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Dispatches : Science

The End of Snow Is Now?

Porter Fox felt under the gun to research and write "DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow" in just around 18 months. For one thing, there were many other writers chomping at the bit to publish on this topic. More importantly, this book is a call to action that he was running out of time to make. The message: For those of us who love sliding on snow, climate change may entail losing more than just deep powder and that dreamy, euphoric state it puts us in.

DEEP is written in two parts. The first is set in the Cascades and Rocky Mountains and the second unfolds across the Alps. Fox built the first part around the February 2011 avalanche that took the lives of three expert skiers in Tunnel Creek, near Washington's Stevens Pass ski area (disclosure: one of the victims, Johnny Brenan, was a friend of mine). He keeps you a bit uncertain of why he continually returns to this story as he wends through his own skiing backstory and introduces us to snow scientists and avalanche experts who walk Fox through possible outcomes based on a range of global temperature increase predictions through the end of the century. In the end, Fox does not blame the Tunnel Creek tragedy on climate change, but he does illuminate the possible linkages between the two, citing several scientific studies that point to the increasing number and potency of avalanches due to an uptick in major storms paired with variable temperatures.

Porter, long-time features editor at POWDER magazine, said during a panel on climate change in San Francisco last month that before writing the book he was not aware of just how much an impact climate change is having on ski areas or the potential losses it might bring. "We were doing ski stories noticing there was less snow on the ground, but after doing some research, we were shocked," he said. "I've been writing about skiing for 20 years and I was totally surprised by how much snow has already been lost."
"The snowpack in British Columbia has declined by half overall and the ski season in some regions is four to five months shorter than it was 50 years ago," he writes in DEEP.  "Eastern Canada is even warmer… Computer models show the Northeast ski season shrinking to less than 100 days by 2039. Under other models, the mean snow depth for the Rocky Mountains is predicted to drop to zero by 2100."

But the more dire effects are being felt in the Alps, where "temperatures are rising three times faster than the global average," he writes.

Fox travels to Les Grand Montets, the Tyrol region, Zermatt, and La Grave, using vivid storytelling, historical context, and interviews with European guides, glaciologists, and climatologists to convey the ways climate change is being perceived on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Europe has always been a pioneer of social and environmental progress, but many in the Alps are resistant to change," Fox writes. "People have inhabited the Alps for more than 1,000 years and are far more familiar with natural climate fluctuations than their counterparts in America—making many in the Old World hesitant to believe that humans have anything to do with current warming."

In Chamonix, he meets Yan Giezendanner, a respected meteorologist who tells Fox the current warming trend is "just a cycle" and that "climate change is just propaganda." The other experts and skiers Fox meets in Europe have very different views, but Fox writes that the contrarian nature of the issue has left ski resorts caught between "preparing for the future and scaring off residents, guests, and investors."

Yet, he notes that glacial melt could mean much more than just less skiing in the Alps; the infrastructures of the high alpine (refuges, chairlifts, antennas, etc.) are built on permafrost and without reinforcements are likely to crumble as permafrost melts.

There are moments in DEEP when studying climate change through the lens of skiing is a little off-putting; clearly the climate outlook is far more disconcerting when looking at the impacts already being felt in small island nations and in the developing world, overall. While that's true, Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, puts the issue into some helpful perspective. "Who cares if you can't go ski? Skiing and art and music and culture, all of those 'disposable things' are what make human societies flourish and are what moves us forward. What if we lose that? Well, that would be a greater tragedy than anything else."

DEEP is available now on Amazon. Here's a trailer.

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Colorado's New Pot Paradise

Starting in January, it’s legal to smoke marijuana recreationally in Colorado. You can buy it, carry it, admire its crystals, and use it in private without fear of getting busted by state or local authorities. (It’s technically still illegal under federal law, but the Justice Department has said it has little intention of getting involved.) In response, Centennial State entrepreneurs are launching weed-tourism businesses, from pot-farm tours to a toker-friendly airport-to-resort shuttle. Among mountain towns, tiny Telluride (pop. 2,300) is doing the most to welcome red-eyed skiers and snowboarders. The former mining hub has four—four!—recreational dispensaries, and unlike Breckenridge, which is forcing its pot shops out of the downtown area, Telluride is stoking legal-weed businesses by fast-tracking permits and allowing operators to grow plants within city limits. Here’s a street-level guide to the new Rocky Mountain high.

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Break a Sweat

Scientists have long known that happiness and stress are two sides of the same coin: the less stressed you are, the happier you’ll be. They’ve also known that exercise lifts mood by releasing feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine into the brain. But last spring, researchers at Princeton University made a startling discovery—the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise aren’t temporary. Exercise, they found, actually rewires your mind.

The finding came out of the researchers’ bid to reconcile a perplexing paradox. Exercise triggers the creation of highly excitable neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory, learning, and emotional responses. This speeds up overall brain function, but because of the new neurons’ excitability, it should also make the brain more susceptible to anxiety. Yet it doesn’t.

To find out why, the Princeton team split lab mice into two groups. One group had access to a running wheel (with the mice averaging an impressive 2.5 miles per night), and the other did not. After six weeks, the researchers intentionally freaked out all the mice by dunking them in cold water, then looked at their brains with an fMRI machine. Almost immediately, they noticed that the two groups reacted differently. The brain cells of the inactive mice became agitated and leaped into a frenzy, while those of the active mice did not. The reason: the active mice were able to produce and release more of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps sedate jumpy neurons.

The discovery, published in May in The Journal of Neuroscience, marked a breakthrough in understanding how exercise helps the brain regulate anxiety. In essence, exercise creates new, faster neurons, but it also reinforces the physiological mechanism that prevents those uppity brain cells from firing during times of stress.

“When you exercise, you change 20 things at the same time,” says Dr. Emrah Düzel, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Dementia Research at Germany’s University Hospital Magdeburg. “There’s no medication that can achieve that.”

Brain-Boosting Workouts:

Go Aerobic
“You have to improve cardiovascular function in order to see the effects,” says Düzel. Cardio-vascular function means getting up to 50 percent of your max heart rate, which causes oxygenated blood to circulate more rapidly through the brain, forming new neural connections.

Make Every Minute Count
Just four to six minutes of regular exercise makes a big difference. A Brazilian study found that aging rats that ran for that amount daily for five weeks reversed age-related memory impairment and increased neurotrophic factor, a substance essential for the growth and survival of neurons.

Push Longer and Harder
In a 2012 survey, Penn State researchers found that physically active students who pushed themselves during workouts were more likely to report overall life satisfaction. The reason may be simple: exercise burns off the stress hormone cortisol.

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