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10 reasons why snow and the snowpack are so important
Snowfall impacts the water supply, ecosystems, economies, agriculture, recreation, wildfires, and more.
If you live in Miami Beach, it’s tough for me to argue that snow is essential to your local economy, environment, and way of life.
But in many parts of the American West and across the Northern Tier states, snowfall and its seasonal accumulation may serve as a bedrock of your community’s existence.
I’m not just talking about ski towns or places where it snows a lot. I’m also thinking of big cities in deserts and other dry places, including Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Denver. For all of these Western cities and their associated megalopolises, snowmelt is a critical component of their water supplies thanks to the colossal dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, pipelines, tunnels, and other infrastructure we’ve built to move water to people and crops, often with steep environmental costs.
Around the globe, “snowmelt currently supplies water to an estimated two billion people,” according to a 2020 study in Nature Climate Change.
Looking beyond the human world, the high-country snowpack and the places where snow is more ephemeral are home to their share of critters, but snowmelt also travels far and wide, supporting a vast array of ecosystems and species that will never get close to a snowflake. Snow is also critical for forest health, and the snowpack plays a major role in wildfire activity.
And, of course, snow is essential for beloved forms of recreation: skiing (in its many styles), snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, sledding, snowball fights, and more.
I started this newsletter, in part, because I think snowfall and the snowpack are invaluable but underappreciated. So I came up with 10 reasons why I think snow is so crucial and picked one of my photos to illustrate each. I’ve focused on the American West, but you can make similar points about plenty of other places around the planet.
1) Water supply
The snowpack is a huge frozen reservoir that exceeds the capacity of the artificial lakes we’ve created to store water. For many Western rivers, the bulk of their flow originates as snow, so a meager mountain snowpack can lead to major problems in a fast-growing region where water scarcity is endemic.
The impacts can be far-reaching. Here in Colorado, the snowpack animates key rivers that come to life high in the Rockies, then snake across the country on their way to the sea. The list includes the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas (tributary of the Mississippi), and South/North Platte (tributaries of the Missouri).
If you stand along the Continental Divide in Colorado, some of the molecules of snowmelt running off one side of the ridge could conceivably end up in the Gulf of California or downtown Los Angeles, while the meltwater descending on the other side of the divide may eventually wind up in the Gulf of Mexico or New Orleans. In total, Colorado’s snowpack supplies water to 18 other states and Mexico.
2) Biodiversity and ecological health
From the tops of frozen peaks down to desert rivers, the snowpack and the water it contains give life to countless species and ecosystems. Plants and animals that must contend with snow have developed fascinating evolutionary responses that allow them to thrive in a harsh environment. Snowshoe hares have big hind feet that prevent them from sinking into deep powder. The ptarmigan is a master of camouflage that blends into its snowy surroundings.
Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns are utterly transforming habitats around the planet. What’s happening to species that depend on snow, either directly or indirectly? That’s one of the key questions I’ll be asking in my work ahead.
3) Farming and food
Agriculture uses around 80 percent of the Colorado River, mostly for livestock feed but also to grow the crops that we consume. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in winter, there’s a good chance those plants were irrigated in the desert Southwest using Colorado River water. Throughout the West, many farmers keep a close eye on the health of the snowpack because that’s often what determines how much water they’ll get for the growing season. Groundwater is also critical to agriculture, and when snowmelt is scarce, wells often make up the shortfall, but that can create big problems if aquifers are overdrafted.
The snowpack keeps a lid on the wildfire season, so dry winters and early melt-outs often lead to increased fire activity later in the year. In my neck of the woods—a combustible ponderosa pine forest—this past winter’s massive snowpack frustrated some people who got sick of digging out, but all that snow also eased many residents’ anxieties about the risk of a wildfire wiping out the neighborhood, as almost happened after the skimpy snowpack in the 2018/2019 winter.
In addition to destroying homes and nuking forests, wildfires can also create major public health problems by emitting noxious smoke that travels far and wide, as we saw this past summer with the Canadian blazes.
5) Climate regulation
When climate change is mentioned in the same breath as snow, we often think about how warming temperatures will affect the timing, depth, and distribution of snowfall and the snowpack. But at the global scale, snow and other parts of the cryosphere, such as ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost, and glaciers, also exert a major influence on the climate themselves.
Without getting into the details right now, a major part of the climate regulation story is albedo, a measure of what percentage of incoming radiation a surface reflects. Snow and ice have a much higher albedo than bare ground or open ocean, which absorb more energy. So if climate change reduces the frozen, reflective cover, especially across vast areas at the poles, that would lead to more warming, further reducing how much snow/ice is around, and off we go into a climate feedback loop.
6) Snow sports
You can now ski indoors, but I think it’s safe to say that snow sports depend on snow. I’m definitely biased on this one, but certainly not alone in my love for these activities. As you may have heard, skiing and snowboarding can be absurdly expensive (but cheaper than therapy?), so all that spending adds up.
In the 2022/2023 season, a record 11.6 million U.S. skiers and snowboarders visited U.S. resorts, according to the National Ski Areas Association. In 2020, the association reported that the alpine ski, telemark ski, and snowboarding industries supported more than 533,000 jobs and contributed “over $55 billion in retail spend to the U.S. economy.”
7) Fishing, boating, and water-related recreation
The snowpack not only serves as the foundation for winter sports but also underlies recreation and tourism during the rest of the year. This past winter’s huge snowpack delivered epic skiing/snowboarding, then made for an amazing whitewater rafting season as all that snowmelt hurtled downhill. Shriveled rivers and reservoirs came back to life, attracting anglers and boaters.
Over the past several years, with a megadrought gripping the Southwest, much of my multimedia work at the Water Desk has revolved around photographing boat ramps lying far from any water. After last winter’s big snowpack, some smaller reservoirs filled up, but it would take many more years of above-average precipitation to bring back Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoirs by capacity.
8) Local economies
Snow is like white gold for many communities in the American West. A bad year for the snowpack can suppress the influx of tourists and their money, harming not only ski resorts, snowmobiling outfitters, and rafting companies, but also hotels, restaurants, other small businesses—and the local tax base. Even if you never plan to slide down a mountain for fun, the snowpack may be critical to your livelihood. And it’s not just high-country ski towns, or luxurious destinations like Aspen or Jackson Hole, that benefit. Before visitors ever reach the slopes, they often spend a ton of money on food, lodging, and transportation far from the snow.
One 2015 report on the “Economic Contributions of Winter Sports in a Changing Climate” found that:
“..skier participation levels in high snow years meant an extra $692.9 million in value added and 11,800 extra jobs compared to the 2001–2016 average. In low snow years, reduced participation decreased value added by over $1 billion and cost 17,400 jobs compared to an average season.”
9) Hydropower, flooding, and dam operations
Extremes in the snowpack can cause problems for dam operators and others downstream. Too little snow can shrink reservoirs and slash the production of hydropower, or even stop the turbines altogether if water levels drop low enough. The prospect of this happening at Glen Canyon Dam was a major impetus for the federal government to demand states cut back their use of the Colorado River.
Conversely, a huge snowpack or accelerated runoff due to something like a rain-on-snow event can deliver a surfeit of water downstream, causing flooding for property owners and, in very rare cases, threatening the integrity of dams meant to hold back the water.
One facet of the snowpack that I’m most interested in exploring is how climate change is affecting the timing, volume, and predictability of runoff—and how scientists are trying to get a better handle on an issue that is as critical as it is complex.
10) The intangibles
It’s impossible to quantify, but snow also generates unbounded joy for millions of Americans of all ages. Granted, there is a subpopulation known as “snowbirds” who literally organize their lives around the escape from shoveling, slush, and the like. But just take a gander at any social media network the next time it snows, and you’ll see plenty of people celebrating snow angels, recording snowball fights, and documenting the depth of snow on their patio furniture.
Have I missed a key reason why snow and the snowpack are important? Please leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.