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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Take Advantage Of Big Weather


Current weather patterns yield rare opportunities for nature photographers

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Mount Chephren and Waterfowl Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Perhaps you thought last summer's weather was particularly wild, especially if you live along the Bow River in the town of Canmore, Alberta, at the gateway to Banff National Park. Last June, the largest single storm to ever hit the region was poised like a giant hammer over the headwaters of the Bow, unleashing 17 inches of rain in one day. A huge wall of water descended on the town, severing Canada's transcontinental highway, and further downstream, turning the city of Calgary into a large, murky swimming pool.

Two months before those storm clouds gathered over the peaks, I received a backcountry permit for a weeklong backpacking trip in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, just south of Canmore. I had selected a route that promised a wealth of images along a particularly dramatic portion of the Continental Divide. Unfortunately, Peter Lougheed was the epicenter of the maelstrom, where roads, bridges and trails were erased from the map in a matter of minutes. The area was shut off from the rest of the world, and officials estimated it would take months to open it again to visitors. With permit in hand, I was left high and dry.

From farmers to photographers, anyone who makes a living off the land always struggles with the weather. After all, the jet stream doesn't determine where it's going to dip or dive simply for our benefit. Indeed, we all have our horror stories where our well-laid plans are shredded by the vagaries of the jet stream. While this high-altitude river of air has been the traffic-control system for the storms that have swirled around our planet since time immemorial, its recent behavior has left more than a few atmospheric scientists and photographers scratching their heads. Some surmise that the rapidly warming Arctic is causing the speed of the air within the jet stream to slow down, which seems to produce more pronounced large loops in the jet, which then causes storms and high-pressure systems to get locked into place, thus producing larger rainstorms and more widespread droughts. Others surmise that the average annual position of the jet has actually shifted north over the last few decades.


Bow Lake and Crowfoot Mountain, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
I've been photographing the American West for the last 30 years, and my task has become noticeably more difficult lately. With only a few average or above-average precipitation years embedded in the last 15, the weather paradigm for the West seems to be changing. Along with the diminished snowpacks of drier winters come hotter summers and earlier and longer wildfire seasons. The smoke that now cloaks Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in a near-perpetual haze for much of August and September each year has become the norm rather than the exception.

Are these smoky skies or that freak storm which sliced and diced my plans in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park the result of climate change? No one knows for sure. Whatever the cause may be, the reality is that I've needed to adjust my summer photography schedule in the northern Rockies for this apparent new reality, shifting my usual August/September trips forward to July before the summer fires really take hold.

If you've spent as much time as I have over the years staring at weather maps trying to decipher what the jet stream is about to do, you've probably noticed that it snakes across the center of the U.S. in winter, shifting north of the Canadian border each summer. As it moves north, it takes the storms with it, leaving behind large high-pressure systems that typically dominate the weather in the Western states during summer. As Western fires ignite, they pump smoke into these region-wide stagnant air masses so the air becomes hazier and hazier as summer progresses. On the other hand, the Canadian Rockies, due to their more northerly location, remain susceptible throughout summer to more variation in weather due to the influence of the jet stream. Periodic storms equals cleaner air equals better photo opportunities.

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