The Catskills avalanche surprised Belleayre in 2020. Could this winter repeat itself?


As the area’s children slept on Christmas Eve 2020, visions of Santa Claus swirling in their heads, the skies above Belleayre opened. A rainstorm threw a thick packet of snow that triggered an avalanche, sending hundreds and hundreds of mounds of icy, melting snow detritus down a slope at Belleayre Mountain Ski Resort and into its Overlook Lodge , smashing windows and doors in its path.

“It was definitely a heck of a surprise on Christmas morning for everyone,” said Mike Pratt, CEO of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which manages Belleayre Mountain in the county. from Ulster. Pratt says that in Belleayre’s 60-year history, the avalanche was a first-time occurrence; it is also probably the only known avalanche in the Catskills, at least in the last century.

Detailed analysis of the avalanche based on reports from the National Weather Service and local weather stations indicated that five inches of rain fell 12 hours before the slide. This rain fell at the top 12 to 24 inches of snow which had spilled over the region during a snowstorm on December 16 and 17.

Rain saturated the snow as temperatures rose from around 40 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas Eve to 57 degrees at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day, creating wet and melting conditions. These conditions were ripe for snow to start sliding down the Yahoo Mountain Trail, creating an avalanche.

Perfect timing for a snow slide

No one was on the mountain when the avalanche occurred, luckily without causing any injuries. The ski mountain – which does not offer on-site accommodation – had closed on Christmas Eve due to stormy weather and remained closed on Christmas Day.

Staff arrived on Christmas morning to find the unwanted gift left by Mother Nature: A new 2020 addition to the lodge was destroyed, as were several windows, doors and furniture. The lodge also suffered water damage.

“Fortunately, the damage was minimized on that one slide, where it struck the Overlook Lodge,” said Pratt. “It probably could have been a lot worse. “

The ski center welcomed skiers on Boxing Day, but Overlook Lodge was closed for two weeks and its new addition was walled up.

The damage of Christmas Day has not been relegated to Belleayre. Chip Seamans, president and CEO of Windham Mountain in Greene County, says Windham also suffered a fall over Christmas, but the damage did not reach the level of Belleayre’s.

“We had a similar snowfall on the same day due to the conditions at the time and the extreme rain,” says Seamans. “For us, it cleared standpipes and dragged a lot of snow along the trail, mostly in the woods. But we had some damage.

Windham was also closed on Christmas Day which was not anticipated and is not the norm. “It’s usually a big day of skiing,” says Seamans. “Once we open, we like to stay open until the end, that’s what we are in. But that rain washed away the snow we had and we had to start over. “

A rare event in the North East

The Ulster County Ski Center has no overnight accommodation and was closed the day before so no one was on the mountain when the avalanche occurred.

Photo courtesy of the State Olympic Regional Development Authority

The sailors and Pratt both described the conditions on this winter day as unusual. Meteorologist and climatologist Justin Minder, associate professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at SUNY Albany, agrees. Minder says it’s rare for there to be an avalanche in the northeast.

“Avalanches need steep slopes, a lot of weight, and a layer of weakness where that weight is too much for the force of the snow to withstand its downhill training,” says Minder. “They are relatively rare in the eastern United States. The western United States is where you find them.

Minder, whose research focuses specifically on mountain meteorology, mountain storms and snow, notes that our mountains are not as steep as those in other regions; they are also forested and generally do not have a deep snowpack. While there is occasional snowfall in the Adirondacks, Minder says it tends to happen in the woods and doesn’t do much damage.

“ThisIt’s very rare that we get one in a ski area, especially one of this magnitude with building damage, ”he says.

When asked if the avalanche could signal more problems ahead for ski resorts as the climate warms, Minder is hesitant to make a correlation.

“Let it be thereif it’s a climate signal, I would hesitate to try to make a connection there, ”he says. “As scientists, we generally won’t say that climate change caused an event. ThisThis is usually a pretty dubious claim. But we know the climate is hotter and wetter, so climate change is likely affecting just about every weather event that occurs. “

He says when climatologists look at whether climate change may have contributed to something, the analysis tends to be in degrees. “How much is a storm modified by climate change, or how statistically more or less frequent is it due to climate change,” he explains. “With this one heIt’s hard for me to see an obvious path.

Predict future avalanches

In light of the storm, the ski center is now monitoring heavy rains and has plans in place to adjust how it drains water from the slopes in the event of a new rain storm.

In light of the storm, the ski center is now monitoring heavy rains and has plans in place to adjust how it drains water from the slopes in the event of a new rain storm.

Photo courtesy of the State Olympic Regional Development Authority

Climatologists, Minder says, predict that by the end of the century there will be less snow but more rain in the region. This does not mean more frequent avalanches, however, as the conditions that contributed to the event on Christmas morning last year involved a thick snowpack saturated with rain.

“Even though torrential rains can become more intense, it [will be] less snow they can fall on, ”explains Minder. Overall, he says avalanches are not among his “top climate impact concerns” for the region.

Regardless of whether climate change may make them more frequent, Pratt says that having already had an avalanche, ORDA is now closely monitoring the kind of weather conditions that precipitated last year’s snowfall: heavy snowfall followed by a lot of humidity. In the aftermath of the avalanche, a team from ORDA got together to think about how to alleviate the issues should the same conditions arise in the future.

“We certainly hope that this type of rain does notIt’s never going to happen again, but you never know, ”says Pratt.

Now, if they see heavy rain coming, they will try to divert as much rainwater from the trails as possible. “By being aggressive with the excretion of water, wei hope we wonI will never see this again.

Minder thinks it’s a good plan.

“These ski areas [are] they’re not just natural snow coats, they’re heavily managed systems where they make snow, move it with grooming equipment, ”he says. “It depends not only on what happens with the weather and the climate, but also on the decisions they make. If they’re strategic and use good weather data effectively – they see a rainstorm coming and can take action – then that’s really good.

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