Friday, May 31, 2019

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Nothing makes me cringe more than being asked if an extreme weather event is caused by climate change.  The answer is not simple and straightforward and in most situations the linkages, if they exist, are complex.

Currently, my go-to guide on the subject is a report prepared the Committee on Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Attribution for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and published by National Academies Press in 2016 (available by clicking here).  It is freely available as a pdf.

I have long been concerned about the conflation of weather and climate by the media and special interest groups, and the report expresses my concerns very well.  For example, they summarize my "cringiness" quite well:
"Although climate scientists are frequently asked 'Was a given observed weather event caused by climate change?' we believe this is a poorly formed (or ill-posed) question that rarely has a satisfactory answer." 
They highlight the reasons for this.  For example, not all extreme events are purely meteorological (e.g., droughts, floods, and wildfires).  In other cases, trends may be difficult to detect given the large size of natural variability and/or the quality of the data.  Snow provides a good example.  It is easier to detect trends in some snow measures, such as the fraction of precipitation that falls as snow, than other snow measures, such as water equivalent in the snowpack on 1 April (see Western Snow Trends and Global Warming: Part I).

The authors of the report describe these issues, concluding that:
"Confidence in attribution findings of anthropogenic influence is greatest for those extreme events that are related to an aspect of temperature, such as the observed long-term warming of the regional or global climate, where there is little doubt that human activities have caused an observed change" 
They provide a chart illustrating the state of attribution science for specific event types.  The effect of climate change on event type and confidence in our ability to attribute specific events to human-caused climate change is high for events at upper right and low for events at lower left.  Events at lower left aren't necessarily affected by climate change, but it is very hard to draw conclusions. 

Severe convective storms are the farthest to the left.  Marshall Shepherd, one of the author of the report, recently posted an article on climate change and tornadoes for Forbes.  If you want to know more, the article is available here

Ultimately, weather is not climate.  Instead, climate is the statistics of weather.  Although we can't really say that climate change caused an extreme event, we can work to estimate the how much climate change increased or decreased and events magnitude or the probability of an event occurrence.  This is an area of active research where significant progress is being made, although we don't yet have all the answers. 

Let's not take our eye off the ball.  The threat of climate change is very real.  Let us work to create a a society more resilient to the extreme weather of today and the extreme weather of tomorrow.  This doesn't require the conflation weather in climate in a way that is often happening today. 

Postscript: I'm pretty certain I've written this post or something like it a few times before!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Cool, Wet Springs: Utah and Austria

The hemispheric large-scale pattern during May featured anomalously low 500-mb heights over Utah and central Europe, meaning the weather you've been experiencing in Utah bears some similarity to what I've been experiencing here in the Austrian Alps.

Source: ESRL
Recent tweets from the National Weather Service emphasize how wet the spring has been in Utah. 2019 now rates as the 2nd wettest spring on record at the Salt Lake City International Airport.
Through May 27th, May 2019 rated as the 22nd wettest since 1874, but it appears that the recent rain will add significantly to the total.

The Snowbird SNOTEL time series for this season shows a remarkable turnaround mid month with snowpack water equivalent bottoming out on May 19 at 43.1 inches and then recovering back to 47.7 inches on May 28.

The snowpack is still well below spring 2011 (red line above), but still puts Snowbird in good position to operate into early June, if they are so inclined.

 Meanwhile, here in Innsbruck, the month has also been wet and frequently cloudy.  I struggled to find breaks in the weather to ski and hike with my son while he was here and that situation continued last weekend and this week.  It hasn't been a total disaster as we occasionally get a day of sunny skies, but clouds and precipitation have predominated. 

The plot below illustrates the daily mean temperature compared to the 1981–2010 median for each day.  The median is indicated by the black line and the daily mean the red or blue lines depending on whether or not the day is above or below median, respectively.  Note the period from February through April was characterized by predominantly above median temperatures, but then the pattern shifted and we've been predominantly below median, sometimes well below median since then.  

Source: University of Innsbruck Institute for Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences
I'm not sure how to pull up precipitation totals for the month, but since the start of the calendar year, Innsbruck has received 493 mm (19.4 inches) of precipitation (water equivalent), which is not far behind the 493 mm maximum for the calendar year through May 28.  

Source: University of Innsbruck Institute for Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences
The wet weather has put me into a skiing and hiking purgatory.  Snowfall has frequently occurred above 1800-2000 meters and the snowpack there is as fat as it has been all season, although the visibility has often been terrible.  Today's snow report for Stubai Glacier, for example, reports 30 cm (12 inches) of new snow, but here's the web cam view.

Meanwhile in Italy, the Giro D'Italia had to move yesterday's (Tuesday's) stage route due to the risk of snow, ice covered roads, and avalanches in Passo Gavia.  

Tomorrow is a holiday here in Austria.  I'm hoping for some sun!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

HIking above Innsbruck

Skiing in the Alps is fun, but hiking in the Alps is better.  The mountains are beautiful and the mountain culture adds a cherry on top.  

Innsbruck has great hiking all around.  One of my all-time favorite hikes is the Goetheweg trail from the top of the Hafelekar tram to the Pfeishütte, where you can get a wonderful meal.  There's still way to much snow to attempt that right now, so here are a few photos from August 2015 to get it on your radar if you are ever in Innsbruck in summer or fall.  

Instead, today I hiked from our apartment at 600 meters to the top of the Seegrube tram at 1900 meters.  Initially I ascended trails and gravel roads, reaching the pilgrimage chapel known as Höttinger Bild.  

Above this I continued to ascend through forest, that was occasionally divided by enormously long running avalanche paths, some of which ran to very low elevations this past winter.  

The route follows a gravel road at times, popular with mountain bikers.  

The ascent from town to the popular Höttinger Alm restaurant and boarding house is about 2700 vertical feet.  You'll see people riding both conventional mountain bikes and e-bikes to get up there.  E-bikes are very popular here.  Some days I would guess about half the people I see are riding them.  

The upper 1/3 or so of the route to Höttinger Alm follows a trail.  The Alm is first mentioned in historical records dating to 1441.  The buildings were well sited as they are on a ridge between two enormous slide paths, one of which is pictured below.  

Avalanche season has not ended here yet.  It snowed above 2000 meters on Monday and slides ran to below the elevation of the Alm (about 1500 meters) and buried the access road (pictured at right below) even deeper than it was already.  

You'll find a mixture of hikers and mountain bikers up here thanks to the gravel road access.  I arrived fairly early in the morning, so it was fairly quiet.  I fueled up on strudel and "skiwasser," which is water with some raspberry juice added.  

The menu included some beautiful photos from the previous winter.  

Leaving the Alm, my route took me across the slide path that was reburied a few days earlier, where there was a well worn path.  I wondered if there were any close calls when the slide came down given the large numbers of hikers and bikers that travel to the Alm.  

Beacon, shovel, probe, mountain bike...

A view back to Höttinger Alm.

At this point, I wasn't sure what to do.  I could descend back to town, or attempt to ascend to Seegrube and take the tram down.  The route to Seegrube was unknown to me and would probably involve some snow travel.  I opted for the latter and found the route to be fairly straightforward, initially following a melted-out avalanche path (which did not connect to high terrain) and eventually following a rounded ridge to Seegrube.  Snow conditions were supportable but not firm, allowing for easy travel.  

After returning to Innsbruck, I observed real human suffering in the form of the Innsbruckathon, an 11 km race with 17 obstacles.  Apologies for the sun-blocked covered lens (all too common given my solarly challenged skin). 

The looks on the faces of people monkey barring across the obstacle above was one of pain as it was very near the end of the race.  The guy who just shook his head and walked through the pool earned a lot of laughs and probably had the fastest time for the obstacle. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Catching Up

It's been a busy week and I haven't had any time to blog.  I did notice that Snowbird hit 700 inches for the year and continue to hear reports of endless winter in the Wasatch.  The Snowbird SNOTEL observations certainly show you are experiencing a major spring interruption with snowpack water equivalent increasing in the past several days. 


How long can this continue?  Well, if you are a believer in the Steenburgh effect, until the end of June.  At that time, unless someone gets a big Go Fund Me campaign going and the Austrians decide to extend my visa, I'm returning to Utah. 

There are, however, hints that the Steenburgh effect may have reversed polarity.  It has been a wet, cool May in the Austrian Alps and the snowpack above 2000 meters has fattened up nicely.  Check out these photos from late April 2018 and 2019 from Kuhtai, which is just a bit west of Innsbruck. 

Perhaps this Steenburgh effect really is just pseudoscientific babble.  Perhaps.

One of the reasons this week was busy for me was that a student group from Texas A&M was visiting the department here.  Many of the University of Innsbruck Department of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences faculty gave talks, and I did a weather discussion describing the meteorology of the Alps and Tirol.  I also forecast bluebird conditions for the excursion up the Nordkettenbahn this morning, and thankfully Mother Nature complied. 

What a trip for students who rarely see mountains or snow to ascend over a vertical mile above Innsbruck.  We discussed mountain weather and snow safety issues and gave them a great view. 

I even got them to flash the U!

These US students learned a lot about Austria, the Alps, and Mountain Weather. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Final Ski above the Inn Valley

My son Erik begins his return to the states today.  The sky is crying, with rain falling on the Nordkette.

Although the weather wasn't an absolute bust, we definitely didn't have good luck.  He wanted badly to do one ski tour in the Alps, so yesterday we did a short tour up Axamer Lizum, which has been closed for skiing for a few weeks.  Given the southerly flow and preponderance of mid-level flowclouds, it was probably our best option for the day since it is high enough that there's still a decent snowpack, low enough to be below the clouds, and north enough relative to the crest to be mainly dry.

It was certainly his final run in the Alps this season and probably mine above the Inn Valley, although there is some chance I'd tour here again.  More likely if I get out again it will be closer to the Alpine crest.

I've seen plenty of posts of good powder in the Wasatch.  Enjoy the last gasps of the Steenburgh effect.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

This Ride Is Definitely and "E" Ticket

The cable car from Lake Eibsee to the top of the Zugspitze, a nearly 3000 meter peak on the border of Germany and Austria, has to be one of the greatest thrill rides on the planet.  It's an "E" ticket based on old-school Disney ride ratings, used for the most thrilling, advanced rides.  It has an elevation gain of 6,371 feet, a single tower between the base and top stations, the longest cable-car freespan in the world (10,541 feet), and ascends into the summit station like an elevator.  It does all of this in seven minutes.  Basically, it makes the Snowbird tram look like a tinker toy.

I rode the old Zugspitze cable car in summer 2015 (see previous post Bavarian Climate Change and "Research") and wanted my son to see it while he was in Innsbruck, so we went up there today.  It took a crowbar to get the wallet open to cover the 58 euro round trip cost (per person), but I have to say it was worth every penny. 

Leaving the base station, you just stare up over 6,000 vertical feet at the north face of the Zugspitze.

You quickly reach the first tower, which is incredibly high and the only tower on the entire route.  From here, its two miles to the summit.

The cable has some slack in it and it just steepens and steepens as you approach the summit. 

At one point, here's the view as you are climbing the cable at an angle of maybe 45 degrees. 

Here are a couple of shots for perspective.

The summit is massively over developed.  Restaurants, three stories of facilities, etc.  There's even another cable car coming up from the Austrian side, which is no slouch in its own right. 

And a third cable car coming up from the top of the cog railway to the south of the peak.

Views are remarkable, even on a somewhat cloudy day like today.  We were able to identify Säntis in eastern Switzerland, 125 km away. 

Don't miss this if you are in the neighborhood. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Skiing Hintertux

My son has been here for about eleven days and we've been absolutely skunked by the weather.  I had big plans for ski touring and alpine skiing with him, but on the days I haven't had to work, the weather has often been cloud and rainy/snowy depending on elevation.  Snow sounds good, but it's not great here due to the lack of trees at higher elevation, which means lousy visibility.

Today we decided to roll the dice on the weather and try skiing at Hintertux Glacier, which is Austria's only year-round ski area, open 365 days a year.  Lifts extend upwards 5700 vertical feet to a top elevation of 10,663 feet, although today you could only ski down to 6250 feet, for a drop of about 4,400 vertical feet.  Not too shabby. 

Hintertux is less than 30 km (18 miles) from Innsbruck as the crow flies, but about 90 minutes by car or 2.5 hours by train and bus.  After 4 months of public transit, I rented a car for this trip. 

As I mentioned it was a roll the dice day.  South flow was impinging on the Alps.  Downsloping flow in the northern Alps led to generally nice conditions there with just some clouds over the mountains, but Hintertux sits near the Alpine divide.   It is more vulnerable to spillover from the east side.  Modis imagery shows the situation in the early afternoon with substantial clouds to the south, clear skies over the Zillertal (which one travels up to get to Hintertux), but just a narrow clear slot over the Tux Valley which Hintertux sits at the top of. 

The weather situation when we arrived provided a reasonable summary of the day.  Generally clear of the valley, but spillover across the crest mean in-cloud conditions on the ridge. 

As a result, visibility was generally good on the lower half of the mountain, good to fair above that for another 1000 vertical feet or so, and terrible to awful above that. 

Here's the initial tram ride from the base.  Beautiful!

Two trams above that and you find the summit chair.  Visibility awful!  Reminded me of many rides on Chair #2 at Alpental when I lived in Seattle, except it was -6˚C, much colder than one often found there. 

In between it wasn't so bad and at times quite nice.  Views down to the Tux Valley were quite spectacular. 

In addition, the skiing in areas was quite good with some creamy fresh in off-piste, low-angle terrain.

In fact, we were still finding untracked cream until we quit a bit before 3.  It's a big place and has more pitch than Stubai Glacier, the other late season resort in the Tirol.  Plus, many of the skiers were racers at camp or instructors doing clinics and sticking to piste.  Sucks for them. 

I do need to share one complaint, however.  They have three trams that will take you from base to summit, but the top two were closed for unknown reasons.  As a result, one needed to take an old 4-passenger gondola.  Perhaps not a big deal, except modern skis, even my son's Stöckli rentals, were too wide to fit in the outside slot and barely fit diagonally in the gondola.  We took several cramped lift rides straddling the skis.  First world problems I know, but inconvenient nonetheless. 

Our snow-safety lesson for the day was provided in the early afternoon when wet slabs released on the lower mountain, one running across the piste. 

These were almost surely triggered by off-piste skiers above the groomed run in steeper terrain just above the cliff band in the lower photo.  Unlike the upper mountain, this area was quite warm and conditions were ripe in the afternoon for slides of this type.

Really, I feel fortunate the weather was as good as it was.  After finding sunny skies frequently for the first four months of our trip, the past two weeks have been meteorologically challenging.