Late snow for Sierras sparks global warming concerns

Finally, snow.

After weeks of waiting, Sierra mountain residents awoke to their first glimpse of winter on Dec. 13, a few fluffy inches of powder that clung to the tops of boulders like chefs' hats.

More fell over the past two weeks, enough to bury the camel-colored meadow grass and wine-red willows in a deepening blanket of white. The magic, though, came late, just days before Christmas — one of the tardiest winter debuts ever.

How much more snow will fall is anyone's guess. A winter storm just hit Thursday, dumping several feet of snow, to the relief of snow-starved resorts. But in the late arrival of this year's snow season — and increasingly early spring snow melt from the mountains — scientists and state officials are finding more than the signature of a natural drought. They believe they detect the fingerprint of climate change.

The implications could be enormous. After all, the snow-capped Sierra is more than a skier's paradise. It is a giant water faucet in the sky, a 400-mile-long, 60-mile-wide reservoir held in cold storage that supplies California with more than 60 percent of its water, much of it when it's needed most: over the hot, dry summer months.

Not only are warmer temperatures thawing that mountain snow sooner, they are changing the nature of the precipitation as it falls — turning more Sierra snowflakes to sleet, slush and rain. Now 10 percent smaller than a century ago, the Sierra snowpack is expected to retreat dramatically in coming decades, posing major challenges for water managers and the climate-dependent ski industry.

Ski areas already are feeling the heat. This fall, temperatures were so toasty around Lake Tahoe that many resorts missed planned Thanksgiving weekend openings, despite major investments in energy- intensive snowmaking operations. Alpine Meadows did not open for the season until Dec. 19 — one of its latest starts ever.

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