S. electricity generation relies less on coal and more on renewables and natural gas (a less carbon-intensive fossil fuel). Transportation emissions have also declined from a peak in 2008 due to steadily improving fuel economies, although there has been a small uptick recently as a result of a drop in gas prices. The projected growth in electric vehicles suggests decreases in CO2 transportation emissions are on the horizon. Even when accounting for how electricity is generated, an electric vehicle emits less carbon dioxide than a comparable gasoline car in a majority of U.S. states.

A typical gasoline-powered passenger car emits 20 pounds of carbon dioxide for each gallon of gas burned, or about a pound for each mile traveled, and both electric and hybrid vehicles can cut back on those emissions. A recent Climate Central report, Climate Friendly Cars, shows which cars are the most climate friendly in each state. The rankings are based on the type of engine and the method in which electricity is generated in each state.

From 2011 to 2016, the number of plug-in electric vehicles sold each year in the U.S. increased by a factor of eight. Projections for electric car sales vary among organizations, but all indicate a substantial increase in plug-in electric car sales in the coming years.

Traveling longer distances with electric vehicles is getting easier, as the number of publicly available charging stations has tripled since 2012, with 35,000 in place through 2016. And for those in a hurry, the number of fast charging stations, which can charge a battery most of the way full in about 30 minutes, has also tripled in that same time, with more than 5300 installed. However, America is playing catch up to China, which had 17 times more fast chargers than the U.S. at the end of 2016.

Coyote Gulch’s Leaf connected in the parking garage in Winter Park, August 21, 2017.

@ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through November 20, 2017 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

Here’s an explainer about forecasting snowfall in a La Niña winters from NOAA:

This is a guest post by Dr. Stephen Baxter who is a NOAA Climate Prediction Center (CPC) meteorologist and does applied research on subseasonal-to-seasonal climate variability. In particular he specializes in understanding how the middle-to-high latitude circulation is influenced by the tropics versus other processes. He also has a lot of opinions on Siberian snow cover and the role of the western tropical Pacific in forcing seasonal climate over North America.

Recent cold air outbreaks over the north-central and northwestern U.S., along with record cold on Veterans Day in parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, should have people excited about (or dreading) the upcoming winter. My colleagues and I at the Climate Prediction Center have just issued our final outlook for the upcoming “meteorological winter,” that is, December through February. Right now, our official outlook covers only temperature and total precipitation, with the latter combining both liquid and frozen precipitation. However, what about the frozen stuff? What about snow?

Because many people remember winters that were either exceptionally snowy or not snowy at all, we get a lot of questions about what the winter forecast portends for seasonal snowfall accumulation. In many parts of the country, snowfall also has major economic and societal ramifications, including water resource management and winter tourism, among others.

Snow Way!

Tackling this problem is not easy, though. Part of the issue boils down to the technical difficulties of snowfall measurements—a real “problem child” as Deke Arndt (NCEI) puts it. The other issue is related to the difficulties with prediction. As many people in the Northeast corridor are aware, snowfall with any given storm system is a function of the dreaded rain-snow line that separates air masses that are below or above freezing.

For any given storm system, the exact boundaries between rain and snow can be hard to predict even days in advance. Luckily, at CPC, we aren’t trying to predict specific events, but the climate instead. We take a step back and see how seasonal temperature and precipitation forecasts might play a role in determining seasonal snowfall accumulation.

In regions that receive a large percentage of their cold-season precipitation in the form of snow, increased seasonal precipitation is intuitively related to increased snowfall accumulation. In more temperate areas that receive a relatively small percentage of frozen precipitation, temperature becomes important. Anomalously cold temperatures are, more or less, a necessary condition for snow in those areas. Therefore, a region with a relatively cold winter may find itself on the cold side of storm systems more often.

In more mountainous areas, where temperature varies as a function of elevation, colder systems result in snow falling at lower altitudes and more total snowfall coverage over a given region. This is where the long-term warming trends, recently discussed by Tom, become important over western North America. Drier and warmer climate signals will generally result in lower snow coverage.

Because a La Niña Advisory was recently issued, we will take a look at how La Niña, in general, affects snowfall across North America. This analysis is part of a broader effort at CPC to better understand and potentially predict seasonal snowfall, made possible in part by a new snowfall dataset (1).

La Niña = Skiers Delight over the Northern United States

In a nutshell, La Niña is associated with a retracted jet stream over the North Pacific Ocean. The retreat of the jet stream results in more blocking high pressure systems that allow colder air to spill into western and central Canada and parts of the northern contiguous U.S. At the same time, storm track activity across the southern tier of the U.S. is diminished under upper-level high pressure, which also favors milder-than-normal temperatures. The storm track is in turn shifted northward across parts of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes (2).

Based on climate analysis (3) from this new snow dataset, we see that La Niña favors increased snowfall over the Northwest and northern Rockies, as well as in the upper Midwest Great Lakes region. Reduced snowfall is observed over parts of the central-southern Plains, Southwest, and mid-Atlantic.

Snowfall departure from average for all La Niña winters (1950-2009). Blue shading shows where snowfall is greater than average and brown shows where snowfall is less than average. Climate.gov figure based on analysis at CPC using Rutgers gridded snow data.

This La Niña footprint is pretty intuitive. Given the northward shift of the storm track, relatively cold and wet conditions are favored over the northern Rockies and northern Plains, resulting in the enhancement of snowfall. Warmer and drier winters are more likely during La Niña over more southern states, and this is exactly where seasonal snowfall tends to be reduced (4). The more vigorous storm track and slight tilt toward colder temperatures over the northern tier of U.S. during La Niña modestly increases the chance of a relatively snowy winter.

Snow and Strength

We can break up the snow pattern further and look at the weakest and strongest La Niña events. Splitting La Niña events into strength reveals some interesting differences worth investigating further. In this preliminary analysis below, there is a suggestion that weaker events are snowier over the Northeast and northern and central Plains on average.

Snowfall departure from average for weaker La Niña winters (1950-2009). Blue shading shows where snowfall is greater than average and brown shows where snowfall is less than average. Climate.gov figure based on analysis at CPC using Rutgers gridded snow data.

On the other hand, stronger La Niña events (see below) are snowier across the Northwest, northern Rockies, western Canada, and the Alaska panhandle. Also, there is a tendency toward below average snowfall over the mid-Atlantic, New England, and northern and central Plains, which is not seen during weak La Niña.

Snowfall departure from average for weaker La Niña winters (1950-2009). Blue shading shows where snowfall is greater than average and brown shows where snowfall is less than average. Climate.gov figure based on analysis at CPC using Rutgers gridded snow data.

Overall, stronger La Niña events exert more influence on the winter climate pattern over western North America. Weaker events appear to be associated with more widespread above-average snow over the northern United States. Because a weak La Niña means that the forcing from the Pacific is weaker than normal, it may imply other mechanisms (e.g. Arctic Oscillation) may be at play and is worth further investigation.

The predictability of seasonal snowfall may be somewhat similar to precipitation in that one or two big events can dramatically affect the seasonal average. Thus, in general, the expected prediction skill is likely to be lower than for temperature. However, because temperature also plays an important role in snowfall, some predictability is likely nonetheless. And like for seasonal temperature and precipitation, knowing the state of ENSO is a pretty reasonable place to start.

Footnotes

(1) This new dataset is documented in Kluver et al. (2016) “Creation and Validation of a Comprehensive 1° by 1° Daily Gridded North American Dataset for 1900-2009: Snowfall” in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology. The dataset for this analysis goes up to 2009, so we are going to look at winters from 1950-51 to 2008-09. Total cold season snowfall accumulation from October through April is used here.

(2) This is consistent with the temperature pattern: the storm track is enhanced where the temperature gradient is stronger than normal.

(3) Here we are using composite analysis to show snowfall. In this case we take just the La Niña years between 1950-51 and 2008-09 and compute the mean. For the strength composites, we divide the 18 La Niña winters between 1951-2009 into weak or strong cases. The median ONI value used to split them is -0.95°C during December-February (DJF) average. We need to be cautious drawing too many conclusions based on the large reduction in our sample size. Composites also emphasize variance: regions with more year-to-year variability will have higher amplitude composite signals.

(4) The areas in the South that favor below-average snowfall during La Niña are most evident where the snowfall climatology is reasonably high. That is where the signal is most likely to come through the noise.