Here is my Concord Monitor column this week (Nov. 27): This column will discuss the way a major climate model is overly pessimistic about the coming disappearance of snow and skiing from New Hampshire due to climate change.
In other words, it’s a bit of good news about the changing environment! Actually it’s more like not-as-bad-as-you’ve-heard-news, which is as optimistic as it gets these days.
Before we go on, however, please note that I am not saying computer models should be ignored if the results make us unhappy.
Computer models are incredibly useful; they’re one of the tools that has built the modern world. Mathematical analysis of real-world data using knowledge of how systems interact can do everything from design better bridges to improve the way we help endangered species. You’d be a fool to dismiss them, and GraniteGeek readers aren’t fools.
But computer models are created by humans, which means they aren’t perfect. The smart way to use them is to take their results with a grain of analytical salt, giving the results more or less credence as evidence demands and being prepared to move on to new models if that is shown to be valuable.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. It was brought to my attention by Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, a research assistant professor at UNH who does lots of climate modeling. She’s the sort of scientist whose online selfies usually include snow.
Burakowski was reacting to this alarming quote: “By the end of the century, people will not be skiing in New England.”
The comment came in a Nov. 19 story posted on Climate.gov, a federal website devoted to news about climate and was made by Cameron Wobus, a climate researcher in Colorado. Wobus and others modeled the likely effects of climate change on winter recreation at 247 ski areas and similar destinations throughout the lower 48 states, using two scenarios about future greenhouse gas concentrations based on human and natural events.
Burakowski agrees with the study’s general conclusions: Climate change will reduce the amount of snow received at higher elevations all across the country, usually by turning it into rain (ugh) rather than making precipitation disappear. I’ve written several stories over the years about similar predictions for New England.
Her concern is that models based mostly on western U.S. snow stations exaggerate the future effect in the Northeast. Her evidence is pretty persuasive: She says they’re wrong today.
“The one that they paint for the higher concentration pathway, to me I feel like that’s a bit of a stretch and is likely off base a bit because the model underestimates the snow season length in present day,” she said.
Two major models, Utah Energy Balance and SNODAS, say that today’s average New England snow cover without snowmaking at various skiable locations is about 40 to 50 days.
“When you look at the actual snow season length – for example, Hubbard Brook (Experimental Forest in New Hampshire) or over 280 stations in Maine … you typically see it’s about 100 days. If you’re off by 40 to 50 days in your model and you project it out to the future, when it goes to zero, you might be missing a whole month,” Burakowski said.
As for skiable snow cover up in the White Mountains, she noted, “Their simulation suggests it’s only January and part of February. You and I both know that’s not true.”
Indeed it’s not. Last weekend I floundered into some snow drifts almost up to my knees hiking on Mt. Monadnock, which is probably the southernmost skiable mountain in the state. So even if we don’t tackle climate change very well, there should still be some New Hampshire skiing by 2100.
As I said , Burakowski has no complaints with the report’s message: Climate change is going to make things worse for snow sports fans, and the more the climate changes, the worse it gets.
“The resorts are going to have to work harder to stay open,” she said. “Fortunately, we’re blessed with an abundant water resource (for snowmaking). We can extend our season pretty well.”
I realize that some of you, reeling from the stark warnings in the latest federal Climate Assessment report, might think this column is misguided.
We all need to wake up about the ever-worsening effects of climate change so we will start doing the difficult, unpleasant and expensive things required to slow it down. Is this the right time to nit-pick a climate report that I basically agree with?
The concern that I have, and Burakowski as well, is that warnings can go too far. They can lead to despair, making us give up amid cries of “We’re doomed!” (or a less elegant equivalent).
But we can’t give up. Even if climate change will make things bad for our grandchildren – and it will – things will be much worse if we don’t start taking serious action now. We probably can keep the climate from ratcheting up by 2 degrees Celsius, with a resulting increase in extreme weather and rising seas, but that’s preferable to a world with an extra 3 or 4 or, heaven forbid, 5 degrees.
Making sure our climate prediction models are as accurate as possible is part of that process. We don’t need false reassurances (“don’t worry, the climate has always changed!”) but we don’t need excessively gloomy predictions, either.
Our best hope is making smart choices guided by the best science we can do.
With that in mind, I think I’ll go skiing this weekend.