Snowy Aspen or global warming? |

Snowy Aspen or global warming?

ASPEN ” It’s hard to buy into global warming when your driveway is flanked by 5-foot snow banks from so much shoveling, and you’ve already hit the slopes on 20-some powder days.

Pardon a skier for thinking, “If this is climate change, give me more.”

But don’t be fooled, say environmental experts: Six weeks of hard-core winter don’t make a trend.

“Yes, it’s cold. Baby, it’s cold outside,” said Steve Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization based in Louisville, Colo. In fact, last month was the coldest December on Colorado’s Western Slope in 15 years, he said.

But the longer-term trends paint a different picture. The temperature has warmed 1.93 degrees Fahrenheit over the last decade as a whole in Colorado compared to the 20th century average, he said. Worse yet, for a ski resort like Aspen, is that winter months are warming the most ” this December notwithstanding.

Saunders said global warming doesn’t preclude some cold, snowy months or even entire winters like the old days. But the data indicates that over the long term, winter is setting in later, disappearing earlier and staying warmer.

Most scientists believe that humans’ release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is accelerating the process.

“What we’re doing to the climate is loading the dice,” Saunders said. That increases the chances of warm temperatures, but every once in a while there still will be a month like December.

Snowmass Ski Area received a record December snowfall of 118 inches. Aspen Mountain threatened its record. Temperatures for most of the month were as frigid as Goldie Hawn’s demeanor around paparazzi.

The weather inevitably produced jokes about global warming. Aspenite Lorrie B. Winnerman wrote in a letter to the editor that “no expert meteorologist or scientist is able to predict global warming or global freezing. Don’t waste so much time on all the other stuff ” just enjoy the best skiing we’ve had in about 20 years.”

That type of outlook is in the minority these days, according to John Katzenberger, director of the Aspen Global Change Institute.

“A lot of people realize you can’t base a judgment like that on one month,” he said.

Aspen’s real estate market might demonstrate the point. The dollar value of sales plummeted in December by 22 percent over the same month the year before. But using the performance in that one month to predict how the market will perform for the next five or 20 years would be ridiculous.

Katzenberger said he has talked to many climatologists in connection with his work. Many of them use a glib phrase that goes, “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.”

In other words, climate trends are based on what has occurred for long periods, say 100 years or more. Weather is what occurs on any given day.

Within climate trends, there can be extreme variability, Katzenberger said. That can produce variability like record snowfall for a month.

“There’s no apocalypse on the horizon with skiing. We’ll be fine, for a while,” said Auden Schendler, an environmental leader at the Aspen Skiing Co.

Nevertheless, studies paint a grim picture for the industry over this century. Colorado College examined various studies for its 2006 State of the Rockies Report Card and concluded that the average snowpack as of April 1 could decline by 43 percent between 1976 and 2085 for the Aspen area’s four ski resorts.

“Predictions for future mountain climate are warmer winters and shorter snow seasons,” Colorado College’s report said. “Winter sports dependent upon snow are expected to decrease in popularity with warming because of worsened conditions, potentially becoming unviable as soon as 2050.”

While local skiers are reveling over December’s weather, November had people in near panic. There was a lack of snow and warm temperatures didn’t allow Skico to make snow. Only a few token trails opened at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass on Thanksgiving Day.

Climate trends indicate temperatures will be warmer in early and late winter, and more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, Saunders said. Winter will be compressed into a shorter period and confined to upper elevations.

Schendler also noted that climate change is expected to bring bigger weather events, like severe storm cycles. He doesn’t see the weather so far this winter as inconsistent with what climate change is expected to produce. Sometimes, people confuse climate with weather because climate change is tough to grasp, he said.

And weather such as Aspen experienced in December can make it even more confusing, he acknowledged.

“This, in some ways, becomes a marketing problem,” Schendler said, noting that global warming critics use weather events to try to confuse the issue.

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