January 09, 2022

Does the Massive Cascade Snowpack Mean We Don't Have to Worry About Global Warming?

 The answer is no.   

A single major snow event or even a major snow season does NOT mean that global warming is no longer a concern.

Similarly, a single weather event (e.g, the summer heatwave in June or the heavy rains in December) does not mean much about global warming.

This is a lesson that the media and some activists need to learn--on both sides of the issue.

Stevens Pass

Let's be honest--if we were experiencing an extremely low snowpack this year in the western U.S., the media and activists would be crowing about global warming.  

The familiar Seattle Times folks (e.g, John Talton, David Horsey, and others), the Guardian,  and the Washington Post, among others, would be putting out the "existential" warnings about it (see David Horsey's cartoon). Grist magazine would do a feature article on snowpack decline and Seattle350 would schedule another protest in front of Chase Bank.

But this year they have been quiet.

Cartoon by David Horsey and provided by the Seattle Times

What is the Truth about Global Warming and the Cascade Snowpack?

For nearly two decades now, activists and certain politicians have claimed that the Cascade snowpack is disappearing rapidly, such as the suggestion by Mayor Greg Nickels in 2007 (in the Seattle Times) that the snowpack was already down by 50%:

"The average snowpack in the Cascades has declined 50 percent since 1950 and will be cut in half again in 30 years if we don't start addressing the problems of climate change now."

But what does the best science tell us?

Observations are quite clear:  There has been minimal change in the Cascade snowpack over the past decades.  

And we understand why.

And the best models are also clear.  With increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, our region will slowly warm and the snowpack will decline gradually during the remainder of the century.

Take a look at the data since the mid-1980s when a reasonable snowpack measuring network was established.     For example, the April 1 snowpack average across the Cascades since 1984 shows lots of ups and downs, but no overall trend.

The trend of snowpack at Paradise on Mount Rainier since 1980 shows no trend.


Another measure of our snowpack is the melt-out day in mountain stations, with less snowpack and warming bringing an earlier melt out.  Consider Stevens Pass at roughly 4000 ft (see below).  The melt-out is trending LATER, which implies more snowpack.

There is little doubt that the Earth is slowly warming...and humans are contributing to the increase in temperature.  

So why is the Cascade snowpack holding nearly constant over the long term?    

A hint comes from a plot of maximum temperatures for November through February over the western slopes Cascades (see below) for the past 50 years--exactly the period in which human-caused global warming should be noticeable.  

Wow.  Almost no upward trend in temperature!  But lots of year-to-year swings.

Why so little change?  

We start with a relatively small global warming signal (about 1-2F of warming for the planet).  And then the global warming is lessened in our region by the very slowly warming northeastern Pacific.

No wonder our snowpack is not changing much--the temperature of the air approaching the Washington Cascade during winter has hardly warmed.

What about the future?

I am heavily involved in high-resolution climate modeling for our region, and the best guidance suggests that with reasonable assumptions about increasing greenhouse gases (RCP4.5 for those who know about such things), the Cascade snowpack may well decline by about 1/3rd by the end of the century.

No more skiing at Snoqualmie Summit, less snowmelt over the summer for water supply.   Precipitation will be higher, so we might need more reservoirs to store the winter rainfall.

Serious, but not the end of the world.  

The Bottom Line

We now have an enormous snowpack this winter and many records have been broken, from BC to California.  

But it doesn't mean much regarding long-term trends or whether global warming is having any impact.

So ignore any tweets that suggest that the massive snowfall disproves global warming. They are poorly informed.

And ignore the blaring headline in the Seattle Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian that our snowpack is disappearing due to global warming.  They are misinforming you for reasons we can only speculate about.




65 comments:

  1. If I was a member of the Boyne family and owned the Summit at Snoqualmie, and you told me that the Cascade snowpack will likely be 1/3 of what it is now at the end of the century and there won't be any more skiing at my resort, I might be a bit concerned. Then again, I probably would have sold the resort to Vail by then anyway.

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    1. Well, if you are only worrying about the next few decades, you might not sell. How many business have business concerns about 70 years from now?

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    2. Cliff said it would decline by 1/3, not be 1/3 of what it is now.

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    3. I would think Weyerhauser et al, with their tree farms, have plenty of business concerns about 70 years from now.

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    4. @seussnelson: Yes, but Cliff also seems to say that the 1/3 decline means no more skiing at the summit. If that's true, isn't that a concern for Boyne corp. or any other future owners? That's what Benj seems to be saying.

      I'm with Cliff here. I get the alarmist headlines should be ignored as well as the climate change deniers. Agree 100%.

      I think the miscommunication, or rather disagreement here is that what Cliff sees as serious consequences or issues to tackle (e.g. loss of skiing at Summit, potential new reservoirs to capture winter rainfall), is often seen and promoted as world ending to anti-Cliff folks, news media, activists.

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    5. On one hand, the loss of some skiing is low on the list of reasons to address climate change. On the other hand, this post is largely about skiing, and as a skier, I am greatly saddened that my (hypothetical) grandkids will have significantly fewer skiing options. More important, such a reduction in snowpack has many other consequences beyond recreation.

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    6. @Alex I would also contend that the increase in temperature at Snoqualmie Pass might be more of a concern than loss of snowpack for future skiing. There are plenty of ski areas that operate successfully with 1/3 less snowpack than Snoqualmie, but even now Snoqualmie tends to be right around the freezing mark quite often.

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    7. My opinion is that skiing may price itself out of the market for most before the snow is gone.

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    8. "I get the alarmist headlines should be ignored as well as the climate change deniers."

      Using the term "deniers" is a deliberate attempt of linkage with "Holocaust Deniers." Period. Full stop. Further usage of this terminology puts you into the Orwellian crowd attempting to smear anyone not 100% on board with their opinons as the worst kind of people.

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    9. I agree with seussnelson, and Unknown's comments above. The quality of snow is based on temperature and altitude. Growing up in Colorado, I can guarantee you that the best snow is at 12,000 feet and not 8,000. In WA, a base of 3,000 feet looks sketchy to me for the future. I can't believe they even pondered the Early Winters downhill resort at Mazama, its obvious it would have been skiing on rocks half the time.
      Time for WA to build new ski lifts and runs at higher elevations between 5,000 and 7.000.

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    10. @Eric Blair Save us that nonsense. "Denial" is a common English word. To assert that Cliff of all people is trying to tie it in with holocaust denial is ridiculous.

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  2. It is so refreshing to hear someone speak with common sense. Thank you so much Cliff Mass for all your research and information!

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  3. I am very confused. "the Cascade snowpack may well decline by about 1/3rd by the end of the century." "No more skiing at Snoqualmie Summit, less snowmelt over the summer for water supply." "And ignore the blaring headline in the Seattle Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian that our snowpack is disappearing due to global warming."

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    1. Why are you confused? There has been little loss of snowpack during the past decades, but we do expect significant loss (about 1/3) by the end of the century.

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    2. I agree it is confusing. Because the 1/3 loss will not happen suddenly on year 2100. It as if you are saying us older folks should not care because we won't be around to see or feel any of the impact.
      Also your claim "Wow. Almost no upward trend in temperature!" is odd when the graph you showed appeared to actually have an upward trend of at least 1F.

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    3. Snoqualamie pass barley has skiable snow now. I know the snow is great at the moment but in many past winters the pass had barley had enough and can think of many instances where rain/warm temp resulted in poor snow quality below 4,000 ft. If the snowpack were to decrease by 1/3, 2/3 0f what it is now then while the pass would still do okay some years you'd start seeing winters where skiing wasn't possible.

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  4. If I do an “eyeball fit” to the data in the last graph, Cliff, I see a clear upward trend in the temperatures. It would be helpful to see someone do do a more rigorous fit or a regression analysis to find what’s the actual case.

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    1. Michael... yes..perhaps a very small one....which would not be staistically significant with the variability. But that is the point. Not much trend...cliff

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    2. @NOAASatellitePA just today posted how this is the 4th warmest year on record for the US. The map they shared suggests we are about 4f higher than average for the entire US. When does it become statistically significant?

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    3. Pretty easy to get the trend from the NCEI site. Here it is for the 1970-2021 period and climate region used by Cliff showing a trend of +0.3˚F per decade.

      https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/divisional/time-series/4505/tavg/4/2/1970-2021?base_prd=true&begbaseyear=1970&endbaseyear=2021&trend=true&trend_base=10&begtrendyear=1970&endtrendyear=2021

      If we go back to 1950, the trend continues, indicating a warming of about 2˚F.

      https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/divisional/time-series/4505/tavg/4/2/1950-2021?base_prd=true&begbaseyear=1950&endbaseyear=2021&trend=true&trend_base=10&begtrendyear=1950&endtrendyear=2021

      Cliff can test the statistical significance of these trends.

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    4. Jim....probably better to use the maximum temperature, not mean, and a longer period. About .2F per decade. Now if you go higher (say look at trend at 850 hpa), the trend declines--and this is probably more relevant to Cascade snowpack....cliff

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  5. Siirila-Woodburn, E.R., Rhoades, A.M., Hatchett, B.J. et al. A low-to-no snow future and its impacts on water resources in the western United States. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 800–819 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00219-y

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    1. This report is very problematic with assumptions that are not reasonable....cliff

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  6. Mr. Mass, why do many of these graphs start in the 80's, don't our records go back further than that? Also, can you plot a linear trend line on the temperature graph?

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    1. If they did that, then they couldn't sell you the narrative about global warming and the soon to be "climate lockdowns" headed to an internment camp near you in the first place. Check out the proposed WAC code where it overtly states that climate lockdowns will soon become a reality:
      246-100-040

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  7. Hey Cliff how do you reconcile the neutral trends in April snowpack & melt out date with the overall trend of shrinking glaciers in the NW? Hotter summers? Less cloudy days? Warmer temps up higher on the glaciers reducing the accumulation zones?

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    1. I was wondering the same thing and I hope Cliff explains that for us. No bias here, just curious.

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  8. The glaciers are definitely disappearing

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  9. Cliff, I'm not so much convinced that increasing CO2 is in fact responsible for the current slow warming trend, especially as CO2 increase tends to follow temperature increase in ice cores, indicating that it's a result rather than a cause of warming. From paleoclimatological evidence, it appears that the current warming is not at all unusual in magnitude or rate of change in the context of Earth's climate history.

    That said, I wholly agree with your argument that weather events should not be treated as evidence of climate change, one way or another. There is too much false attribution being trumpeted in the press and by politicians who have no understanding whatsoever of science or what actual science (as opposed to bogus climate models) is telling us. It's always enlightening to consider the predicted versus the actual effects of weather events. I lived in California during the March Miracle in 1991. We'd had 7 years of drought, and the pundits were saying that it would take 50-100 years to recover. Then the atmospheric river came in, and it rained copiously every day in March, filling the reservoirs (and in some cases, requiring massive releases of water to avoid overfilling them), and effectively revitalizing the agriculture of central California. The ecological recovery of the Mt. St. Helens area, and that of the Eagle Creek fire area in the Columbia Gorge, point toward much more resiliency in nature than the "experts" give credit for.

    The biggest complaint I have about the climate alarmists is the persistent, relentless application of the "If it didn't happen while I was around to see it, it didn't happen" philosophy. Earth has undergone continual climate change since it came into being, and will continue to do so no matter what we do.

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  10. Interesting. What do your models tell us about future conditions in California, esp. the Sierra and the SoCal ranges?

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  11. And right on cue, the flying monkeys of Armageddon come on and immediately attempt to disprove your post. Bjorn Lomborg has written what I feel is the best template for this debate, and it revolves around his expertise, economics. The issue for many of us is that the adherents to the idea of that we must spend trillions ASAP in order to achieve an insignificant decrease in the overall temperature of the earth's climate will impoverish the middle and lower classes of the Western world. All this, while doing nothing regarding the world's largest polluters - China, India and much of the 3rd World. Much of the proposed solutions are nothing more than enviro and NGO taxpayer grifting schemes, achieving nothing while enriching the principals involved.

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    1. Eric Blair
      You certainly hit the nail on the proverbial head. There are somewhere around 370 million of us in the USA but approximately 7000 million others on this planet. If Americans never contributed another molecule of pollution to this earth, what difference would it make if the other 6430 million continue there polluting ways?

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  12. Right. Now if what you hold is true...why are the glaciers receding in the North Cascades. What you seem to intentionally leave out...is that yes, the snowpack may be the same, but at the end of each snowpack the meltouts are faster.

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    1. Stefan..did you read my blog? The meltouts are NOT occurring "faster". That is incorrect...cliff

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  13. Cliff, can you go into some detail regarding the situation in California?

    How many years like the current one would they need to fill all the reservoirs and aqueducts. I'm guessing at least ten.

    California's central valley produces 90% of the nation's in produce.

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    1. Dana...a major fill up in CA is going on right now. Huge snowpack too. Situation down there is radically improved.

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    2. Right. But it will take many years to fill the aquifers so important for agriculture.

      You can't erase two decades of drought in one year!

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    3. Dana, one of the main reasons why CA is so chronically in need of water is because the Government and NGO Enviros went to court to stop additional damns from being built, back during the 1970's and onward. The Army Corp. of Engineers delivered a comprehensive study to then - Governor Brown regarding expected population growth trends and accordant water supply requirements, yet their advice was ignored and then contested for decades in the courts, leading to the current water shortages. If the additional damns had been built when requested, the aquifers wouldn't have been depleted so badly, so the problems at present were primarily caused by the "elites" of the state.

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  14. Talking about snow pack trends without even mentioning long term loss of glacial ice in the cascades (which is well documented) is a an obvious oversight. Seems like fitting the data to match opinion.

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    1. I do have a hard time believing the snowpack has not decreased when glaciers have shrunken alot. I also look at Longmire's average winter snow depth of 2 to 3 feet and can't help but recall many recent winters where the snow was patchy/thin most of the winter and only briefly reached the average depth.

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  15. At the same time, it seems that some PNW glaciers have receded significantly. In the 1970's, The Mountaineers held crevasse rescue and snow camping exercises on the Ingraham Glacier in MRNP - a short walk from Paradise. Now that glacier has receded greatly and is much lower in the valley than it was 50 years ago.

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  16. Super interesting write up with data to back it up. Would be curious to see something similar with glaciers in the PNW and how they have changed over the last few decades.

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  17. @cliffmass please explain why our Cascade Mountain Glaciers have so dramatically declined? The scale of ice loss is actually staggering...

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  18. 6,000 years ago, Seattle, Chicago, New York areas were all under thousands of feet of ice. Long term warming has allowed us to occupy these areas now. The warming continues and we are now contributing to it but not the overall cause. Seems that as we approach the elimination of glaciers the rate of recession would increase as increase in exposed land warms quicker that snow/ice covered land.

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  19. Looking at the snow pack in the Cascades as an indicator of global warming, or lack thereof, is a very parochial interpretation of global warming. Global warming is a concept encompassing the total thermal storage in the earth's hydrosphere, and to a lesser extent, the atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. The sun's energy that has reached the earth is stored mainly in the hydrosphere. The heating of the oceans is affecting climate differently at local levels. This is the part of global warming that people experience at the local level. There may be changes of various natures...some counter intuitive, everywhere on earth. One large effect is wider variability in weather. Here in the NW, we had a dry, scorching summer, now a winter "for the books. Wenatchee, where I am, had the hottest summer on record, now the most snowfall record.

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    1. Wenatchee had a big one-day snowfall last week but we are a ways away from a record snowfall season. Also, the one-day fall of last week was probably not a record either as there is fairly good history on a one-day fall of about 2 1/2 feet in February of 1916.

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  20. Dr. Mass: As a couple of the above comments indicate, some of us are confused as to why there has been glacial recession if the snow pack has not changed and the meltout if now occurring even later. Please explain.

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    1. Moi....glaciers and snow are related, but very, very different animals. Glaciers started pulling back around 130 years ago as the Little Ice Age ended (and that was not caused by humans). Glaciers are sensitive to summer temperatures, which have warmed more than winter temperatures. The bottom line is that it is not surprising that our snowpack has remained the same while the glaciers have retreated...cliff

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    2. Thanks Cliff; I understand it now.

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  21. You state that human cause climate change is 'observable' Cliff. What data did you draw from in order to make such a claim?

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  22. Once an agenda starts it won't stop lol. We could cool off for the next 30 yrs n politicians will still find a way to steal the tax pay ers $$$ through bogus scams. The same scientists will tell you we have had 3 major ice ages n major thaws n flooding before humans set foot on this planet, but in same sentence tell us that humans are causing global warming.🤣🤡 What caused it the 1st 3 times lol????? It wasn't natural climate change by chance was it???? Nah they need to fund their back pockets.

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  23. When is the narrative going to switch to something realistic? Such as "Its too late" and " Time to adapt"?

    If the root causes are Anthropogenic or Natural Variation, does it matter? Climate change was in the awareness of science since at least the 1960s so we are well past the blame game.

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    1. Cliff, it seems like you believe climate change is real and it is being contributed to by humans. Do you think that climate change could present a significant problem (more than just no more skiing) for people over the next hundreds of years if nothing changes?

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  24. It makes me sad that theoretically intelligent people drink the koolaid and accept the "global warming/climate change" FUD initiative.

    Sure, I get it. Your career is destroyed if you dare question the premise. But that doesn't mean you have to repeat the dystopian banter.

    Any climate model that disregards the effect of solar output is flat out, unequivocally wrong, and to the best of my knowledge, that is most of them.

    A 4% variable star means something. Cherry picking data means something. And the most scientifically abhorrent rape of rationality is "normalizing" the data to fit the narrative.

    Shame on you. Where is your handwringing over the overburden of snow and ice on the south pole? Why is there a correlation with Northern hemisphere ice loss and the increased coal burning and industrialization of the most populous country in the world, China? (Hint: Snow albedo changes with ash particulates.

    I could go on and on. Instead, I normally suffer in silence as the tools of rational thinking are perverted to create lies and misinformation.

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  25. I would like to see the conversation switch to the preparation side of things. Based on the assumption that climate change is happening (I don't care as to the reason man made or natural) should we not now as a community plan for future water needs in agriculture and other uses? Seems like we have 40 years to begin planning, acquiring land, identifying priorities, etc. Easier and cheaper to plan for this and begin infrastructure projects now, than to wait until the last minute.

    For example, if we think the west side will still have plenty of water (rain not snow) and the east side might be a bit drier, we could begin planning now for a water transfer project. Maybe a good Civil Engineering competition between the local universities (think Apple Cup but for all colleges and universities with CE programs). Every four years pick an engineering challenge and have them work on a solution (underground water storage could be another). Could even include the Business Departments to analyze costs and the Environmental Studies programs to look and impact for a cross discipline exercise.

    Unfortunately this goes against current human ideology. Lack of civility, forward thinking, willingness to compromise and cooperation will doom us faster than any climate change impacts. Yes, I am a Debbie Downer.

    Well, thanks Cliff for letting me ramble.

    Tom

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  26. @Carl Buick - Thanks for mentioning that it is the ocean that is absorbing most of the heat being generated by AGW and resulting in the climate weirding the world is now experiencing.

    Hottest ocean temperatures in history recorded last year


    The publication from Advances in Atmospheric Science is at this link
    Another Record: Ocean Warming Continues through 2021 despite La Niña Conditions

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  27. Thank you, Dr. Mass, for your unwavering commitment to actual facts and evidence, and for your generosity in sharing your analysis with all of us.

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  28. Looks like warming in the NW has been pretty constant at .2F/Decade which I am assuming you are extrapolating to get the snowpack reduction.
    While this is a single event we have had an unusual number of atmospheric rivers during this year and last and the central Pacific origin has been consistently above average SST. Your own research has predicted an increase in atmospheric rivers due to global warming. Could this last 6 months be considered a taste of the future?

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  29. Concerning the glacial retreat which seems to be decoupled from global warming a recent NASA team has published a paper that appears to show that industrial pollution (particularly soot) starting in the mid 1800s has had a significant effect even when temperatures were not rising.

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  30. I favor reasonable means to mitigate climate change. But Snoqualmie Pass ski areas should be the least of our worries, because:

    (1) Baker and Crystal are better, anyway.
    (2) Surely over the next two generations, economically-feasible mitigation practices should make it possible to control the climate without destroying the world economy? If nothing else, perhaps we could loose a volcano or two into the atmosphere?
    (3) Internal combustion engines may be superceded.
    (4) With the rise of China and India, and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons, not to mention AI, I suspect the planet will have bigger problems to deal with than too many SUVs in a few years.

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  31. Volcanoes erupting would make the situation worse, not better.

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  32. If we are looking for a signal from the snowpack, it doesn't seem to make much sense to look at snowpack at 4000 ft or, frequently, higher. Wouldn't it make the most sense to look at how the snow line has changed over time? At 5000 ft, if the temp changes from 24 to 26, it's still snowing.

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Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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