We’d Like Ice With Our Water

Oct. 6, 2015

One of the roads I drive in and out of the valley I live in has new digital signage encouraging locals to begin preparing for the very wet winter anticipated in California. Preparing means expecting dangerous conditions that may include flooding, mud, and boulders. It means recognizing that delays are more than likely. If the signs pointing to El Niño are correct, there will be hardships and these will include interruptions in the transport of goods and services too. The reminder to be mentally and physically ready is appreciated.

I remember being stuck on that road in 2005. The university I was attending is an hour away, but during one week the drive there took four hours; I ended up dropping one of my classes. The inconvenience to me paled in comparison to the deadly land collapse that happened 15 miles or so up the coast.

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El Niño storm years have been occurring periodically in the time of recorded history. One added concern this year is that as climate change creates warmer conditions, less of the precipitation is expected to fall as snow. The beauty of snow is that it stacks up in the cold northern places where it falls, and then melts slowly over the warmer months to supply water by channels and rivers. If most of the storms produce rain and little to no snow, reservoirs are likely to be too overwhelmed to capture excess water, and the resulting impact to the drought will be less than it could be if there were to be more “cold storage.”

This suggests the need for another level of preparation, one on the minds of water resource managers statewide.

One of our writers, Carol Brzozowski, has been looking into the ways water utilities are responding to and planning for climate change; we will run an article on this sometime in early 2016.

Meanwhile, I wish to point readers to an article that just ran in Circle of Blue: ‘Disastrous Year’ for North Cascades Glaciers Heralds Global Decline, written by Brett Walton, which begins by pointing out that 2015 will most likely be the hottest year on record with ice loss also at a record high. The discussion is of conditions in Washington state, and it also touches on glacier melt around the world. It drills down to talk about the hazard of warmer water to some species that are accustomed to living in pools fed by the trickle of glaciers and snow pack. The Circle of Blue article is pasted below, as well as accessible through the above link. Also, we would be interested to hear about the ways your utility is addressing climate change and severe weather in general.

With nearly a month left in the summer melt season, researchers already know that 2015, on track to be the hottest year ever measured, will be awful for the world’s glaciers, which are likely to lose more ice than any year on record.

The latest evidence comes from the North Cascades in Washington state, where a team of scientists recently completed its 32nd annual survey of the mountain range’s major glaciers.

The North Cascades, home to more mountain ice than any state except Alaska, is expected to lose a record amount of its glacier mass this year: between five and seven percent, according to Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.

Smoke from the dozens of wildfires burning in Washington obscured the sky during the team’s three weeks of field work in the alpine basins between Snoqualmie Pass, east of Seattle, and the Canadian border. The catalysts for the fires — the severe heat and deep drought that wracked the Pacific Northwest this year — are also walloping the region’s glaciers.

Record Glacier Loss Expected Worldwide

Glaciers throughout the world are in decline, and the rate of ice loss is accelerating, according to an annual report published in theBulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Last year was the 27th consecutive year with a net decline. The rate at which glaciers are melting is nearly four times quicker in the 2000s compared to the 1980s, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, which has tracked 37 glaciers for more than three decades.

Mauri Pelto, who is the U.S. representative to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, said that with warm temperatures cooking the Alps, another current hot spot, 2015 will be the worst year on record for glacial melting.

In some regions, particularly the Himalayas and Andes, rapid melting can cause lakes at a glacier’s toe to burst their banks, triggering catastrophic flooding for downstream communities. The presence of glacial lakes contributed to June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand, India, that killed as many as 30,000 people, buried highways, destroyed villages, and damaged at least 10 big hydropower projects.

Glaciers, in basic terms, shrink when more ice melts in the summer than accumulates in the winter. The imbalance in the North Cascades in 2015 is larger than ever. Pelto, who started monitoring the glaciers in 1983, called the scenario “disastrous.”

“It’s disastrous for the glaciers themselves,” Pelto told Circle of Blue. “It’s disastrous for water resources in the future. In watersheds fed by glaciers, there will be less runoff.”

Though an outlier in terms of severity, the 2015 melt follows the long-term trend line, which points downward. Less glacial runoff and less snowpack will eventually lead to a reordering of the mountain ecosystem. Pika, a cousin of the rabbit, are being driven toward extinction by the loss of snowy habitat. Salmon and other aquatic species will struggle in warm, depleted creeks without the pulse of summer meltwater.

Systems engineered by humans will also be altered. Hydropower production, a source of roughly 75 percent of Washington’s electricity generation, will decline. Drinking water reservoirs will require new operating procedures that reflect changes in the timing of water flows.

Most of the consequences are disruptive. However, the big melt is producing an ironic benefit this year. The Pacific Northwest winter was so warm that very little snow fell in the Cascades. The freezing level — the elevation at which air temperatures were cold enough for snow — climbed up the mountains, some 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) higher than normal in February. Without the slow release of water from melting snow, most Washington streams are running at historic lows and at temperatures warm enough to kill salmon. Streams fed by glaciers, on the other hand, are getting a boost.

“The near-term effects are not so bad,” Pelto explained, referring to the melt. “The only streams with water in them are those fed by the glaciers. The melting is helping to maintain streamflow.”

Last but not least, I want to suggest that readers  take a look at online education available from Forester University, such as the webcast: Hydrogeology 101, Groundwater Analysis, Techniques and Applications, and the Master Class Series: Post Construction Stormwater BMPs.)
About the Author

Nancy Gross

Nancy Gross is a former editor of Business Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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