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S n ow

Avalanche

of Change

The new face of snow in North Idaho Words by

Sherry Devlin

K

evin Davis has spent 20-plus years working and playing in the wintry backcountry of Sandpoint’s bookend mountain ranges. On the job for the U.S. Forest Service and the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, Davis monitors weather fronts and SNOTEL data across a wide swath of the Northern Rockies, then tidily chisels backcountry snow pits to take a look inside. After hours and on days off, he carves deep turns on some of those same untamed slopes, putting his weekly avalanche advisories to real-life tests in the Cabinet and Selkirk mountains. Who better, then, to ask whether North Idaho is feeling the effects of climate change? Davis’ answer is an unequivocal, but thoughtful, “Yes.” “In the 20 years that I’ve been out in the snow digging pits and keeping track of things, we are seeing a direct correlation between changes in the climate and the stability of our snowpack,” he said. “The climate is changing, and so are avalanches.” Even if the statistics didn’t bear him out, and they do, Davis has more than enough eyewitness testimony to show what is happening locally as Earth warms and the climate responds accordingly. “In the mid-1990s, we would get 16, 18 feet of snow in these big, deep storms,” he said. “And it would snow consistently from November right through to April – solid winter. Maybe there was a break with cold, clear weather in February, but it stayed cold. That just seemed to be how winter was. You could count on it. “Well, now, sometimes winter doesn’t start until mid-December, and the weather changes from cold and clear to warm and rainy more times throughout the winter. We get these flip-flops where

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it goes from really cold and not much snow, to warm and rainy, to snowing, to … ” And although it seems counter-intuitive, Davis now finds his avalanche-forecasting work more difficult than ever. “The tricky thing is people might think that less snow equals less avalanche danger, but actually the opposite is true,” he said. “With more storms, you get more layers in the snowpack and that can make it more prone to sliding. Even though it is not as much snow, there may be more opportunities in those layers to potentially slide.”

Consider this scenario Rain comes early, leaving behind layers of icy crust at the base of the snowpack. The ice is weak, but can last for a month or two buried beneath the snow that falls as the cold deepens. “And so you have these problematic, unstable layers from the very start of the winter,” Davis said. Then come the rapid weather events, “extreme changes in the weather,” he said. So Davis finds himself talking not about climate change to the backcountry travelers he serves, but about the weather right now and how it is affecting the snow stability right here. The urgency is in his voice before the season’s first snowfall. “I think people should be aware of climate change and its longterm effects on our seasonal snowpack,” Davis said. “Whether we have snow or not is probably my biggest concern. “But for staying safe in the backcountry, don’t be thinking about climate change. Narrow your thought processes to right here and now. Is this slope capable of producing an avalanche? If I put

W I N T E R 2 0 17

10/25/16 9:10 AM

Issuu smw17  

In this issue: Wings of Winter, Future of snow, NFL Super Bowl Champion Ron Heller, Art of Megan Atwood Cherry, Urban Moose, Thrill of shed...

Issuu smw17  

In this issue: Wings of Winter, Future of snow, NFL Super Bowl Champion Ron Heller, Art of Megan Atwood Cherry, Urban Moose, Thrill of shed...