Las Vegas Sun

July 16, 2019

Currently: 96° — Complete forecast

How this summer’s extreme weather has hampered region’s outdoor recreation

smith art, extreme weather

Photo Illustration / Mike Smith

Wildfires have ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres in California and closed Yosemite National Park during the peak tourist season.

Other times, extreme weather can be much more mundane, such as the many excessive heat warnings and air quality advisories that have hit Las Vegas this summer, or flooding at Zion National Park in Utah.

The weather has hindered outdoor recreation, whether that’s forcing residents to find inside entertainment options during the 100-plus degree Southern Nevada summer, or canceling trips to regional attractions like Yosemite, which reopened Monday after being shuttered for two weeks because of the fires.

Clay Morgan, a senior weather forecaster for the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, says Southern Nevada is in a moderate drought.

The Southwest United States faces projections over the next century of continued warming with longer and hotter heat waves in the summer, decreased late-season snow pack and more frequent and intense droughts as defined by the Colorado River flow, according to one climate assessment provided by the National Weather Service.

“With more unpredictable weather events and higher temperatures, more drought in places like Nevada, those wanting to spend time outdoors will have lesser opportunity to do so and (may) even be subject to unsafe conditions like lowered air quality and even uncharacteristic forest fires,” said Christian Gerlach, Community Organizing Representative for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign.

This is just the beginning.

“If the Trump administration continues … opening many of our public lands and recreation areas like the Ruby Mountains to fossil fuel development, the climate crisis will only be exacerbated. Our state will suffer losing revenue from the attraction of these places, outdoor opportunities in general and the chance for future generations to explore and enjoy.”

Adverse conditions

Do these extreme weather projections mean we’re doomed to a future where it’ll be too hot for tourists to stroll on the Strip?

That’s unlikely, experts say.

People most in danger from excessive heat are those who lack access to air conditioning, shade and water. And there’s plenty of that here.

“As long as people are getting in and out of air conditioning and drinking plenty of water, unless they have a predisposition like a heart condition, they’re probably not at risk,” Morgan said.

Many locals are conditioned to go about their daily recreation in the adverse conditions.

Take Mark Jimenez, who has ran for 626 consecutive days and counting. “It’s hot, but our bodies adapt well.”  Another runner, Art Green, said there’s a certain pride factoring in finishing a workout in the elements.

“The heat — and this year, the humidity — are just badges of courage,” Green said. “But we have seen the newer runners suffer.”

It’s not just the heat they are competing with. There have been 32 instances in 2018 where the ozone exceeded healthy levels, 17 of which were influenced by smoke from wildfires in California and Arizona.

Elite athletes may be best able to withstand the poor air quality. Still, officials urge all residents to stay inside on days when there are high amounts of ground-level ozone pollution.

Clark County Department of Air Quality spokesperson Kevin MacDonald says that his department issued a seasonal ozone advisory from April to September.

National parks, icons of extreme weather

A flash flood on July 11 at Zion National Park damaged some roads and trails, including the popular Angels Landing trail. Because of the breathtaking topography, the trails are difficult to repair, and officials are still working on restoration.

“Every year, during monsoon season in the late summer, afternoon rain storms can create flash floods,” says Cassity Bromley, the chief of resources management and research for Zion National Park. “It’s dangerous to people in the narrow canyons, and there are no good escape routes.”

During the July flash flood, the river’s flow increased from 50 cubic feet per second to 5,000 cubic feet per second. Are these drastic events due to global climate change?

“It’s hard to say that any one year or event or day or month is indicative of a bigger trend,” Bromley said.

Case in point: The park experienced bigger and more damaging floods in 2010. But, Bromley says: “If you compare Zion’s historic record back to 1920s, the number of days over 100 degrees has increased.”

The park has both hotter maximum and minimum temperatures. But the extremes haven’t yet seemed to scare people away. Zion is one of the most visited national parks in the country and its popularity continues to grow.

Perhaps due to its mass appeal, many visitors underestimate the heat and danger and become dehydrated or worse. Bromley calls Zion an “extreme and spectacular landscape” where underprepared and uneducated visitors can get into trouble.

The park makes a huge effort to educate visitors, but sometimes rangers’ warnings are ignored. On July 30, according to a news release, “one group disregarded and mocked a ranger’s advice,” and ended up needing a helicopter rescue. “One of the goals of national parks is (creating) places where people can see environmental process at work,” Bromley said. “It offers great opportunity for educating people. They keep long scientific records to look at how things are changing.”

Lake Mead

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is home to majestic vistas, protected wildlife and a range of outdoor recreation options such as hiking, camping and boating. It also faces extreme temperatures and flash flooding.

“Most of the park is left to nature, so when we get storms, the roads can wash out,” park spokesperson Chelsea Kennedy said. She says the south end of the park, which reaches Laughlin-Bullhead City, is the hottest, and it can be about 10 degrees hotter than normal in the canyons.

Several years ago, Lake Mead began closing popular trails during the hot months of May 15-Sept. 30. Closed trails include Arizona Hot Springs, White Rock Canyon, Gold Strike and Liberty Bell Arch.

“When it’s 115 degrees out, having to rescue people is very draining on ranger staff and visitors,” Kennedy said. “We have people who come out and think they’ve got plenty of water, but it’s almost never enough. You can’t have too much water when hiking in the summer.”  Kennedy suggests bringing at least a gallon of water per person at a minimum, hike early or late to avoid the head of the day and limiting hiking to short trips.

Ski resorts diversify

More than a decade ago, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones noticed his favorite ski resorts were closed more often due to lack of snow. While most other outdoor sports could ignore or even barely perceive the effects of climate change, ski and snowboarders were already affected. To help fight climate change and protect the world’s ski spots, Jones founded the advocacy group Protect Our Winters in 2007.

However, one group can only effect so much change against a global threat. By 2012, the New York Times was already reporting on how climate change was threatening the ski industry.

In Southern Nevada, Lee Canyon ski resort is perhaps better suited to ride the changing climate than other, more remote locales. It is located about an hour from the Las Vegas Strip.

Lee Canyon Marketing Director Jim Seely says he hasn’t seen a noticeable difference in snow conditions since he first arrived in 1990. He says that while Lee Canyon had low snow this past season, the year before saw record snowfall.

“We’re a business and we do what we can to diversity and make use of what we have,” Seely said.

In addition to the traditional ski/snowboard offerings, Lee Canyon has diversified with tubing on groomed snow as well as a junior snow rangers program. In the summer, Lee Canyon has a wedding venue, a children’s day camp, archery, “one wheel” guided tours, hiking, disc golf, a restaurant and special events, such as Wine & Canvas on Aug. 25. “We’re shooting to be the year-round escape for Las Vegas,” Seely said, “not just wintertime.”