Tahoe’s identity as a winter wonderland is in jeopardy. One of the most noticeable signs of warming temperatures in Tahoe are changes to the snowpack. Specifically, researchers forecast a lot less of it some years and a ton more other years. That has huge ramifications for everything from businesses that rely on snow to Olympians figuring out how to practice their winter sports.
Bye, Bye Snow
People: “Come on Maddie. Yeah Maddie”
Male Announcer: “She will want the gold. Here comes Maddie Bowman. The 20-year-old, Double X games champion. Can she add the Olympics to that collection?”
[music slowly builds as you hear audience in background cheering]
Ezra: Maddie Bowman’s from Lake Tahoe. This was her final run at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Male Announcer: “There’s the 900. And then a nicely executed 5.”
Ezra: This was six years ago and ski halfpipe had just debuted as an olympic sport.
Male Announcer: “Oh, the switch seven to finish it off. She is a really strong half-pipe skier, Maddie Bowman.”
Maddie: “: Ariana! I did it, you did it! [Screams.]
Ezra: The judges score halfpipe on take-off, the height of the of a boarder’s jumps, landing, and the difficulty of tricks.
Male Announcer: “What’s the score going to be for Maddie Bowman? 89.”
Male Announcer: “That extends her advantage up at the top. With only two skiers to come. Great run”
[music comes in]
Ezra: Maddie ended up taking home the gold.
Female Announcer: “American Maddie Bowman. The first Olympic champion in ladies ski half-pipe.”
Ezra: I met Maddie at her house near South Lake Tahoe. She’s 25 now and because of that gold medal, she’s a hometown hero.
Maddie: “I have two dogs.”
Ezra: “You’re going to see my mismatched socks.
Maddie: “That’s okay. Baby, down. Do you want any coffee or anything?”
Ezra: “Sure, coffee would be awesome.”
Ezra: Now that we have coffee we can talk. Maddie moved home two years ago from Utah.
Maddie: “My family is here. You know my heart is here. I love Tahoe. So, it's a sacrifice I have to make for sure.”
Ezra: It’s also a sacrifice because soon her sport may no longer exist.
Maddie: “Our sport is dying. The climate is a huge part, chasing the snow is a huge part. Which is sad, I mean to have poured my whole career into this and to have an Olympic medal from it and being like I don't know if there will in 40 years be an Olympic medal in ski halfpipe because it could just be gone. “
Ezra: So, let’s get this straight. Half pipe skiing just became an olympic sport, but warming temperatures could end that, because snow is changing in places like Tahoe. Maddie says it’s rarely cold long enough to build halfpipes anymore here.
Maddie: “I have to travel all season, every season. So, my time training in my profession is so limited that I feel like I’m not progressing.”
Ezra: It’s not just her sport and profession that Maddie might lose. Her family lives in Tahoe and their livelihoods are on the line.
Maddie: “It's hard to watch your parents lose their job a month early because there's no more snow and it's hard. You know my brother was a ski coach and the mountain closed early and you know he was out so much money.”
Ezra: “So your immediate family is affected too.”
Maddie: “Oh absolutely. The whole community is affected.”
Ezra: But, Maddie’s committed to stay. She’s sponsored by a local ski resort called Sierra at Tahoe.
Maddie: “Ok, so, in the skiing world there are two positions for your skis. You have your french fry and your pizza.”
Ezra: Maddie’s teaching me how to ski and I have to admit this was my first time skiing, we’re on the bunny hill.
Maddie: “Good, good. Right leg. Woo! Linking turn. Good job. Left leg!”
Maddie: “Oh! Nice. Good Save!
Ezra: I almost died.”
Ezra: It’s this kind of fun that Maddie wants to keep around in Tahoe.
Maddie: “You’re killing it! Good job!”
Ezra: But she’s also about doing serious work. Maddie volunteers with the advocacy group Protect Our Winters. Boarders and skiers around the world are worried that not enough is being done to stop climate change.
Maddie takes the groups message to schools.
[Music theme comes in, “Hair in the Wind”]
Maddie: “Just talking about how they've seen their parents jobs affected by either too much snow or too little snow and how it would be nice to have that constant in between that we can rely on... My message is I want you to recognize what's happening with climate change in your community, how it’s affecting your community... and then I want you to speak up about it.”
Ezra: That’s what this episode is all about. People like Maddie who are taking a stand and talking about the real impacts of climate change in their hometowns. And scientists, who are tracking the impacts. Because what’s really on the line, is Tahoe’s identity as a winter wonderland.
Dan: “These aren’t just theories anymore.”
Stacy: “I don’t want the snow to go away.”
Simon: “Yes, Tahoe will change.”
MaryEllen: “I kind of feel like that endangered pika.” Don: “Tahoe doesn’t control climate change it’s a victim of it.”
Ezra: From Capital Public Radio. This is TahoeLand.
Laurel: “It always snowed by the third weekend in September, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Tom McClintock: “I want to see our forests restored. So, Tahoe doesn’t burn the way Paradise did.”
Maddie: “Chasing the snow is a huge part.”
Devin: “It’s about the lake that’s why everyone is here.”
Jesse: “There are a lot of green lakes, there aren’t very many blue ones.”
Ezra: I’m Ezra David Romero.
Millions of people travel to Tahoe for the snow and more than a dozen ski resorts are around the lake. Plus, the winter Olympics were held here in 1960.
This year there was so much snow, it was a boom year. But that isn’t always the case. In the past decade Tahoe witnessed a terrible drought with the smallest snowpack ever. That was a bust year. Scientists say these extreme fluctuations in weather are getting worse and they predict they will become even more drastic. It’s something Tahoe cannot escape. And my question is this, will millions of tourists still visit Tahoe in the winter a generation from now?
Welcome to TahoeLand.
[Music fades out]
Ezra: It’s not just Tahoe that's dealing with disappearing snow. Winter destinations around the globe are grappling with it.
Daniel Scott: “The Europeans, the Alps, they're facing the same thing.”
Ezra: Daniel Scott runs the Masters of Climate Change Program at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Daniel Scott: “They had a really heavy snowfall this year to the point where it was almost too much in some areas, but they've had several years in the last decade to 15 years where they've had almost no capacity to even make the snow.”
Ezra: Daniel studies climate change and ski communities because he wants to give leaders a heads up.
Daniel Scott: “You may have to adapt to climate change through the loss of Tahoe’s 14 ski areas maybe they lose five maybe they'll lose them all. We don't know. But that's something Tahoe as a community would have to adapt to.”
Ezra: He’s also looked at how warming temperatures could reshape the winter olympics. In around three decades, Daniel says, more than half of the places that hosted past olympics will be too warm to host again. Places like Oslo, Norway, Chamonix, France, and Sochi, Russia.
Daniel Scott: “And what we found is under the high emission scenarios more than half of the past host countries or host communities couldn't host the games in the same way even by sort of mid 2050.”
Ezra: Tahoe’s one of the places. Daniel says it’s just not cold enough.
Daniel Scott: “The Olympics will have to evolve a little bit over time ... they'll have to look at either multi country or sort of regional hosts rather than just the United States hosts its maybe its Canada and the United States hosts it in the skiing in one place and the indoor hockey and all the other stuff somewhere else.”
Ezra: These changes in snow are inevitable, according to scientists who are predicting a grim future for Tahoe’s snowpack. It’s something we can’t stop because it’s a symptom of global greenhouse gas emissions. As long as the world doesn’t get a grip on how much carbon it emits, Tahoe will suffer. For the region, it’s a huge bummer because so much of the economy is based on snow. There’s a whole lot of scientists studying these projections.
Jeff: “Ok, one, two, three.
[sound of Jeff piercing through the snow pack and he groans]
E: zra: Let’s meet Jeff Anderson.
Jeff: “Yeah! Got it. Yes, that’s the dirt. That was a 154 inches deep.”
Ezra: Jeff measures the snowpack on the Nevada side of the lake for the federal government. He can’t project what the future will look like, but he records data.
Jeff: “You know the boom or bust kind of winters Tahoe has always had those. You look at those long hundred and you know we're almost up to one hundred and ten years of snow records and you'd just see that the boom and bust is the normal.”
Ezra: This year was a boom year. It snowed so much that highway’s shut down multiple times and Jeff says it’s hard to project what’s going to happen every year.
Jeff: “The booms are you know they're getting bigger in 2017 and 2019 and the bust from 2012 to 2015 are getting drier. It's hard for me to project what's going to happen but it seems like right now we're seeing the variability just increasing.”
Ezra: Ok, some of you in Tahoe are probably like, Ezra, this tug of war between drought and wet years is normal here. But climate scientists say, this flip flopping is actually getting worse.
[Sound of snow shoes]
Ezra: Ben Hatchett and Dan McEvoy are two of those scientists.
[Sound of Ezra walking in snow continues through this scene]
Ezra: “: Hey guys!”
Ezra: How’s it going?
Ezra: I went snowshoeing and skiing with them at Donner Pass off Highway 80, north of Lake Tahoe. Everything was covered in white. Meet Ben.
Ben: “This was literally our little playground. We’d have our parents drop us off and put on the snowshoes and put the snowboard on your back and hike up, ride those runs and imagine you are in some of those pro movies, thinking you are in Alaska, and you’re actually in a place that’s just about as equivalently awesome.”
Ezra: Ben and Dan study snow droughts for the Desert Research Institute in Reno. They’re also part of the Western Regional Climate Center. Here’s Dan.
Dan: “So the simplest way, a snow drought is just a lack of snow when there should be snow on the ground.”
Ezra: They’ve realized a couple things. The actual line where snow begins to stick to the ground is moving higher and higher up the mountain. At as many as 200 feet a year in Tahoe. That’s a huge increase. Ben says to think of it like stacking a deck of cards.
Ben: “Snow levels will continue to rise if we're getting more and more of our precipitation from these potentially warmer events. It's like adding a few queens if the queen is the warm wet storm. The Jack may be the really cold storm. You pull out a couple of jacks and stick in a couple of queens see sort of stack the deck or change the odds towards warmer types of storms.”
Ezra: Ok, here’s what we know so far. The snowpack in Tahoe is disappearing, and fast. And this means places we love to ski, and shred, and hangout could be gone in a generation. Don’t believe it, let’s talk to our data reporter Emily Zentner about this. Hey Emily!
Emily: Hey Ezra.
Ezra: So get out your crystal ball, put your fortune teller costume on and tell me, what are we seeing in Tahoe’s future?
Emily: Well, it’s a little bit more scientific than that Ezra. I’m sorry to say but you and I won’t be as playful as we’ve been talking about shrimp and secchi depth and that’s because this episode is definitely a darker one. The snow situation in Tahoe is really dire.
Ezra: Yeah, that’s true. We’re gonna be a couple of bummers this time around and Emily’s just here to sort of crush my dreams again per usual. Emily you’ve been looking at some research by Geoff Schladow and Robert Coats from the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. What are they projecting?
Emily: They’ve looked at how much water could fall as rain rather than snow in the next century, and under a more severe carbon emissions scenario, the Lake Tahoe Basin could regularly be seeing less than a quarter of its precipitation coming as snow by the end of the 21st century. And that’s for the whole Lake Tahoe Basin. There, elevations span from lake level all the way up to above 10,000 feet. Lake level is about 6,200 feet elevation, so places like Tahoe City that sit at lake level could see an even more drastic drop in how much precipitation falls as snow.
Ezra: So what’s the norm when it comes to Lake Tahoe and snow?
Emily: Right now it’s normal to see anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the precipitation in the Basin falling as snow. And these are plausible projections, so they’re not super exact because this is based on climate modeling rather than on recorded snow data. So it’ll be in the range of these measurements, by Geoff and Robert’s calculations.
Ezra: So you’re saying the percent of precipitation coming as snow could be cut in half by the end of the century. That sounds drastic.
Emily: It is drastic and it is definitely possible. For people who live and spend time in the Sierra, this is something that we’ve seen with our own eyes. Where I grew up, I can remember years and years ago and having to wade through snow that came up to my hip to get up my road. Now, the town I grew up in only gets sprinklings of snow a few times a winter. And this is definitely the more severe scenario, but it’s a possibility and this isn’t a change we can really stop at this point. Even under a less severe emissions scenario, where we stabilize emissions at the level they’re at now, the percent of snow falling versus rain is still going to go down.
Ezra: So that Tahoe snowpack is essential to the fresh water for the region of Nevada and California. Does this create like a storage issue for water?
Emily: It does. Snow is phenomenally easy to store, because it accumulates on its own and then it slowly melts and that provides fresh water throughout the year. The estimate is that hundreds of thousands of people rely on the Tahoe snowpack for water, so they’re going to have to come up with a new way to store and harness that water and it won’t be cheap.
Ezra: What’s the timeline for all of this? How fast is this going to change?
Emily: It’s hard to say, because weather goes up and down so much from year to year. And the loss of snow actually plays into this vicious climate cycle known as the snow albedo feedback.
Ezra: Wait. What is snow albedo? Explain that.
Emily: So, snow albedo is super fascinating but also terrifying. Snow and ice actually are reflective and so they bounce some of the sun’s energy back into space and that helps keep the earth cooler. So as we have less snow, it actually makes the climate warmer because the earth is absorbing that energy instead.
Ezra: Yeah, that’s related to why the polar ice caps are melting and why thats a big deal for global climate change and sea level rise, and other things like that.
Emily: Yeah, it is.
Ezra: So if people want to learn about the effect this is having. Where can they find more?
Emily: You can head to capradio.org/tahoelandsnow and there you’ll find an article with some great graphics to help you make sense of it all and show you the wide effects this is having.
Ezra: Thanks for joining me Emily
Emily: Thanks Ezra.
Ezra: What happens when you own a business like a ski resort or a sleighride company and there’s going to be significantly less snow? That’s exactly what both big companies, and mom and pop enterprises are trying to figure out in Tahoe.
Ezra: Here we go on the tram, at Heavenly.
Ezra: Heavenly is one of Tahoe’s most popular ski resorts. To me it has always felt synonymous with South Lake Tahoe.
Mike Goar: “On a sunny day like this, the views of the lake from this lift doesn’t get any better.”
Ezra: Mike Goar is the vice president for the Tahoe Region of Vail Resorts. That’s the company that runs Heavenly. Big companies like Vail or even Squaw Valley on the north side of the lake can afford to cope through the swings in weather. At least for now.
Mike: “we can make snow in more marginal temperatures. We use less energy than ever per snow gun.”
Ezra: But there’s an issue. The number of days it's cold enough to make snow are limited and are expected to decrease. This goes back to what Emily talked about earlier… snow albedo..
Vail has gone as far as promising to buy all of its energy for its 18 resorts from wind and solar sources by 2020. Mike says that’s enough to power 33,000 homes. But it’s not that easy for smaller resorts with less funds… like Sierra at Tahoe.
Sarah: “So it's really going to take a few years of a drastic pattern of drought and really hurting the resort to make us make that switch.”
Ezra: Sarah Sherman runs the resort’s communications.
Sarah: “It's hard coming off the year with our snowiest month ever to say hey we need to beef up our snowmaking.”
Ezra: She says Sierra at Tahoe is more of a locals resort without the dollars to invest in making snow or other changes.
Ezra: “So you almost have to feel the pain a bit more?”
Sarah: “Yeah. Because you know with that varied weather and more drastic winters verse you know heavy snowfall, not a lot of snowfall. We're still really getting those big years still.”
Ezra: Now lets talk about Borges Sleigh and Carriage Rides in South Lake Tahoe. It’s a legacy mom and pop styled business that’s directly feeling the pain of climate change
Dwight: “Giddy up, giddy up, lets go! [sings]
Ezra: Dwight Borges runs the family operation. You can find him leading sleigh rides next to the casinos in South Lake.
Dwight: And away we go!”
[sound of carriage ride]
Ezra: His parents started the business after they won a pony in a raffle at a local car dealership. They named him Little Joe. Today they use Belgian Draft Horses.
Dwight: “: My parents started in 1968 and for the first few years it was amazing snow every year. Then during the middle 70s drought, like there seems to be this cycle.”
Ezra: And what Dwight means is that these years of drought and then really wet winters are becoming more frequent. And all of this cuts into his bottom line.
[sound of carriage ride continues]
Dwight: “Whoa. Duke, take a break. Climate change is snow levels, being higher. So we normally would have snow levels would be well below lake level and over the last 20 years or so I have seen when we do get the storms coming through the snow levels has risen. We still get the precipitation coming in. But the precipitation instead of being in the form of snow is in the form of rain.”
Ezra: And he says the worst part is that rain shuts his business down.
Dwight: “Last year we were open zero days out here. Because there wasn't enough snow. There has to be a minimum amount of snow for us to operate. And it has to be frozen. Last year we were not able to operate because of the warm temperatures.”
Ezra: But Dwight has a trick up his sleeve. He’s adapting. When there’s not enough snow, he hooks his 2,000 pound horses up to carriages.
[sound of children playing in the snow and families passing by]
Dwight: “I've been here in Lake Tahoe for 50 years and I've seen the changes go on. There's going to be more people. It's a beautiful place. How can you tell us to try to stop people from coming out and enjoying this. The beautiful lake, the mountains, the snow, the trees. It's the amazing place on the whole planet.”
Ezra: Our first two episodes of TahoeLand were all about the lake and what’s being done to adapt to prevent the nasty effects of climate change. But what’s different with snow is that it’s a crisis we can’t control. For any real change to happen, the world will have to reduce its emissions. In the meantime Tahoe will just have to deal with it because snow is going to change and its winter identity is in limbo. It’s like what the forest worker says during our intro of the podcast, “Tahoe doesn’t control climate change, it’s a victim of it.”
Ezra: We’ve talked about how climate change impacts people. But in our next episode, we’re going to explore what locals and visitors discuss possibly more than anything here.
Judi: “My cousin came up one time and she’s taking a walk down just half a block down the street and the bear is walking right alongside them. And then my other cousin was, took a run along the shoreline, the pedestrian trail, and she ran into a mother and cub. Then there was a little teenage bear that came out on the deck here and the dogs came chased him up the tree here right in front of the kitchen window.”
Ezra: Next week, it’s all about bears. Don’t forget to stick around after the credits for our Tahoe Tidbit.
TahoeLand is edited by Nick Miller. Sally Schilling is our podcast producer. Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Emily Zentner is TahoeLand’s data reporter. Kacey Sycamore is collecting your questions about Tahoe and answering them.
Our web site is built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katie Kidwell. Linnea Edmeier is the executive editor. Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer. And our associate producer is Gabriela Fernandez.
Our music is by artist Charlesthefirst. He’s from Tahoe. To make sure you don’t miss any episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Check out our website capradio.org/tahoeland for videos, photos, additional stories and more.
I’m Ezra David Romero…. Thanks for listening to TahoeLand... from Capital Public Radio.
[Sound of event, Cushing Crossing]
Sally: What you just heard was the sound of a skier.. charging down the mountain at Squaw Valley Resort and then skimming across a pond about 70 feet long. This skier pulled it off, all while being dressed as Fred Flinstone, eating out of a box of Fruity Pebbles.
I’m Sally Schilling and I help produce TahoeLand. For this Tahoe Tidbit, we’re going to look at Cushing Crossing. This annual event is a tradition. Hundreds of people gather around a pond at the bottom of the mountain. And they watch skiers in goofy outfits shoot down the hill and try to skim all the way across.
Barry: “Doing it without trying to do any tricks, isn’t that difficult. When you start adding tricks though, it becomes much more difficult, very quickly.”
Sally: That’s former Olympic Skier Barry Thys. He helped organize the first event 29 years ago after watching ski patrol cross the pond. Last year, Barry attempted it with .. quite an elaborate setup.
Barry: “I came up with this idea of wow, if I had an electric guitar hooked up to this thing and I had a wireless hookup to the electric guitar. How cool would that be to go across and have the electric guitar playing through my amplifier, and you know while I was doing this stunt.”
[Sound of guitar in background]
Sally: Barry came skiing down, at about 40 miles an hour, and when he hit the water, he crashed.
Barry: “Some guy was yelling ‘get the guitar, guitar,’ I was like ‘screw the guitar man, get me,’ you know [laughs]”
Sally: Squaw is going to be building a new gondola to connect the resort to Alpine ski resort. There were concerns this new gondola terminal would be built over Lake Cushing. But I checked with Squaw, and that’s not going to happen.
This year marked the 29th annual Cushing Crossing, which comes at the end of every ski season. Jean Hagan founded the event with Barry and she says it’s all about having fun and celebrating. But, it’s also bittersweet for the people who moved up their to work and live in Tahoe for that ski season.
Jean: “It’s more than just the end of the ski season. People are leaving, people are moving out of their ski rentals. People are going back to their normal life. And this event has become part of that celebration of the end of the year.”
Sally: But this tradition doesn’t happen on the same day every year.
Jean: “It’s totally related to what the mountain is giving us. It’s never going to be ‘oh the Cushing Classic always ends on the first week of May.”
Sally: Some years they’ve held it as early as Easter. Several years ago they held it really late, on the 4th of July. This spring, Barry decided to give it one more go, with the guitar and everything….
[sound of guitar]
Sally: And this time he nailed it. And won the competition.
[Sound of crowd cheering]
Barry: “The feeling this year of winning it outright was very good. Being 55 years old and competing against guys half my age and beating them, there was a lot of satisfaction in it. I was very happy.”
Sally: For TahoeLand… I’m Sally Schilling.