Data Dump: grab bag

Oak Flat reprieve; car crashes; firearm frenzy; scant-but-deadly snowpack

Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, aka Oak Flat, has received a reprieve. On March 1, the US Department of Agriculture rescinded its approval of a land exchange in Arizona’s Pinal Mountains that would have cleared the way for a massive mining project. The Department will now conduct a “thorough review” of the proposal, which will include consultation with tribal nations that consider the area sacred.

Oak Flat is in a historic mining area on US Forest Service land atop a massive copper deposit that Resolution Copper, a partnership of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, wants to mine. Since the land was set aside by executive order in the 1950s, that can only happen if the land is privatized. So Resolution cobbled together more than 5,000 acres of private land in the region, much of it surrounded by public lands, for a swap. 

Some conservation groups initially withheld opposition to the project because of the ecological value of the land Resolution was giving up, some of which lies along the San Pedro River, an important corridor for migratory birds. In 2015 Congress passed a bill, with bipartisan support, allowing the swap to proceed. But the company and its politician enablers failed to recognize the significance of Oak Flat to the San Carlos Apache and other tribes in the region—and underestimated the fierceness of their resistance.

Despite widespread opposition, the Trump Administration gave the swap the go-ahead in January. The recent decision will delay the exchange for at least several months. However, the Forest Service notes in a statement, because the swap was congressionally mandated, “long term protection of the site will likely require an act of Congress.”

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On March 4 of last year, professional cyclist Ben Sonntag was riding his bicycle along a gravel road in southwestern Colorado, as he often did, getting in some early-season miles. A Ford Ranger piloted by 19-year-old Cordell Schneider careened around a bend going 65 mph in a 35-mph zone and collided head-on into Sonntag, launching him into the air. Sonntag was pronounced dead on the scene, thereby becoming one of the 558 people killed statewide in car crashes last year. 

Shortly after the crash, COVID-19 related restrictions and shutdowns significantly reduced traffic on the nation’s roads, raising some hope that the roads might also be a little safer and the overall death toll lower. Fatalities did drop slightly in the spring. But when things started opening back up again, people started crashing their cars again. By the end of November, motor vehicle-related fatalities were up nearly 14 percent over the same period in 2019

The picture wasn’t quite as grim in many Western states. Indeed, fatalities dropped in Idaho, Wyoming, and New Mexico—typically one of the most dangerous states. The lower death-toll in Wyoming and New Mexico may have to do with the reduction in oilfield traffic resulting from a pandemic-related oil price crash.

Speaking of deadly weapons, the firearm industry enjoyed a banner year in 2020 as Americans went on a gun-buying frenzy, and 2021 is shaping up to be even busier. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted more than 39 million firearm background checks in 2020, a 40 percent increase from the previous year. 

This translates to about 21 million guns sold, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which estimates that about 8 million of those sales were to first-time gun owners. The big surges in sales were in the spring, during the height of the pandemic panic; in June, when Black Lives Matters protests spilled into the streets; and in January of this year, which was the busiest month ever for gun sales. Ammunition sales shelves are as empty as the supermarket toilet paper and hand-sanitizer aisles were back in March. 

The busiest weeks for background checks, since the system was implemented in , were all in the last year:

  1. Mar. 16-22, 2020: 1,197,788

  2. Jan. 11-17, 2021: 1,082,449

  3. Jan. 4-10, 2021: 1,071,820

  4. Jun. 1-7, 2020: 1,004,798

  5. Jan. 18-24, 2021: 976,637

The big winners are the firearms corporations, who are raking in enormous profits. But the buying-spree is also a windfall for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s wildlife restoration fund, which gets most of its cash via excise taxes charged on guns and ammo sales under the Pittman-Robertson Act. And the losers? The thousands upon thousands of people who fall victim to gun violence each year. 

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Some data to consider:

It may seem like the last point doesn’t fit, that perhaps the Land Desk got this year’s figures mixed up with those of the winter of 2018-19, when massive avalanches spilled down the slopes and shut down Red Mountain Pass for nearly three weeks. Nope. Thirty three people have been killed by avalanches nationwide thus far this winter and 11 in Colorado

Surely this is partly due to more folks venturing into the backcountry, perhaps to avoid contagious ski-area crowds. But it is also due to an especially fragile snowpack: When layers of the snow are weak, they don’t bond as well, and the likelihood of catastrophic failure increases. And a thin snowpack can be even weaker than a fat one—and every bit as deadly

I wrote about this for High Country News and my partner in dataviz-crime, Luna Anna Archey, put together some nifty infographics to help explain it. Please take a gander

I’ll admit that when I first dove in, the whole notion of less snow leading to more snow-slide deaths struck me as counterintuitive. So I asked snow-nerd* extraordinaire, Andy Gleason, to explain the mechanics of it all to me. I was particularly interested in the setup for the tragic accident that occurred in early February on The Nose near Ophir Pass, when four people were buried, three of whom died. The following is a rearranged version of an email conversation I had with Gleason (I didn’t change any of his responses, only changed the order and lightly edited the responses so that they would be easier to follow; bolds/italics mine):

LAND DESK: Would you agree that this year’s conditions are especially dangerous, and that is a reason for the high number of deaths so far

GLEASON: Yes. The reason is the weak, faceted crystals at the bottom of the snowpack. Often called depth hoar, these faceted crystals form when snow is subjected to cold temperatures while the snowpack is relatively thin. This occurs when we get early season snowfall and then a long period of clear and cold weather, like we did this fall in SW Colorado. Incidentally Utah [where four people were killed in a single accident in early February] had the lowest snowpack in recorded history in the first part of January, so they had a large depth hoar layer.

LAND DESK: How does depth hoar (known to the Germans as Schwimmschnee, or “swimming snow”) form?

GLEASON: Snow metamorphism occurs when a temperature gradient (difference in temperature) drives vapor through the snowpack between grains to form flat faceted surfaces that are not well bonded. Vapor moves from high pressure to low pressure, but it is impossible to measure vapor pressure gradient in the field, so we use temperature gradient as a proxy because warm air holds more moisture than cold air. The vapor sublimates from the ice crystal and moves up through the snowpack because the temperature at the bottom of the snowpack is close to 0 degrees Celsius and it is generally colder at the top of the snowpack. When the snowpack is shallow, the temperature gradient is larger and moves more vapor through the snowpack, creating more facets and a weaker layer.

This is the key: poorly bonded facets at the bottom of the snowpack form a weak layer that collapses easily and causes failure, propagating avalanches across large distances. When this weak layer gets buried by new snow, it is easy to trigger an avalanche because the lattice structure of the depth hoar is so weak compared to well bonded snow.

LAND DESK: Can you unpack the snow profile done by the CAIC after the accident at The Nose

GLEASON: The scale at the bottom is a measure of snow hardness or bonding between grains. [The wider the purple part, the harder the snow. “I” (Ice) is hardest; “F” is soft enough that one could push into it with a closed fist]. When you have a difference in hardness between layers, especially when there is a harder layer above a less hard layer, it is easier to trigger an avalanche on that interface, as the bonding between the layers will be poor. The other thing to observe about the profile is the grain type, or crystal form. The square symbol is a facet and the upward arrow is depth hoar. The avalanche failed on the layer between 80 cm and 50 cm on 2mm facets. After it released, it stepped down into the depth hoar at the bottom and entrained more snow. This is dangerous because the more snow that is entrained, the more snow there is available to move downslope and bury a person. So if there is depth hoar at the bottom of the snowpack and it gets buried, it may not be the layer that is triggered by a person, but the weight of the avalanche will step down into the depth hoar and make for a larger avalanche. 

*J. Andrew Gleason is a snow scientist and former Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster who is now working on the NASA SnowEx project and is a Lecturer of Geophysics at Fort Lewis College.