While the Northeast has spent the winter up to its eyeballs in snow and hating every minute of it, dozens of ski resorts in California are desperate for even a light dusting. Lake Tahoe is falling victim to the state's lingering drought — and the grim scene of dusty ski trails and shuttered resorts is a preview of what winters will look like as climate change takes hold.
At least a dozen ski areas have closed early this year as a result of minimal snowfall. Those that are still open offer skiers strips of snow framed by rocks and weeds. And the lack of snowfall isn’t just bad for the small Sierra Nevada towns that rely on tourists. Melting mountain snow provides water for tens of millions of Californians and a survey in early February showed the snowpack at a dismal 25 percent of what’s normal.
It's always difficult to chalk up any particular event to climate change. But researchers at Stanford think there is a connection here. An area of high pressure over the Pacific — the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” — is pushing precipitation away from California, and according to climate scientists at Stanford, it likely formed because of greenhouse gas accumulation.
"Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region — which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California — is much more likely to occur today than prior to the human emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s," Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh said after the study was released last year. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration isn't so sure: in December, the agency released a study that found the drought is the result of natural occurrences and not man-made climate change.
Either way, like the blizzards in Boston and Buffalo, drought in the West is the type of weather that we should expect from the future. The mountains are only going to get less snowy — which is a problem whether you’re a skier, an employee of the resorts, or one the millions of Californians who rely on snowpack for water, after it melts.