The West faces a no-snow future. New report sparks flurry of action

By Kathryn Barnes

If you love to #SkitheWest, enjoy it while you can. Last week, Nature Reviews published a study on projected snowfall across the western mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies and the Cascades. It found that the Western U.S. could experience little-to-no snowfall in just 35 years.

“We could expect declines on the order of 25% by 2050, and up to 50% loss by 2100,” says Dr. Erica Siirila-Woodburn, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of the study.

While the climate is warming, “the freezing point of water is a set-in-stone thing. It's not negotiable,” she says. That means areas that typically see snow will see more rain in coming years. In California, she expects a changing climate will lead to more frequent and higher intensity atmospheric rivers, which can create “rain on snow” conditions and further reduce snowpack by inducing melt.

Professional skier Amie Engerbretson is already noticing diminishing snow in her hometown of Lake Tahoe. She didn’t know what to do this past Thanksgiving because she couldn’t ski for the first time since she could remember.

“The ski seasons are shrinking, and a lot of times the storms are coming in with more rain,” she says. “I can remember being a little girl with 19-foot snow banks in my front yard. I certainly haven't seen snow banks that high as an adult.”

Engerbretson is an alliance member at Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that mobilizes professional athletes and outdoor enthusiasts to advocate and lobby for climate solutions.

“Over 50 million people participate in recreational and outdoor sports every year,” she says. “We like to call it the ‘outdoor state.’ If you were to take those 50 million people, it would be the biggest state in the union, the biggest swing state.”

Members of Protect Our Winters attend climate marches around the country, including Washington D.C. and Reno. Photo courtesy of Lora Bodmer/Protect Our Winters.

An activist holds a sign that calls attention to melting glaciers. Photo courtesy of Lora Bodmer/Protect Our Winters.

Though alarming and scary, the report offers solutions to mitigate the effects of diminishing snowpack. They include carbon-neutral energy, water conservation, desalination, cloud seeding, and even forest management, since water in areas that burn in wildfires gets lost to the atmosphere through evaporation.

“Snowpack loss is on the order of some of these other climate disasters that we're facing as a society,” says Siirila-Woodburn. “Large-scale wildfires, sea level rise, people need to be thinking about snowpack loss [with] the same urgency.”