Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mount Whitney is Now Eleven Feet Higher; Mammoth Mountain is Ever-Drier

The author, Jim McGillis skiing at Mammoth Mountain, California, circa 1960 - Click for larger image (

Mount Whitney is Now Eleven Feet Higher; Mammoth Mountain is Ever-Drier

In 1959, I first visited Mammoth Mountain, California and the Sierra Nevada, the range within which that mountain resides. On the way north from Los Angeles, we could see Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet in elevation was the highest peak in the continental U.S. In summer 2012, when I made my most recent visit to Mammoth Lakes, Mount Whitney had grown to 15,505 feet in elevation. Was the Sierra Nevada changing that rapidly?

Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy and author Jim McGillis at Mammoth Mountain in summer 2012 - Click for larger image ( answer to that question is, “Yes” and “No”. If Mount Whitney gained more than a fraction of an inch in those fifty-three years, I would be surprised. What changed is scientists ability to estimate the true shape of the oblate spheroid we call Earth. With ever more accurate satellite data, they can now accurately peg Mt. Whitney within a worldwide elevation database. Geologically, little has changed in the Sierra Nevada during those five decades.

During that same time, what has changed in the Sierra Nevada and throughout much of the Western U.S. is the weather. The two words that come quickly to mind are, “warmer” and “drier”. Add to those adjectives, the term, “less predictable”. Winter storms can still hit with what feels like vengeance. Without notice, in November 2011 an unprecedented windstorm toppled expanses of forest without notice. Although a typical night-skier at Mammoth Mountain may feel the security of the nearby lodge, a hiker on the Mount Whitney Trail that same night might face death from exposure.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area near Mammoth Lakes, California - Click for larger image ( the 1960’s, snow at Mammoth Mountain seemed as reliable as clockwork. Snowstorms started in October or November, followed by an inevitable succession of winter storms. By Easter time each year, it could be sunny and warm on the slopes or cold and snowy. “Sierra cement”, as we called the spring snow, could fall one day after sunshine. In those days, snowmaking equipment did not exist in the Central Sierra Nevada. Most years, there was good skiing until Memorial Day. Even into the late 1980's, the mountain often remained open for skiing through the Fourth of July weekend.

Gradually, yet inexorably, the weather patterns changed. In the late 1970’s, all of California experienced an extreme drought. First, the Golden State turned brown and then the skies turned black with smoke from ever-larger wildfires. An entire generation of toddlers learned not to flush the toilet unless necessary. Restaurants stopped serving water, unless requested. Auto repair facilities stopped offering complimentary car washes. California reservoirs were at an all-time low. Then, after several years of drought, heavy snow returned to the Sierra Nevada. Almost immediately, water usage climbed back to pre-drought levels.

Plush Kokopelli enjoys warm spring sunshine at Mammoth Lakes, California in 2013 - Click for larger image (“El Niño”, and his sister, “La Niña” were to blame for California’s erratic weather, or so we were told. When the fisheries off the coast of Peru experienced higher December ocean temperatures, California would soon feel the effects of drought. “El Niño”, in this case, referenced the supposed December birthday of the “Christ Child”. Although there is no record of Jesus having a sister, if cold ocean temperatures arrived near Peru, “La Niña” heralded cold, wet winters in the mountains of California.

In the early 1980’s, the media began mentioning the “Greenhouse Effect” and later, “Global Warming”. “El Niño” events connected weather systems in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, it seemed. Yet the transport or communications mechanisms between Peru and California were puzzling. The milder term, “Climate Change” had not yet gained politically correct usage. As scientists documented the interrelationship of global weather and ocean temperatures, two camps developed.

Plush Kokopelli sledding near Mammoth Lakes in 2013 - Click for larger image ( first camp was the “Believers”. “If scientists tell us it is true, it must be true”, the Believers said. The second camp was the “Deniers”. “If scientists tell us it is true, there must be a vast conspiracy, so believe none of what they say”. Over time, a third camp arose, which I call “Rationalists”. This group says, "Over time, if I see it with my own eyes and feel it with my own body; I can determine what is true and what is not".

In the 1960’s, the snow on Minaret Road was so deep, that rotary snowplows created a two-lane canyon leading to the ski area. In the 2010’s, the snowplows still make their circuits, but snow walls twenty feet high do not occur. In recent years, the snowstorms have arrived later in the fall and ended earlier in the spring. Overall, the ambient temperature is higher and the air is drier.

Plush Kokopelli discovers that ice is melting early on Lake Mary in April 2013 - Click for larger image ( 2012, I asked Plush Kokopelli to spend the snow season at Mammoth Lakes and to report what he found. Although the first storms arrived late, during January and February 2013 more snow fell. Plush Kokopelli reported the possibility of a good snow year in the Sierra Nevada. Then, in March, things warmed up and it felt like spring in Mammoth Lakes. By late April, after a few brief storms, the snow season appeared to end.

In late April, the U.S. Forest Service plowed the road around Lake Mary. Although the road remained closed to vehicular traffic, Plush Kokopelli took a hike around the lake. On that hike, he observed the ice begin to recede from shore. Upon returning the next day, all of the ice had melted, leaving open water where an ice field had so recently resided. California Department of Water Resources reports told us that as of May 2, 2013, the Central Sierra Nevada snowpack, including Mammoth Mountain, stood at twenty-three percent of “normal”.

As Plush Kokopelli observes, the ice melts before his eyes on Lake Mary near Mammoth Mountain, California in April 2013 - Click for larger image ( may not be rational to send Plush Kokopelli to report on the weather from Mammoth Mountain, but for me, “seeing is believing”. The snow season appears to be over and a hot, dry summer in the Sierra Nevada awaits. Still, as of this writing, no one in California is mentioning the word, “drought”.

Desolation Canyon - Wilderness Study Area or Hollywood Back Lot?

In the right foreground, "Thelma & Louise Mesa", as seen from Dead Horse Point, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (

Desolation Canyon - Wilderness Study Area or Hollywood Back Lot?

According to a recent Deseret News article, “Moab, Utah's scenic and diverse landscapes are an alluring backdrop for movie makers, and now the science- and thrills-based ‘MythBusters’ has picked the Desolation Canyon area to film an upcoming episode. Officials with the popular show are keeping mum about the ‘myth’ to be busted or proven — the trick is to tantalize the viewers — but a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) document details two curious components: duct tape and bubble wrap”.

Early filming near Moab, Utah included John Ford's Wagon Master, pictured here - Click for larger image ( article goes on to say that the upcoming episode will, “showcase the rugged terrain of the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area and feature rollicking romps along the Colorado and Green Rivers”. According to the Moab BLM Office, filming will take place in eight locations over ten days. “Strict time limits are set on film or movie permits in wilderness study areas to limit impacts (italics mine) to the environment”, a spokesperson said. With a purview 1.8 million acres, could the Moab BLM Office not suggest a less fragile and easily disturbed environment for filming? With over one hundred commercial film permits issued by Moab BLM each year, how many authorize shooting within “wilderness study areas”? Why allow anything but legitimate scientific or culturally significant filming in such a near-pristine environment?

Film production, such as the 1991 drama Thelma & Louise can be disruptive to the natural environment - Click for larger image ( Deseret News article went on to say, “Review of the permits is a necessary function of the BLM's public land management responsibilities, ensuring that recipients comply with the appropriate safeguards to minimize (italics mine) disruption of the environment”. The permit for MythBusters signed April 12, 2013 and issued the following week, encompasses activities that "would otherwise already be allowed in a wilderness study area, such as hiking or climbing". In the BLM statement, there is no mention of vehicular support, power requirements or sanitary facilities.

To me, “limiting impacts” and “minimizing disruption” at the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area is not enough. In support of ersatz science and commercial profit, BLM should allow no additional impacts or disruption of the wilderness study area. Wilderness stays wild only if protected from overuse by humans and their machines.

A close-up of "Thelma & Louise Mesa", where Ridley Scott sent their T-Bird off the cliff of the Colorado River Gorge - Click for larger image ( I understand the concept, a professional production team will film actors as they recreate an experiment for which they already know the results. To spice it up, they will add some “personal danger” component. By “saving the day” with their duct tape and bubble wrap the Discovery Channel will appear to justify filming in a wilderness study area. If my thesis is close to the truth, the Moab BLM should require additional environmental safeguards for commercial shooting within any of its wilderness study areas.

Those safeguards should include aerial video footage focusing on the shooting locations, both before and after commercial activities. After completion of filming, BLM should compare the “before and after” footage, as provided by the permit holder. If there is any substantial impact or disruption of the environment, the production company should pay for remediation, replanting or loss of riparian habitat.

Contemporary Grand County, Utah Sheriff's cruiser - Click for larger image ( filming the dramatic conclusion to the 1991 film, Thelma & Louise, director Ridley Scott leased a fleet of eleven Grand County, Utah and other official police vehicles. Up on the Shafer Trail, Scott ordered the “lawmen” to chase Thelma & Louise to the edge of a previously untrammeled mesa. During multiple “takes”, all eleven vehicles chased the actors or their stand-ins toward their eventual demise over the edge of the Colorado River Gorge.

Although Thelma & Louise is one of my all-time favorite movies, I was sad to see that the a total of twelve vehicles and their forty-eight wheels cut deep grooves into the soft, cryptobiotic soil atop the mesa. When viewed today, either in person or via Google maps, the mesa is a denude landscape, cut by arroyos and multiple social roads. Although Thelma & Louise Mesa is an environmental wreck, no one seems to notice or care.

In less dramatic fashion video shot from a helicopter could ensure that future filmmakers respect the environment - Click for larger image ( this time, I do not accuse the BLM or MythBusters of anything untoward. Still, the public has a right to know how our most fragile public lands are used. As such, it would behoove the producers to rent a helicopter and document their activities for all to see. If they would devote more time to environmental preservation and less time to their “duct tape and bubble wrap” drama, I might tune in and watch their story on TV.

Since BLM issued the MythBusters film permit in mid-April, all of this may be a moot. If production schedules are tight, the entire process may already be over. If there was no aerial-video oversight of this project, perhaps BLM can add it to their requirements list. Then, next time they issue a permit for commercial filming in a wilderness study area, the public will be able to observe the outcome. Until then, whatever happens in Desolation Canyon stays in Desolation Canyon.