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A Changing Climate

Making Snow in a Warming World: Winter Sports Industry Prepares for Climate Change

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Skiers zoom past a snowmaking machine at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Photo: Brittany Patterson/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The days have gotten shorter across Appalachia and the temperatures dropped which for many means the start of one thing — snow season. It means strapping on skis or hopping onto a sled to tear into soft, fluffy powder.

That’s the case for Greg Corio, who for almost two decades has been an avid ice climber.

An ice climber on a formation at night. Photo: Courtesy Greg Corio

“The only way to describe it is it’s magical,” said Corio. “There’s so many features, and so many details and little knobs and little pieces and dripping water as you’re climbing up it. It’s like climbing up the side of Magic Kingdom’s castle.”

Ice climbing is a fickle sport. Prolonged bouts of cool temperatures are required in order for ice to form into thick enough layers to support climbing. In temperate West Virginia, there has traditionally been just a small window of time where climbers can get out on the ice. Enthusiasts are ready to drop everything when the opportunity presents itself, Corio said.

But in recent years, as temperatures have warmed, Corio said the window for ice climbing seems to be shrinking.

“We had several years in a row where we didn’t have any ice climbing at all,” he said. “And it’s kind of sad, like ‘wow, okay — that whole season, it never formed up.'”

Ice climbers scale a frozen formation in West Virginia. The winter sport is one of many threatened by climate change. Photo: Courtesy Greg Corio

He’s not the only one who is concerned. West Virginia’s ski industry, which generates an estimated $250 million in economic benefits annually, has long relied on snowmaking to help it keep reliable powder on the ground. But in the face of climate change, one resort is investing in new technology, in part to prepare for a warmer future.

The ‘Art’ of Making Snow

During a recent visit to Snowshoe Mountain Resort, nestled high on West Virginia’s second-tallest peak, the air is thick with falling snow and the tell-tale whir of snowmaking machines.

“Basically, if we didn’t have snowmaking here, we might not be able to open until February, maybe a couple of weeks in February,” said Ty Tagmeyer, snowmaking manager at the resort. “We generally don’t get a nice, a good heavy snow until late January, February. We will get dustings in, you know, a foot at a time, but to be able to open a ski trail, we need four to five feet of natural snow.”

Snowshoe aims to open Thanksgiving week, the first of the state’s five resorts to open each year. In its more than 40 years of operation, it has always relied on snowmaking to supplement mother nature. 

To replicate what nature does, Taymeyer’s snowmaking team takes highly-pressurized water and air and pipe it into a snow making machine, often called a snow gun. When the two elements collide, the water breaks into tiny particles. When they are blown into below freezing air they turn to snow. It’s a process he calls an “art” more than a science.

“It usually takes a season of making snow to learn how to make snow,” he said. “Every gun is different and a lot of the older style ground guns, it’s more of an art to figure out how to make snow with those.”

In recent years, warming temperatures, driven by climate change, is impacting the amount of time available for for snowmaking at Snowshoe, according to Shawn Cassell, the resort’s public relations manager.

“The snowmaking windows that we see — the windows of time when the temperature is low enough to make snow — have gotten shorter over the years,” he said.

To hedge against future warming and to reduce its own electricity use, Snowshoe has invested more than $4 million in newer, more efficient snowmaking machines.

“We have to make as much snow as we used to, but in shorter buckets of time and the technology is keeping pace with that, and so continuing to invest in that technology is critical,” he said.

Newer and Nimbler

Cassell takes me to see some of the new snowmaking machines. We head to Cupp Run, a long steep trail on the mountain’s western facing slope.

A stick gun snow machine makes snow on Cupp Run. Photo: Brittany Patterson/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The run is outfitted with 75 stick guns. Snow flies out of these 30-foot high metal poles, no thicker than a pipe you might find under your kitchen sink. They’re quiet enough that we can have a conversation standing right underneath them. 

“I think we’ve had these on since Monday afternoon and it was grass before that. So, it’s Thursday and there’s almost enough snow to open it,” Cassell said.

Enough snow is an understatement. As we walk out on the run, we drop mid-thigh deep in icy powder.

The stick guns use eight percent of the energy some of the older machines use. In total, the equipment upgrades at Snowshoe save an estimated 5 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, or enough to power 500 homes. Some of the resort’s snow making machines have been automated to shut off when temperatures get too warm to make quality snow. The goal, Cassell said, is to be nimbler as snowmaking becomes an ever-increasingly important.

But boosting climate resilience isn’t the top problem for everyone who works with West Virginia’s ski industry.

Joe Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Ski Areas Association, said the state’s variable topography has always meant West Virginia ski resorts have had to rely on snowmaking to provide that reliable product that skiers and snowboarders want.

“Traditionally in West Virginia, we have numerous freeze thaw cycles throughout the winter,” he said. “That’s just because of the situation and that’s not a change from years past.”

Over the years, one thing that has changed, Stevens said, is the amount of resorts offering summertime activities.

Many resorts across West Virginia and the country, including Snowshoe, have also boosted summer offerings to include mountain biking, hiking, swimming, ziplining and more.

While it makes financial sense to diversify, the move also serves as another hedge against climate change, especially warming temperatures.

Warmer and Wetter

Data from the last 50 years shows West Virginia is warmer than it once was, said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

Snow covered trees at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Climate models predict W.Va. will continue to see warming temperatures. Photo: Brittany Patterson/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Compared to much of the rest of the United States, temperatures in West Virginia have not risen as much, but that is expected to change.

“So, we’re kind of in a sweet spot right now where temperatures are warming, but they’re not warming that fast for West Virginia yet,” the Beckley native said. “That is expected to change in the coming decade.”

Already, the data show temperature variability has changed.

“One thing we are seeing is that the really warm years are getting warmer and the really cold years are also getting warmer,” Crouch said.  

As a result of climate change, West Virginia is also getting more precipitation. This has increased flooding, and in the near term it could mean more snowfall for parts of West Virginia,  he said, “until the temperatures increase to a point where that precipitation changes from snow to rain.”

Nicolas Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology and director of the Mountain Hydrology Lab at West Virginia University, said in many ways how the Mountain State is experiencing climate change is unique, driven largely because West Virginia is impacted by weather patterns from multiple surrounding regions, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

“The different weather systems combined with the complex topography means that we have a lot of variability in precipitation and streamflow and forest type and so on and so forth,” he said.

And because West Virginia receives precipitation year-round, predicting how climate change will manifest in West Virginia gets tricky.

“The really the important thing is the system as we know it is changing because it’s becoming more variable,” he said.

Back at Snowshoe, Cassell said the increasing variability due to climate change is an important reason the company is investing in new, more efficient snowmaking equipment.

“I think that it’s something that’s always on our minds,” he said. “I think with things like the snowmaking investment, we want everybody to try to lighten their carbon footprint, but we can’t expect anybody else to if we’re not. So, I think we’re trying to really walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

A Changing Climate

Meet the Young Appalachians Who Are Leading the Global Climate Strike

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Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, center in blue, joins other young climate activists for a climate strike outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

It looked like a climate strike was not going to happen in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.

In the Appalachian city, a group of hopeful high schoolers and middle schoolers planned to join hundreds of thousands of young people and adults from as many as 150 countries in a demonstration Friday as part of the Global Climate Strike. The strike comes just before a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on September 23 and is meant to draw attention to the lack of action being taken to reverse or mitigate climate change.  

In Birmingham, students planned to hold a protest in Linn Park, just across the street from City Hall. But it looked as if the event would be cancelled this week when the group was late submitting a permit request to gather in the public space. 

Enter stalwart eighth-grader Stella Tarrant.

Stella, 14, wrote a letter to Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin, with a last-minute plea. 

“ I wrote to him to see if he would get us a special permit,” she said. And he did.

Now, plans are moving forward for the Friday morning rally, without much surety in how many people will actually attend. But if interest on the event’s Facebook page is any indication, there’ll be a crowd. 

“There are 200-and-something people who are either going or interested,” Stella said,  ”and 5,000 people have seen our page.”

Among those striking will be seventh-grader Eric Ledvina. He has his immediate future and that of his friends in mind. 

“I honestly don’t want to end up when I’m 20, that there is a lot of pollution and many species gone extinct and terrible weather. You can already see patterns of that,” he said.

One of the major goals of the climate strike week is to get more adults involved and for Eric, that means bringing his aunt, Anne Ledvina, along with him. Stella’s resolve to save the nearly cancelled event wasn’t lost on her. 

“We couldn’t have done this climate strike without Stella taking the lead on this,” she said.

Julia Alaimo and Nick Wright-Osment are speaking up with a climate strike at the University of Alabama. Photo: provided.

The roots of the youth climate strike movement began in late 2018, when then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg left school in Stockholm, Sweden, one Friday with a hand-drawn sign: ‘School strike for climate.’ (In Swedish, of course: ‘Skolstrejk for Klimatet,’ is a now-iconic phrase.) Her solo strike has since spurred thousands of youth climate strikes around the world.

Now, young people in Appalachia are joining supporters like Greta on the front lines of the strike, organizing events in their communities, like Stella, and encouraging people in the generations ahead of them to take a stand.

‘Most of My Family Denies It’

No doubt like many young climate activists popping up across Appalachia, 20-year-old Julia Alaimo meets resistance in her own family to even the notion of climate change.

“I never grew up in a household that cared about the environment or was interested in climate change. Actually, most of my family denies it,” said Alaimo, who attends the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

That hasn’t slowed her in the slightest. Alaimo is student president of The Environmental Council at the university and coordinator for a climate strike on the campus Quad, which also takes place Friday.

An environmental engineering major, Alaimo said she wants to focus not just her current activism, but her life’s work on the climate crisis.

“I’ve always wanted to solve environmental issues,” she said. “I think one big thing that we can do personally is try to help with policy change and influence people who are making large decisions around us that affect every one of us.”

A couple of days before the strike, she was at work on a speech to deliver at Friday’s strike, along with classmate and fellow climate striker, Nick Wright-Osment. Growing up with a mother who is a biologist, Wright-Osment tuned in early to awareness of the human race’s growing impact on the Earth’s operating system. 

“I kind of grew up my whole life hearing, ‘Oh, we need to do something about global warming.’”

There is absolutely no time to waste, he said.

“I think the big key here is, as a message, we want people to realize that climate change is the number one issue. It should be for everybody,” Wright-Osment said. “This isn’t, like, a political thing. It’s a global threat that is extremely vital and extremely time-sensitive.”

Climate Class Is in Session

It’s a measure of the exploding activism around climate change that the strike was announced as a single-day event but has grown to a week’s worth of happenings, ending September 27. It’s another sign of the times that courses with titles like “People vs. The Planet: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Climate Change” are filling at Appalachian universities.

But they are, at least at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, where 21-year-old Brandon Taylor, a double major in geography and Chinese studies, has signed up for the interdisciplinary humanities course this semester. 

“With climate change becoming even more of a threat— seemingly every day, there’s a new story coming out— I want to shift away from just studying it,” Taylor said. “I’m moving towards more of, like, closer to activism.”

That’s why he’s participating in the climate strike event being planned at WVU, likely to be the largest Global Climate Strike event in the state. 

Taylor will be joined by some of his classmates and his professor, Andrea Soccorsi, who created the class not just foster conversations about solutions, but also encourage collective action across disciplines. 

“I am not a scientist, that’s the first thing that I always tell people,” Soccorsi said, who teaches a variety of English and writing courses. “We always think that this is an issue that the scientists are going to solve, but I’ve tried to show the students that they have something to bring to the table as well.”

A crew of signmakers prepares for Friday’s climate strike on the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus. Photo: Provided.

In the classroom, her students explore the long tradition of eye-opening environmental literature, from Thoreau’s masterwork “Walden,” to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which kickstarted the environmental movement. They also work closely with local environmental organizations to advocate for change, including things as small as aiding businesses who are trying to swap out plastic straws for alternatives.

“There are no simple answers,” Soccorsi said, “but I think the first place is to begin having the conversation, which I’m not sure that we’ve done very successfully.”

Taylor is keenly aware that the future he and his generation will inherit depends on rapid, concerted action on huge global goals, such as the call to bring carbon emissions to net-zero within a decade.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in a fairly short amount of time. But to not do it would be catastrophic for a lot of the world.”

‘How Do We Keep Appalachia from Burning?’

In Lynchburg, Virginia, he’s known as “Rev. Paul.” 

And while he doesn’t fall into the definition of a young leader in Appalachia, Rev. Paul Boothby believes the stakes couldn’t be higher for youth in the region. That’s why he’s hosting a Global Climate Strike gathering at his 1st Unitarian Church of Lynchburg.

“Appalachia has depended on a relatively stable climate for a long time,” Boothby said, “and there are going to be ever-increasing extremes— between storms and drought and the movement of bio-regions in the generations to come.”

Hotter temperatures and a northward shift of species as a result are not just airy concepts. They are pressing concerns, said Boothby, for the sprawling forests of Appalachia, a region that encompasses all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states.

“Droughts are going to become more extreme. And that, of course, endangers the health of the forest, making forest fires all the more likely in the decades ahead,” he said. “So, how do we keep Appalachia from burning?”

Right now is the time to bring youth and adults together, to confront and address these stark possibilities, he said. 

“Generations now have to do their part to take action.”

Douglas John Imbrogno is a freelance writer and podcast producer based in West Virginia. He is editor of the newsletter and podcast ChangingClimateTimes.substack.com. The newsletter is a co-sponsor of the Global Climate Crisis Rally on Sept. 26, 2019, in downtown Charleston, W.Va.

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A Changing Climate

Climate-Change Bill Addresses Importance of Rural, Supporters Say

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Soybeans show the affect of the Texas drought near Navasota, Texas. Photo: USDA/Bob Nichols

Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker has introduced legislation that puts rural America at the center of addressing climate change, supporters say.

Senator Cory Booker’s Climate Stewardship Act would invest billions in conservation-based farming practices, clean energy systems, establishing wetlands and restoring forests. Booker and groups that support the legislation say rural America plays a critical role in federal policy options to address climate change.

“In FDR’s New Deal, the federal government planted billions of trees, provided conservation incentives to family farmers and ranchers, created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps and electrified rural America,” said Senator Booker (D-NJ), who is also running for the Democratic nomination for president. “After another year of extreme weather, no one understands the impacts of climate change better than our family farmers and ranchers.”

Some rural advocates, such as Missouri farmer and Family Farm Action Board Member Wes Shoemyer, support the Climate Stewardship Act for the ways it addresses rural challenges to a changing climate.

“Farmers need only look out our back doors to see how climate change is having a dramatic effect on our way of life,” Shoemyer said in a statement. “The farmers I know are great patriots and so they stand ready to be part of the solution.”

Family Farm Action is joined by numerous rural and conservation organizations advocating for the bill. Among these are the National Family Farm Coalition; Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Farm Aid; Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement; the Women, Food and Agriculture Network; and numerous state-based chapters of the National Farmers Union.

The legislation is designed to address problems identified by the fourth National Climate Assessment, which summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States. Released last fall, the report found that climate change in rural communities poses an outsized risk to the national economy, the report says.

The Climate Stewardship Act is likely to be assigned to the Agriculture Committee for further action. Passage of the bill seems unlikely without significant support from majority-party Republicans. Currently, no Republicans have supported the legislation. Numerous programs within the act have received bipartisan majorities repeatedly in the past. But any measure that proposes increasing public sector-spending to reduce greenhouse gas emissions faces an uphill battle in the current Senate.

Companion legislation is being proposed in the House by U. S. Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM). Given the Democratic majority, the Climate Stewardship Act is likely to face an easier path to passage in the House.

Bill advocates are likely to use its issues and policy proposals as they evaluate candidates in the 2020 election. (A more detailed look at candidate positions on rural economies, agriculture and climate issues is available from Daily Yonder.)

Booker’s bill invests heavily in agricultural systems that reduce emissions and job creation through more sustainable practices, according to the senator. “In addition to transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, another essential step that we must take is to increase the carbon sequestration in our soils, forests and wetlands,” his statement said. He said the legislation will create “hundreds of thousands of new jobs” and make farms “more resilient and competitive.”

Many of the bill’s proposals involve farm bill programs that had their budgets or participation limited by the 2018 farm-bill debate. Such programs include:

  • Re-establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — establishes a new civilian conservation corps to provide youth from low-income communities, communities of color and indigenous communities with training and experience while employing them in the reforestation and wetlands restoration of federal forests and wetlands.
  • Expanding funding for clean energy through the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) — increases funding from the current $50M to $1 billion per year to provide grants and loan guarantees for tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers and rural businesses to expand renewable energy production and make energy efficiency improvements.
  • Expanding the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)—increasing enrollment in CRP to 40 million acres by 2030. The additional acres would prioritize storing carbon in soils, establishing wildlife habitat and protecting streams and rivers from nutrient pollution. The current cap on CRP acres is 24 million acres, though CRP had as much as 40 million acres enrolled in the early 2000s.
  • Incentivizing climate-friendly farming practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – expands EQIP by offering additional funding to support adoption of “climate stewardship practices” in agriculture. Practices are defined as those that improve soil health, reduce nitrogen fertilizer applications, improve grazing lands and restoring forests.

The bill also provides additional resources for local food projects, public-private partnerships in conservation and mandatory funding for farmers and farmworkers experiencing mental health challenges.

Booker’s office estimates that the Climate Stewardship Act would support voluntary climate stewardship practices on more than 100 million acres of farmland, revive deforested landscapes by planting over 15 billion trees, support renewable energy projects throughout rural America and restore over two million acres of coastal wetlands.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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A Changing Climate

The Golden-winged Warbler: One Indicator of a Changing Climate

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Golden-winged Warbler. Photo via Flickr.

Birds capture the imagination because they are unlike any other creature. With prehistoric origins and the ability to fly, birds defy the realm of human capability.

Over 1,000 species of birds are native to North America. Since 1966, however, one-third of North America’s wintering bird population has declined. The National Audubon Society, a nonprofit bird conservation organization, found in a 2015 “Birds and Climate Change Report” that “Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble.” Across this region, bird species could lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2080 if the climate continues to warm at its current rate.

The impact of climate change on birds is often studied because they are highly sensitive to their environment, meaning that small changes can have a huge effect. Their unique breathing system and efficient flight style contribute to this sensitivity. Studies of bird flight reveal that small changes in environmental factors like sea surface temperature dramatically affect a bird’s ability to fly. Birds depend on aerodynamics to carry their relatively heavy bodies across the sky, meaning that minute changes can affect flight.

In Appalachia, the Golden-winged Warbler has received special attention due to its steep decline. The songbird, which breeds in Appalachia during the summer, experienced a 97.8 percent population loss from 1966 to 2010. Habitat destruction, warming temperatures and interbreeding with the Blue-winged Warbler (a related but separate species) contribute to their disappearance.

A golden-winged warbler. Via Flickr.

“The core population [of Golden-winged Warblers], 90-95 percent, live in the Great Lakes region. The Appalachian population is relatively small, only about 5 percent of the global population,” said Curtis Smalling, director of conservation at Audubon North Carolina.

The Appalachian population prefers to dwell at the highest points of mountains, about 2,500-5,500 feet. They are a highly specialized species, requiring shrubby young forest with adequate canopy cover interspersed with herbaceous openings for the bird to breed and thrive.

The Golden-winged Warblers are particularly fond of the Highlands of Roan, a high-elevation, grass and shrub-covered area that straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), a nonprofit land trust, works to conserve natural resources in this part of Appalachia. SAHC offers outdoor recreation and farming opportunities for residents, coordinates conservation activities and other work to conserve the land, which includes protecting and maintaining the Golden-winged Warbler’s mountain home.

“They lack the open farmland and scrubby habitat. Here in the Appalachians, we’re losing a lot of farmland. We are working to maintain that habitat,” said Marquette Crockett, the Highlands of Roan stewardship director at SAHC.

Crockett helps coordinate conservation efforts like managing SAHC-owned properties to working with private landowners on best practices for preservation and organizing volunteer bird surveys. This multi-faceted approach is a community effort, Crockett emphasized. With so many different elements contributing to the Golden-winged Warbler’s decline, it takes cooperation between researchers, conservationists and volunteers to make conservation a reality.

Although the species is still struggling, places where conservation activities have happened often see positive results.

“We’ve definitely seen Golden-winged Warblers disappear from spots that have become too overgrown or disturbed, like a housing development. But we’ve also been able to do projects that have immediate consequences,” Crockett said. Those results are promising and motivate conservationists to continue their work.

Golden-winged Warbler (male). Via Flickr.

Recent research indicates that the songbird’s problems might have more to do with their winter home than their summer breeding grounds in North America. The Golden-winged Warbler winters across Central and South America in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia. Deforestation and poor land management practices are major problems, particularly in Nicaragua and Venezuela. This could explain the more dramatic decline of the Appalachian bird, which winters further south in these countries, compared to the Great Lakes birds that tend to go to Central America. Although it is tempting to conclude that the wintering grounds are the problem, further research is needed to say so definitively.

“There are just too many unknowns at the moment” about the warbler’s problems, said Amber Roth, an assistant professor at the University of Maine and co-chair of the Golden-Winged Warbler Working Group. Further research is crucial for filling in these blanks, such as learning more about migratory behavior.

One factor is clear: climate change is affecting the birds. Roth elaborated:

“The population [of Golden-Winged Warblers] has declined and the population has shifted. They are a good indicator of climate change, but I would caution relying on one species to understand climate change. I think they are part of this huge list of things that points to climate affecting all sorts of other things, like trees.”

“By managing habitat for Golden-Winged Warblers we are managing habitat for other species,” Crockett said. Both Roth and Smalling echoed this statement by emphasizing that by managing for the needs of the Golden-winged Warbler, a highly specialized species, the needs of other species are typically met. Thus, conserving the Golden-winged Warbler encourages better overall forest management. This is important to remember because the Golden-winged Warbler is not the only declining bird population in the region. The Cerulean Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo and Eastern Whip-poor-wills are among other threatened species.

This tiny, golden-winged bird that weighs about as much as four dimes represents something bigger: The possibility, in spite of irreparable human impact on the environment, that there is still hope of conserving and saving Earth’s biodiversity. The fate of the Golden-winged Warbler remains undetermined, but with dedicated researchers, scientists, conservancies and volunteers working to protect it, the Appalachian population has hope.

Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She is currently an English teacher on the Island of Corsica, France.

This article was originally published by expatalachians.

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