Climate change makes Tahoe weather whiplash more extreme

A scruffy-looking cottonwood tree stands on the edge of Highway 89 near the Truckee River, halfway between Alpine Meadows and Tahoe City. It was called the snow tree. Local legend says that when this poplar loses its leaves, snow will come.

The leaves were still turning orange and yellow when a freak storm dropped a few feet of snow on the Tahoe Mountains in October.

November followed, very dry.

Then came December’s record snow apocalypse.

And January was a meltdown, weeks of high pressure, cold temperatures and blue skies.


At present, any hope of a change in weather conditions to bring snowfall in February seems dashed. So the question is, will Miracle March live up to it? Fear of another smoke-filled summer and devastating wildfires looms large.

This kind of ticking between extremes is often called “weather whiplash,” and scientists are trying to better understand the implications and how these events will impact how we adapt to climate change.

Weather whiplash is the experience of changes between two opposing weather conditions, according to a research dissertation 2019. “The potential impact of these types of events on coupled human and natural systems can be significant,” the report states. “Given the rapidly changing winter conditions in seasonal snow-covered regions, there is an urgent need to better understand these events and the extent of their impacts in order to minimize their risks.”

Weather whiplash is a phenomenon that can occur in all seasons, whenever temperatures and precipitation conditions do not match what is expected of the season.

“With climate change, the global average temperature change is a good indicator that we have climate change, but it’s not just the average temperature change that really affects us, it’s the extremes and the weather changes that affect us even more,” said climatologist Cameron Lee, in an article from Kent State University, about his research on weather whiplash.

“And, with a change in the mean, extreme weather events become more frequent, which can create environmental challenges affecting our health, safety and economic well-being,” Lee continued.

The Sierra Nevada is a land where the pendulum of time swinging between extremes is somewhat familiar ground. Vintage photos show skiers in bikinis sunbathing in the snow, and the tradition continues. In Tahoe, I saw snow storms in August. And I wore flip flops in March. But climate experts say global warming is making the extremes more extreme and the impacts more severe.

The Sierra Nevada is a vital water source for California. And yet, studies show that global warming will reduce the snowpack, so much so that snow could all but disappear in the Sierra in years to come, according to a 2021 study by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“It’s not that we’ll see a total disappearance of snow, but we’ll probably see five to 10 consecutive years like 2016, in which the Sierra Nevada saw about five percent of its average snowpack,” said one of the researchers, Alan Rhoades, at Outdoor magazine.

Frogs don’t notice the heat if the water boils gradually. Likewise, it’s easy to see how life fits in among those who choose to live in the Sierra Nevada for outdoor recreation. Ski resorts are packed, thanks to a December bonanza that provided enough snow cover to keep business afloat during this latest dry spell. Sunny days on groomed trails mean good times. Other Tahoe residents are getting more creative with how they spend their time outdoors.

In mid-January, road cyclists grab the extra turf as the snowbanks recede, even if it means pedaling through clouds of dust kicked up by dirty cars.

Hikers seek out the backcountry, except instead of skis they bring ice skates.

A new sport is gaining popularity in these dry, cold winter months, when alpine lakes are frozen in smooth, dark blue ice with crystals that look like constellations. Call it backcountry ice skating. Once a few years ago a group of friends and I took our ice skates to Tuolumne Meadows and slid in the middle of a frozen Tenaya Lake. The occasion was particularly notable because, usually in January, the road to Lake Tenaya is closed in the event of a snowfall. It was in the middle of a drought, however, and the mountains were bare. The temperature at the height of the afternoon was warm enough to take off our layers, and we thought, why not put on our bathing suits. It wasn’t so much a functional decision as a statement. If the weather gives you lemons, make lemonade.

The Sierra Nevada has always been known as a sunny mountain range. Le Chamois’ sunny terrace at the foot of the Palissades is one of the most iconic spots for après-ski with a jug of light beer, a picnic table and sunglasses. It’s not uncommon for the slopes to open on the 4th of July, when skiers and snowboarders step out in swim shorts and patriotic swimsuits.

But the jolt of living in such extremes has a deeper impact. It changes the mentality of people who moved to Lake Tahoe for the snow, for a ski season.

Now we know that a big storm in October says nothing about what winter will bring. At the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory, lead researcher Andrew Schwartz reviewed digitized records dating back to 1970 and found that of the 13 years that saw more than three feet of snowfall in October, eight experienced below average snowfall than the following winter.

This week, UCLA climate researcher Daniel Swain posted on Twitter a graph of predicted total cumulative precipitation that indicated more dry days ahead. “Keeping this snapshot for posterity, because I believe it’s the driest set for predicting average precipitation I’ve ever seen during the peak of the rainy season in California,” Swain said.

The leaves of a legendary tree are just a legend.

We take what comes, when it comes.

If it snows in October, we grab our skis and head to the ski resort or hike in the backcountry. If it’s sunny and warm in January — uh, June — we go ice skating or mountain biking. Is this the new normal? It has always been that way to some degree, but to get back to the top, climate change will only bring more of these massive swings of the pendulum between the extremes. Let’s not get too comfortable in hot water.



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