Opinion: What's the value of my fleeting winter?

Ski-sky-1154

Feb. 19, 2016

Bozeman's young cross-country skiers are getting short-changed this year. When we tally the burden of climate regs, let's factor in that cost.

By Douglas Fischer
The Daily Climate

Ski-Fischer-300BOZEMAN, Montana – When we talk about the "irrevocable" harm of climate policy, why aren't we talking about the costs our changing weather extracts from all of us? It's 50 degrees in Bozeman, Montana, this week. We're halfway through the kids' cross-country ski program, and the trails in town are mush. It's time to talk about what those kids are losing.

Think about the warmest year you can remember. That's likely to be the coldest year sometime in the future.
 - Terry Chapin,
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

When groups like the Cato Institute or the West Virginia Record or the Rural Electric Cooperative Assoc. cite the "immediate and irreparable harm" of the EPA's Clean Power Plan to utilities – and the Supreme Court apparently buys that argument as it stays the rule – why are we not also tallying the cost of having the snow melt out beneath 200 youth skiers here in my town?

I was at a standing-room-only talk at Montana State University earlier this week. Terry Chapin, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spoke about adapting to rapid climatic and societal transformation.

He was blunt from the start.

"We're in a world of change," he said. "It is as true for Montana as it is for Alaska." The details differ, but the ecological and societal impacts are the same. 

AK-Temp-650

60 inches of snow, falling as rain

The North Country, especially the Arctic, is seeing transformational change: Parts of the region were 23 degrees above normal last month. The tiny town of Yakutat, Alaska, saw six inches of rain fall in a 24-hour period. Had temperatures been a little colder, that storm–not terribly unusual for the region–would have left at least 60 inches of snow instead. Villages on the Bering Sea coast are washing away; sea ice isn't there to buffer the shore from pounding November storms. Fire season starts a month earlier.

We're in an El Niño year. We've got more snow in Bozeman than by rights we deserve, given the forecast. I get that it's just a warm year. But Chapin, in his talk, put my grumpiness in perspective.

He pulled up a chart showing historical and projected springtime temperatures for Alaska. You've seen these before: An exponentially rising curve, with wide shaded areas showing uncertainty among the different model runs and assumptions. 

What's interesting here, he said, is not the exact projection but the difference between today and tomorrow. "Think about the warmest year you can remember," Chapin said. "That's likely to be the coldest year sometime in the future."

These are the magnitudes of the changes we are seeing. And that has consequences, to walruses and boreal forests and wolverines and, yes, a bunch of 10-year-old skiers.

Attaching dollars

Wall Street does a great job attaching dollars to investor loss and regulatory burden. The economics are clear and plain. So I can't be surprised that data get such a dominating spot in the debate. But the science underpinning our changing climate hasn't changed much in 25 years. "The basic understanding is the same as it was a quarter century ago," Chapin said. "It's increasingly obvious it isn't going away."

The loss of winter imposes a cost every bit as tangible for those who love the season. Mushers in Northern Michigan saw all three of their community races canceled last month. My in-town skiing will likely end next week – the second year in a row we've lost the trails in February. 

I don't see any of this in the Supreme Court's decision. And I'm not sure what to tell my kids, other than to bring raincoats to ski practice.

Because rain is in the forecast.

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Douglas Fischer co-directs the Nordic Youth Ski League program in Bozeman, Montana, and is director of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of The Daily Climate and Environmental Health News. Views expressed are those of the author and not either publication.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

Photos, from top: Youth skiers in Bozeman by Molly Bowman; Alaska temperature projections courtesy Terry Chapin; Children confronting a puddle by Douglas Fischer.

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