THE BUZZ: Deciphering Disaster

By on February 15, 2017

Is the valley destined for more wild, destructive storms as climate change tightens its grip around Jackson?

An early casualty of ‘snowmageddon,’ the Sears roof collapsed from precariously heavy snow. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The now infamous winter storm of 2017 was a literal disaster for Teton County. Flooding, 90 mph winds, avalanches, downed power lines and closed highways affected thousands and stretched response crews to capacity.

Social media users dubbed the storm that garnered national headlines “snowmageddon.” And while climate experts say one incident is not enough to draw definitive conclusions, it is hard to remove the hazardously warm weather from the context of Jackson’s—and the globe’s—steadily warming climate.

So what is Teton County doing to mitigate the disasters that result from climate change’s effects—warmer, wilder storms among them?

Not a whole lot, says Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb.

Historical perspective

Newcomb can recall one storm in history that compares to this one. It was back in 1986, and lasted almost two weeks.

Otherwise, this winter was only record-breaking because of October’s heavy precipitation, said Jeff Lukas, research integration specialist for Western Water Assessment. Lukas’s research in Colorado and Wyoming focuses on water resource management and climate change in the Rocky Mountain West. This winter, he said, has “no doubt been unusually wet.”

“But how unusual has it been for the Jackson area, and in what ways?” he asked. The answer, until last week, would have been rather underwhelming.

This winter, from October through February 8, was the highest in precipitation on record “by a wide margin,” Lukas said. Most of the precipitation was from heavy rain that fell in October. In terms of total snowfall, however, this winter is not the highest.

“This suggests that more of the precipitation has fallen as rain, or the snow has been denser—higher water content—than in previous very wet winters,” Lukas said. “This sounds consistent with the impacts of snow and rain in Jackson you’re seeing.”

Lukas said he expected this winter to stand out in terms of temperature as well. He was surprised, however, to find that it has actually been “on the cool side overall, and cooler than winters with similar precipitation levels.”

In fact, January was second coolest on record for Jackson, according to Chris Nicholson. Nicholson is the director of the Water Resources Data System and Wyoming State Climate Office at University of Wyoming. He said that it was too soon to measure how this month “stacked up” to previous years. “We’d have to wait until we’re well into March” to make any conclusive claims. Just 10 days into the month, however, February temperatures were the warmest on record. It has also already seen 2.8 inches of precipitation compared to last February’s one-inch total.

Making sense of it all

So where does this data fit into a larger conversation about climate change and a warming climate?

Newcomb, who co-authored The Coming Climate, a report detailing the potential local impacts of climate change, said it’s important to remember that, “no single event can necessarily be attributed directly to climate change.” So attributing last week’s disaster to climate change alone is a hasty conclusion.

It is reasonable, however, to examine patterns this winter overall and winters preceding it.

Newcomb noted that average minimum temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are rising—today’s minimum temperature is 10 degrees above the 30-year rolling average, he said. “That has a direct bearing on the ecosystem and how we see precipitation. Over the course of 10 winters, a fairly definite number of days were rain instead of snow at given elevations.”

But Jackson weather is sticking to historical patterns. “There’s been unusual persistence in weather patterns bringing storms and precipitation to Jackson and the surrounding area, of the sort historically you would see every 10 to 20 years,” Lukas said. “So, for the most part, we’re looking at a repeat of natural, historic variability.”

However, what Lukas called “slightly juicier individual winter storms” could be the result of “the overall warming trend, which has been linked to anthropogenic causes.”

In other words, climate change could be at least partially responsible for crises like last week’s storm. They could also just be outliers in the larger timeline of climate history.   

Heads up, Teton County

Still, Newcomb said the county has a responsibility to at least pay attention.

There is “probably a reasonable ideological debate” over government responsibility versus private sector involvement, he said. Private enterprises, he noted, have a lot to lose from climate change disasters—like the collective millions of dollars in lost revenues reported by Teton Village businesses last week. The county also spent at an estimated $1.5 million to restore electricity to affected areas, and there is no guarantee that the federal government will assist with those costs.

The response to snowmageddon was swift. Ochs said he noticed the power flicker out around 6 p.m. Tuesday night. By 7:45, the emergency operation center was all hands on deck working to make and execute a plan. Despite the shortage of hands among all agencies, responders were able to follow through with their promises. Electricity was restored to Teton Village Saturday, and all roads but Gros Ventre were open by Saturday afternoon. Miraculously, no one was injured.

That response teams were able to work so quickly speaks to the amount of preparation local agencies had already done in case of such events, Ochs said. Still, he noted that “we try to make sure that we as a community come out of these events and are better prepared for the next one. We owe it to the community to keep getting better.”

Disaster response is a defensive move. Offensively, however, other locales around the country have implemented climate change action plans whose goals are to reduce the impacts of climate change on local communities. A carbon tax is one of the more obvious solutions, but Newcomb said that politically, it would be nearly impossible to pass.

An easier solution, he says, would be to create a position for an environmental scientist in the planning department. “Someone that could keep track of the ecosystem, keep track of private lands, who could work with the conservation district whose role is important, but statutorily defined, so they can’t do everything.”

Newcomb continued, “[The employee] could help commissioners understand the incremental impacts of development and could help evaluate impacts of infrastructure such as pathways and new roads.” They could also be the liaison between the county and public land managers—the Forest Service, Park Service, Elk Refuge, etc.—who have “so much knowledge and expertise about everything around us.”

Conversations about climate change mitigation boil down to resources. “As a county, we’re limited on how we can raise revenue,” Newcomb said. And when revenues decreased during the recession, the county had to cut staff, people who Newcomb says did have at least some responsibility to pay attention to the ecosystem.

As it stands, county efforts to mitigate climate change are relegated to promoting alternative transportation and energy efficiency—not inconsequential efforts, but Newcomb lamented that the county has yet to put any resources into adaptation and preparing for climate change. “As a county, to put it bluntly, I’d say we’ve gone backwards,” he said. But without the funds, there’s only so much electeds can do.

“It’s literally a million dollar question.” PJH

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