‘Snow drownings’ claim three lives

WHISTLER, B.C. –  Three people have already died of snow immersion suffocation in heavy early season snows at Western ski resorts.

In Wyoming, a 25-year-old woman died after getting inverted in a tree well on the slopes of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The Teton County coroner listed asphyxiation as the probable cause of death.

Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass ski area was the site of another fatality. A 50-year-old man was skiing with his son and two other adults through a wooded area. When the group didn’t see him at the bottom, they took a lift back up to search for him. They found him trapped head-down in a tree well. Attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful.

And, in British Columbia, a 53-year-old Californian who was skiing with his wife and children died in a snow inversion in the backcountry near Whistler. Pique said the victim had been on a cat-skiing expedition conducted by a company called Powder Mountain. It wasn’t clear whether he had died in a tree well.

In snow immersions, individuals are deposited headfirst into snow, commonly a tree well. In experiments supervised by Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, 90 percent of those who end up upside down in trees wells cannot rescue themselves. Because of that simple fact, the best way to avoid suffocating in a tree well is to stay within eyesight of a skiing companion.

Monitoring U.S. ski areas, Baugher has found as many as nine per winter since 2000. California has had the most overall at 15, followed by Colorado with 11, Washington with 9, and Montana with 5.

About two-thirds of victims died in tree wells with most of the rest in deep snow. Studying 28 cases, he found that 82 percent were advanced or expert-level skiers or snowboarders, and the remaining 18 percent were intermediates.

In many cases, a person inverted into a tree well can die as quickly as somebody who drowns in water, says Baugher.

Boarding in the sidecountry adjacent to Whistler Blackcomb, Colin D. Watt got lucky. “One moment I’m looking at the best view in the world, looking from Whistler over to Blackcomb – trees and snow and blue skies and the red gondola going back and forth – and then it was pitch black,” he told Pique Newsmagazine.

He had set off a small avalanche that swept him into a tree well. He could tell he was upright, because of the saliva dribbling down his chin, and he managed to dig an opening with his free hand. But then, when a friend attempted to dig him out, the snow cascaded on him.

Somehow, he got free. But then, he had a companion close at hand.


Almost $20 million for Aspen house

ASPEN – The real estate market in Aspen and Pitkin County continues to sizzle. The Aspen Times reports the sale of a 16,961-square-foot house for $19.5 million. It was the most expensive single-family sale of the year.

The property taxes on a house like that located on several acres? How about $66,491 per year.

While property values have been on the rise in Aspen, the total assessments remain 19.76 percent lower than those of June 2008, just before the recession began, swamping mountain valleys.


Carbondale may levy tax on carbon fuels

CARBONDALE – Town trustees in Carbondale, a former coal-mining town 30 miles west of Aspen, are preparing to ask residents to approve a carbon tax on electric and natural gas bills.

In Colorado, the only municipality to have a carbon tax is Boulder.

The tax being studied would add an estimated $5 to $7 per month to the bill of an average home and $20 to $40 for an average business.

“What better place than a town called Carbondale to implement a local carbon fee and put talk into action?” asked Mayor Stacey Bernot, a native of the town. The nearby coal mine closed more than 30 years ago.

Michael Hassig, a former mayor, told the Grand Junction Sentinel that tax should be called just that, and it should be based on use. The more that a resident uses fossil fuels, the higher the fee. “You want people to change their behaviors, make it cost something,” he said.

One concern is the impact to lower-income residents. One possible solution is to use some of the revenues to upgrade homes inhabited by those low-income residents, which would lower both the fee and overall energy bills for those families.

Other potential use of revenues could include a large solar farm and a local micro-grid with battery storage.


Banff seeks 100 percent clean energy

BANFF, Alberta – Give Banff credit. While it’s uncertain how it will get there, the resort community in the national park of the same name has decided it wants to be 100 percent dependent on renewable energy by 2050.

To that end, elected officials appropriated $40,000, which will be used to develop a strategy for attaining that goal. The municipality will be hiring a consultant to draw up the plans.

Banff’s resolve should be seen as part of a general shift in direction of Alberta and, even more broadly, Canada. Long dependent on fossil fuels for its brisk economy, Alberta’s new elected leaders have announced they intend to seek a more meaningful carbon tax. Provincial leaders also have declared their ambitions to phase out coal-fired power generation by 2030. At present, 90 percent of the province’s electricity comes from burning of fossil fuels, mostly coal.

Canada also threw the bums out, and Justin Trudeau, the new prime minister, has promised his government will meet with representatives of the provinces and territories by spring in order to develop plans for reducing greenhouse gases.


59 grizzly bear deaths at Yellowstone

JACKSON, Wyo. – The death toll for grizzlies in 2015 was tops in recent history in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Through last week, 59 grizzlies had been confirmed dead in Yellowstone National Park and adjoining areas, topping the previous record of 55 set three years ago.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide explains that a below-average whitebark pine seed crop and poor berry year contributed to the rough year for grizzlies. Bears frequently got into trouble with livestock, in developed areas, or with hunters.

Of the 59 deaths, 55 were due to human-bear interactions.

Still, wildlife officials don’t seem to be overly concerned. They point out that the grizzly population in Yellowstone has grown significantly since the 1970s.

“From a researcher’s standpoint, what I’m seeing here is not indicative of the population declining or some serious collapse of a food resource that is happening within the ecosystem,” said Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.


First World Problems in ski towns

ASPEN – Mick Ireland, a former mayor of Aspen, poked a bit of fun at himself and fellow residents in a column in the Aspen Daily News. In effect, he says that Aspen can be full of itself.

“It’s almost as if Aspen invented a class of issues known collectively as First World Problems. Do I skin up the mountain or is it OK just to lift weights and do yoga? Can we solve the five-minute traffic jam for less than $100 million? Does the high school team bus have sufficient bandwidth for traveling athletes? Is it worth skiing only 4 inches of new powder on a cloudy day?”


Tolls for new express lane on I-70

IDAHO SPRINGS – The new 13-mile toll lane on I-70 through Clear Creek County, between the mountain resorts and metropolitan Denver, began operations in December.

The new prime-time lane offers assurances of 45 mph speeds instead of the bumper-to-bumper crawl that invariably characterizes traffic on Saturday and Sunday afternoons during winter and summer.

Tolls can range between $3 and $30, but so far they’ve been on the low side of that, barely pushing beyond $3, Colorado Department of Transportation officials tell the Summit Daily News. But CDOT expects higher rates of $8 to $10 for typical volumes, and $10 to $15 for peak volumes.


Tahoe affordability worse than San Fran

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A new report from the nonprofit Tahoe Prosperity Center tells a familiar woe of resort communities. The average annual income for a resident of South Lake Tahoe is less than $25,000, and it’s not much more in the Lake Tahoe Basin altogether.

But housing – well, it doesn’t come so cheaply. The median single-family home price is close to $500,000.

Heidi Hill Drum, director of the Prosperity Center, said the most surprising thing coming out of the study is that the affordability factor in the Tahoe Basin is worse than in San Francisco.


Graded ski runs slow to recover

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Studying six shuttered ski resorts in the northern Sierra Nevada of California, ecologists Jennifer Burt and Jeffrey Clary found a theme. The abandoned “graded” ski runs show no predictable natural recovery, even 40 years later.

In grading a ski run, heavy machinery is used to remove vegetation, boulders and much of the topsoil. “It reduces the ability of the area to support plant growth,” Burt told the Sierra Sun. She said it also reduces infiltration of rainfall into the soil, which in turn causes more sediment loss and erosion.

Graded runs, in general, have a lot more exposed bare ground and have less healthy and robust plant growth. That’s true of abandoned ski areas and those still active.

But ski runs with land that was simply “cleared” of trees and shrubs recover “fairly quickly and have a pattern of vegetative growth. With the older ski areas, it’s difficult to distinguish between the surrounding forest and the former ski runs.

Why do ski areas grade runs? They are able to open up the runs a week or two earlier than the cleared runs, said Burt, a doctoral student at the University of California Davis, when she and Clary did the study. It was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.


Lakes warming more rapidly than oceans

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Lakes around the world have been warming, including Utah’s Great Salt Lake, California’s Salton Sea and Lake Tahoe at a more rapid rate than the oceans.

A study announced in December at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting found that satellite and ground measurements of 235 lakes found lakes have been warming an average of 0.61 degrees Fahrenheit each decade. The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

This is, say scientists, a greater rate of warming than either the ocean or the atmosphere – and with profound effects. Water temperature influences a host of properties critical to the health and viability of ecosystems, they say. When temperatures swing quickly and widely from the norm, lifeforms in a lake can change dramatically and even disappear.

An example is the increased algae blooms in Lake Erie, producing toxins that have overwhelmed the water treatment capabilities of cities such as Toledo, Ohio. Such blooms can rob water of oxygen. They are projected to increase 20 percent in lakes over the next century as warming rates increase. Algae blooms that are toxic to fish and animals would increase by 5 percent.

Simon Hook, one of the study’s authors, previously found that satellite data indicated many lake temperatures were warming faster than air temperature. He has also found that the greatest warming was observed at high latitudes, as seen in other climate warming studies. This new research confirmed those observations.

The study was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

– Allen Best

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