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Skiers bummed: Where is Utah’s greatest snow on earth?

December 17th, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Danielle Manley

LOGAN — Kyle Todd’s skis hit the snow packed terrain and fresh powder flies around his body.  He glides through the snow with elegant grace and precision. He’s not competing. He’s not racing. Todd is doing what he loves most for pure enjoyment.

“Everybody has that thing, where they kind of get away,” Todd said. “From school or work or whatever. And skiing is my thing.”

Often when snow is on the ground Todd can either be found at Beaver Mountain instructing lessons or trekking through the back country on his skis.

“I’ve been skiing my whole life,” Todd said. “It’s something I get a release from, it relieves stress. It’s so hard to explain. Literally skiing through powder is the most amazing feeling in the world. It’s like you’re flying, floating and you have this mind state where you’re just peaceful and calm and there’s no one in the world.”

One of the major reasons Todd chose to attend Utah State University was because of the accessibility of skiing. But last winter proved to be extremely disappointing among ski bums all over the state.  “Last year was my first year skiing in Utah and it was pretty awful,” Todd said.

Large ski resorts like Brighton, in Salt Lake City, and The Canyons, in Park City, have already opened at least a few lifts for their die hard snow lovers. But Beaver Mountain in Cache Valley has yet to open for the winter season. The question lingering in Todd’s mind as the fall semester nears the end is whether or not he will be able to enjoy his winter break in the snow.

Robert Gillies is a professor of biometeorology at USU and is the Utah Climate Center director. Though he can’t give an accurate prediction for the coming winter season, he has educated expectations.

“The important thing to remember about climate is that it’s global,” Gillies said. “So what happens in a very different region affects climate in many areas.

This little piece of information is especially important when considering Utah’s climate because of a few other key cycles affecting the area.

“The interesting thing about Utah is that, there’s a transition zone between Northern and Southern Utah,” Gillies said. This transition is called the El Niño Southern Oscillation. The ENSO signal affects California and Southern Utah the most. Unfortunately it’s not a good indicator for Northern Utah where the transition, and the skiing, occurs.

“So last year if you were to go back and look at the newspapers,” Gillies said, “you would have seen they were all saying, ‘It’s a weak la niña, but we should be getting lots of snow.’ And guess what? Didn’t happen. Basically that’s not a good signature.”

The signal that’s more important for Northern Utah is called the Quasi Decadal Oscillation. Literally meaning “roughly” and “10,” the QDO signal runs approximately 10 to 15 years. Unlike the ENSO cycle, it’s not the warm or cool air that transmits a signal, but the actual transition from warm to cool air.

Gillies gathers his expectations of the winter season from this cycle.

“We are now going from the peak of the warming, down into the cold part,” Gillies said. “So we’re going into that transition. And that means we’re going from technically wet to dry conditions. So my expectation is that the QDO is going to force us toward drier conditions over the next four to five years.”

Though Gillies’ expectation remains the same, there’s still much to take into consideration. There’s often an intraseasonal oscillation that could cause an expected dry season to turn wet. Over the four to five years though, most winters would be consistently dry.

Research Gillies started over the summer brings another interesting point into the conversation.

“The storms that bring in the snow in the winter time have changed,” Gillies said. “So there’s less storms that bring that snow coming in and those storms that come in are more intense and have more rain with them. So we’ve got a shift from the past where we had lots of storms bringing snow to fewer storms bringing in a rain/snow mixture which are poor snow conditions.”

One last element needs to be added to Utah’s mixture of weather components — climate change.

“Utah has been abnormally warm this year including these winter months,” Gillies said. And of course warm atmosphere, you know warm from the surface up to 12 kilometers gets what — more rain. If you’ve got a nice warm atmosphere, you’re not getting down to the temperatures you need.”

There may be snow in the upper level of the atmosphere, but by the time it reaches our level, it’s rain, Gillies said.  The expectation is that Utah will receive more precipitation — as rain.

Commonly known as having “the best snow on earth,” Utah seems to be facing a dilemma considering expected upcoming snow seasons.

Other skiers in the valley have also expressed worries about the upcoming season. Cole Neves, a senior at Logan High School, described his frustrations like Todd did.  “I went a lot less last year,” Neves said. “It wasn’t too good. I’d be pretty upset, pretty bummed if it was like last year.”

Neves also addressed an issue that makes skiing and snowboarding in Cache Valley substantially different than the rest of the State.

“Beaver has to get real snow, Neves said. “Other resorts can make their own snow. It really sucks when we don’t get any snow because it takes longer for Beaver to open.”

But as a diehard fanatic who spends an entire day on the hill and approximately $500 on the sport each year, Neves has high hopes for skiing this season.

“That’s usually how it is,” Neves said. “Every other year, there’s a bad year. It’s going to be good, but it’s going to come late, that’s what I’m guessing.”

Todd and Neves aren’t the only fanatics who will be disappointed without snow. According to the economic report to the governor, Utah received 4.2 million visits to ski resorts in 2010.

“I honestly, I don’t know if I could make it through school if I didn’t have skiing,” Todd said. “One of the top three reasons I came to Utah State was so I could ski frequently. If I couldn’t ski because the snow was so bad, maybe I’d move to British Columbia or something.”


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