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When you think of snow, you probably think of winter—snowball fights and snowflakes melting on your tongue. But snow’s most dynamic season is actually spring. Spring’s warm, sunny days are when snow’s best features shine.
Snow is not just for skiers and sledders. Food and electricity come from snow. As climate change warms our planet and melts snow, spring snow has a complicated role to play. All sorts of people are racing to save our snow, with solutions both big and small, whacky and wonderful. And some of them are kids.
Snow in spring? Isn’t snow a winter thing?
You know that cold climates create snow. And snow lasts while the season stays cold. But did you know that snow creates a climate, too?
Snow’s shiny whiteness (albedo) acts like a mirror, reflecting most sunlight back into the sky and keeping Earth cool. The snow and the sky play a hot-potato game with the sun’s energy, tossing it back and forth. But in the spring, as days get sunnier and longer, more and more light energy hits the snow and gets thrown back into the sky. That energy churns around in the atmosphere, moving air and creating storms. So, shiny spring snow in Europe reflects sun energy, building into powerful monsoons that blow east and drop torrential rain over Asia.
What are spring snow’s superpowers?
Snow powers cities and grows our food. Sound crazy?
The snowpack is frozen water that melts slowly as it warms. In western North America, mountain snowpacks typically last until midsummer, melting slowly over time into soil, rivers, lakes and wetlands.
Meltwater in Washington and other western states swells rivers that run hydroelectric dams, providing hydropower. Turn on the lights in Seattle—that’s snow power!
California snowmelt is captured in reservoirs used to water 20,000 square miles of farmland. Most nuts are grown in California, so if you munch almonds, you’re eating snow! A quarter of US-grown food relies on California’s snowmelt.
How is snow measured?
Because the West depends so much on snowmelt, precise snow measurements are critical to forecast water levels in rivers and reservoirs. Snow scientists calculate snow data at over 1,000 snow stations from New Mexico to Alaska using satellites and automatic gauges. But at least once a year—on April 1—they visit stations to measure it directly. Imagine skiing to work! These stations show the West’s spring snowpack is much smaller almost everywhere than seventy years ago. Why?
Is global warming changing spring snow?
When climate warms, the hot-potato game between the snow and sky changes. Warmer storms don’t freeze, they rain. Rain melts the snowpack fast—even more quickly than sunlight. A smaller snowpack reflects less energy, dropping the hot-potato, heating the Earth and melting even more.
When spring snows melt early, there’s less water storage in the mountains, and water levels are lower in rivers used for hydropower and reservoirs for farmlands. Forests are drier and burn more easily. Wild plants and animals depend on the same snowmelt that humans need.
No matter what species you are, though, it’s clear we need to Save Our Snow.
What ideas work to Save Our Snow?
People are coming up with all sorts of imaginative ways to Save Our Snow. In the Alps, ski areas are covering their glaciers with acres of white, plastic tarps. The tarps’ high albedo reflects the sunlight, keeping the snow cooler through the summer, and preserving the snowpack until the next ski season.
A ski area in Colorado is spraying chemicals into cold clouds to create snowflakes, hoping to increase snowfall over the ski slopes. But there are other ways to Save Our Snow, and kids are involved.
What can kids do to Save Our Snow?
If you’re anxious about climate change, you’re not alone. When he was 13 years old, Sam Tierney lay awake at night, worrying. He finally wrote pro-skier and climate activist Mike Douglas, whose advice was: action is the antidote to despair. So, in small steps that snowballed into big action, Sam organized classmates to march for climate and petition Pemberton’s mayor to include their ideas in the town’s Climate Action Plan. Finally, he and Mike’s documented the journey from despair to action in the movie Sam & Me: Overcoming Climate Change Anxiety.
Spring snow has enormous power—to create monsoons, light cities, and turn despair into action. Some of the world’s best minds—including kids—are working hard to Save Our Snow.
The importance of spring snow to climate and climate change.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-spring-snow-cover (accessed October 15, 2022).
National Snow and Ice Data Center: https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/snow/climate.html (accessed October 15, 2022).
Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change indicators: Snowpack. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-snowpack (accessed November 7, 2022)
Snow pack and hydropower.
https://www.climatehotmap.org/global-warming-locations/ross-dam-wa-usa.html (accessed November 1, 2022).
Snow pack and California agriculture.
California’s Central Valley agriculture depends on snowmelt and aquifers.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/west-snow-fail/ (accessed November 8, 2022)
https://news.ucmerced.edu/news/2020/changing-snowmelt-threatens-valley-ag-way-life (accessed November 7, 2022)
The Central Valley supplies 8% of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces 1/4 of the Nation’s food, including 99% of the Nation’s almonds. https://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html (accessed November 3, 2022)
Scientists and snow measurements.
Natural Resources Conservation Service map of 1,010 snow stations. (accessed November 7, 2022).
Ski areas and climate change solutions
The Invisible Mountain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjB7LvBmNrE&t=47s
Presena Glacier tarp photos used with permission from Pontedilegno-Tonale. November 6, 2022.
This Alpine glacier is melting. So a ski resort put a tarp on it. Joseph Winters. June 23, 2020. Grist Magazine. https://grist.org/climate/the-giant-of-the-alps-is-melting-so-this-ski-resort-put-a-tarp-on-it/ (accessed November 7, 2022)
How a Tarp Is Helping to Save Skiing in Chamonix. Catherine Lutz. December 17, 2015. Powder Magazine. https://www.powder.com/stories/news/essential-cover/ (accessed October 14, 2022).
Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-skiing-can-survive-climate-change-11612969209 (accessed October 14, 2022).
Sam Tierney, climate activist since 13-years-old. Pemberton, BC.
Sam & Me. Overcoming Climate Change Anxiety and Finding Hope Through Skiing. Salomon TV. December 15, 2021.