Drivers capture avalanche tearing down side of Colorado mountain

Drivers going down a Colorado highway had quite the close call, after an avalanche ripped down the side of a mountain in front of them.

On Sunday afternoon, said avalanche moved down through Ten Mile Canyon, located between Frisco and Copper Mountain.

There were several videos of the incident posted online, capturing the snow piling down toward the road.

Another video posted by Brandon Ciullo on Facebook shows the hazy aftermath of the avalanche, which brought traffic to a halt.

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Tim Schaefer told The Denver Post there were no injuries, and no cars buried as a result of the avalanche. 

“It was more than a dusting of snow. There was also tree debris on the road,” he told the newspaper. 

The highway was temporarily closed as emergency services worked to clear the snow debris off the road. It was reopened later that evening.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an avalanche warning until Monday morning, noting conditions are “very dangerous due to large amounts of snowfall and strong westerly winds.”

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Climate change kills off clouds over the ocean in new simulation

We all know climate change is affecting weather systems and ecosystems around the world, but exactly how and in what way is still a topic of intense study. New simulations made possible by higher-powered computers suggest that cloud cover over oceans may die off altogether once a certain level of CO2 has been reached, accelerating warming and contributing to a vicious cycle.

A paper published in Nature details the new, far more detailed simulation of cloud formation and the effects of solar radiation thereupon. The researchers, from the California Institute of Technology, explain that previous simulation techniques were not nearly granular enough to resolve effects happening at the scale of meters rather than kilometers.

These global climate models seem particularly bad at predicting the stratocumulus clouds that hover over the ocean — and that’s a big problem, they noted:

As stratocumulus clouds cover 20% of the tropical oceans and critically affect the Earth’s energy balance (they reflect 30–60% of the shortwave radiation incident on them back to space1), problems simulating their climate change response percolate into the global climate response.

A more accurate and precise simulation of clouds was necessary to tell how increasing temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations might affect them. That’s one thing technology can help with.

Thanks to “advances in high-performance computing and large-eddy simulation (LES) of clouds,” the researchers were able to “faithfully simulate statistically steady states of stratocumulus-topped boundary layers in restricted regions.” A “restricted region” in this case means the 5×5-km area simulated in detail.

The improved simulations showed something nasty: when CO2 concentrations reached about 1,200 parts per million, this caused a sudden collapse of cloud formation as cooling at the tops of the clouds is disrupted by excessive incoming radiation. Result (as you see at top): clouds don’t form as easily, letting more sun in, making the heating problem even worse. The process could contribute as much as 8 or 10 degrees to warming in the subtropics.

Naturally there are caveats: simulations are only simulations, though this one predicted today’s conditions well and seems to accurately reflect the many processes going on inside these cloud systems (and remember — inherent error could be against us rather than for us). And we’re still a ways off from 1,200 PPM; current NOAA measurements put it at 411 — but steadily increasing.

So it would be decades before this took place, though once it did it would be catastrophic and probably irreversible.

On the other hand, major climatic events like volcanoes can temporarily but violently change these measures, as has happened before; the Earth has seen such sudden jumps in temperature and CO2 levels before, and the feedback loop of cloud loss and resulting warming could help explain that. (Quanta has a great write-up with more context and background if you’re interested.)

The researchers call for more investigation into the possibility of stratocumulus instability, filling in the gaps they had to estimate in their model. The more brains (and GPU clusters) on the case, the better idea we’ll have of how climate change will play out in specific weather systems like this one.

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El Nino has arrived. What does that mean for weather in 2019?

Warmer conditions in the Pacific Ocean.
Warmer conditions in the Pacific Ocean.
Image: noaa

El Nino has arrived in 2019. So far, it’s pretty weak. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Thursday that this natural climate phenomenon — which is triggered by warmer temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and can significantly affect weather in the U.S. — will likely persist through the spring. But what happens next is still unclear.

“We don’t have a good handle on where this goes the rest of the year,” Mike Halpert, the deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said in an interview. “It becomes kind of a tossup after spring.”

El Nino events happen when the warmer temperatures on the surface of the Pacific Ocean pass heat to the atmosphere, resulting in warmer air that naturally holds more moisture. “This allows more moisture to come to the U.S.,” Jeff Weber, a meteorologist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said in an interview.

Typically, this means above-average rain and snow across the southern regions of the United States, especially California. Conversely, the northern U.S. often sees less precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures. 

“That is what we expect in the next spring months,” said Weber. 

Already, the West Coast has been pummeled by rain and snow events this winter, meaning up to 15 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and 8 inches of rain in some California areas. El Nino conditions may have contributed to these big precipitation events, noted Weber. Though, NOAA found that another climate phenomenon, the Madden Julian Oscillation, has also contributed to the wet season in some places. 

On Thursday, the West Coast got slammed by a storm, as a “conveyor belt” of moisture swamped the Golden State.

Big El Nino events — in which the ocean warms significantly more than this year — have planetary-wide consequences. Good examples are the big El Nino events of 2016-2017 and 1998-1999.

“Those have a big footprint on global annual temperatures,” noted Halpert.

Although such a mighty El Nino event isn’t in the cards this year, when it does happen, the vast Pacific Ocean adds enormous amounts of heat to Earth’s atmosphere. 

“That adds to the overall heat content of the planet, so to speak,” said Weber. 

El Nino events also have big implications for hurricane season in the U.S. Specifically, higher atmospheric winds (known as the jet stream) kick up over the southern U.S. during El Nino years, which can doom hurricanes. 

“These winds tear apart hurricanes,” said Weber. 

As of now, however, there’s still scant evidence that this weaker El Nino will last beyond spring. Hurricane seasons — which have been historically devastating in recent years — begin in early June. 

NOAA will keep watch over how this El Nino develops over the coming months. For now, temperature’s in the Pacific are a bit warmer than average (about 1 degree Fahrenheit or 0.5 degrees Celsius), but not quite enough to portend big changes — yet.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say this event has a big impact unless the [El Nino] event really takes off,” said Halpert.

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Bummer: Global Warming Won't Make Giant Winter Snow Storms Go Away

The Boston Harbor in mid-March, following the third nor’easter in two weeks.
Photo: AP

Climate change is going to have a lot of unpleasant consequences. But at least those of us on the East Coast won’t face as many nasty winter snowstorms, right? Well… a new study is throwing a bit of cold water on that silver lining.

Residents of the Northeast are all too familiar with nor’easters, cold-weather cyclones that can deliver eye-popping snow totals accompanied by power outages, terrible traffic, massive school closures, and back-breaking shoveling. Research published recently in Geophysical Research Letters looked at how these and other winter snowstorms will change in a warming world. While snowphobes might cheer the late 21st century forecast of less white stuff on the whole, the biggest and baddest storms—which frequently fall into the nor’easter bucket—are unlikely to go away.

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“The idea is we’ll have less total snowstorms in the future, but when you do have a snowstorm, it’s more likely it’ll be an intense snowstorm than a weak one,” study author Colin Zarzycki, an assistant professor in Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, told Earther.

Zarzycki reached this bummer conclusion by looking at 35 different climate model simulations run by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (he conducted the research while he was a project scientist there). These models are all based on the same assumptions about our future climate (in this case, a high carbon emissions scenario known as RCP 8.5) but use slightly different starting conditions that can lead to different outcomes for the weather. He then wrote an algorithm to pluck out individual snowstorms from these models and create a probability distribution of different snowy futures.

This approach is especially helpful for predicting how big, infrequently occurring storms might change, Zarzycki said.

The analysis showed that although winter storms will be more likely to dump their water as rain in a warmer future, when snow does fall it could pile up even higher than it does today. That’s because warmer oceans will provide more fuel for storms, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. Overall, the study predicts the number of big winter storms to look roughly the same by century’s end.

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Several experts not involved with the study said these results made sense. “The study points out the obvious, that as things warm, we are more apt to get rain rather than snow,” NCAR climate scientist Kevin Trenberth told Earther in an email. “But it also points out we can still get big snows. The oceans are warming and thus can readily supply plenty of moisture. Even in a warmer world, though, we still have winter and it gets cold over land and to the North.”

MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel also thought study’s conclusions about snowfall seemed “reasonable” but added that it’s important to consider the coastal flooding impacts of winter storms, too. Indeed, nor’easters often produce worse flooding for the northeastern U.S. than hurricanes, and sea level rise will give those icy, car-entombing floodwaters some extra juice.

Zarzycki said factoring in the effects of storm surge was an important direction for future work. He’s also hoping to look at how shifts in population density (people moving into or out of cities) could affect future winter storm hazards.

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“This looks at the big picture of snowfall, but some next generation climate models might allow us to drill down on what this means for New York City or Philly,” he said, adding that these hyper-local impacts “require really big computers.”

Bottom line for East Coasters, though? You’re going to need to keep that snow shovel on hand at least until the end of the century.

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Record-Setting Ice Hole Drilled in Antarctica

Yep, that’s an ice hole, alright.
Image: BAS/BEAMISH

Using a hot-water drill, British scientists have dug a 7,060-foot borehole through the Antarctic ice sheet. The comically long ice hole is the largest ever for West Antarctica, and it’s meant to improve our understanding of climate-related sea level rise.

This project, run by the British Antarctic Survey, is called “Bed Access, Monitoring and Ice Sheet History,” or BEAMISH. It began 20 years ago and its scientists tried, unsuccessfully, to drill a hole in 2004. All these years of hard work and planning, it now appears, have finally paid off.

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On January 8, a crew of 11 BEAMISH team members, after 63 hours of continuous drilling, finally reached down to the sediment below, according to a BAS press release. From top to bottom the hole measures 1.3 miles (2,152 meters or 2.1 kilometers), which is the length of 20 football fields placed end-to-end.

“I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we’ve finally achieved our goal,” BAS lead scientist Andy Smith said in a statement. “There are gaps in our knowledge of what’s happening in West Antarctica and by studying the area where the ice sits on soft sediment we can understand better how this region may change in the future and contribute to global sea-level rise.”

This ice hole is now the deepest ever made with a hot-water drill in West Antarctica, the BBC reports. BEAMISH is currently working at the Rutford Ice Stream, a fast-flowing West Antarctic ice stream. As for the deepest hole of any kind ever drilled in Antarctica, that distinction goes to the 7,290-foot-deep (2,414 meters) borehole forming the IceCube Neutrino Observatory near the South Pole.

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The BEAMISH team has been working at the Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica since November 2018.
Image: BAS/BEAMISH

Once they reached the bottom of the ice sheet to the sediment below, BEAMISH team members sent various instruments down through the bore hole to record ice temperature, water pressure, and to detect any deformations within the ice sheet.

As noted, a primary concern of the BEAMISH project is to learn more about sea level rise. Scientists are currently struggling to learn why sea level rise is happening faster than expected, and how long this process might continue. As the BEAMISH website explains, the project seeks to understand “the past behavior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet…[and] the flow of the fast ‘ice streams’ that drain it. Through measurements at the ice surface, and by drilling to the bed of Rutford Ice Stream, we will find how long ago the ice sheet last disappeared completely, and how water and soft sediments underneath it helped the ice move fast on its journey to eventually melting in the sea.”

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Keith Makinson, a physical oceanographer at BAS, said warmer ocean waters are chipping away at many of West Antarctica’s glaciers.

“What we’re trying to understand is how slippery the sediment underneath these glaciers is, and therefore how quickly they might flow off the continent into the sea,” he said in the BAS statement. “This will help us determine future sea level rise from West Antarctica with more certainty.”

On January 22, BEAMISH drilled a second ice hole, and there are now plans for another about a kilometer away. The team will continue to work in Antarctica until mid-February.

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With summer in full force in Antarctica, scientists are hard at work. In addition to this project, there’s the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) team, which, managed to drill a 4,000-foot hole in late December, reaching a body of water known as Lake Mercer below.

‘Tis the season to be making ice holes, I guess.

[British Antarctic Survey, BBC]

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