Winter Newsletter 2016

Winter forecast, avalanche science and neurotransmitters at altitude

COP21_ParisIt seems pertinent to be writing about the 2016 winter forecast during COP21 in Paris. Here’s hoping some sensible, and radical, propositions can be agreed upon so our ski fields survive into the future. We can do our part: by offsetting our air travel in particular. At Pyrenean Odysseys we partner with The Converging World and their investment in renewable energy in India. With India being the key player in this year’s climate talks this alliance seems particularly pertinent. Tourism is a huge growing industry, one which provides many benefits to the regions people visit, our mountain valleys being a prime example. But by flying to a skiing destination are we literally melting the snow? Yes we are, and that is why offsetting, or investment in renewable energy, tree planting, sea-grass planting, mangrove restoration efforts are all necessary and useful. They provide a huge opportunity for doing good. See here and here for articles discussing offsetting. Calculating and offsetting someone’s 2015 travel might make a great Christmas present!

Also in this Winter Newsletter we discuss how altitude can affect our mood by changing our brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin.

And finally a bit of avalanche science and the growing area of research focusing on the human element, decision making and group dynamics.

Winter Forecast 2016

I have mainly used Gavin Partridge’s winter forecast as the source material here because he provides a comprehensive overview of what is going on. You can watch the video here if you are interested. Metéo France also provides an update (here). While seasonal forecasting has been helped along in the last decade by advances in computing power allowing higher resolution models to run for longer periods it all remains an extremely complex physical problem, so while interesting, there will inevitably be misses.

If anyone had any doubt it is now over. El Niño will be the major background driver of this winter’s season. If you are wondering how a climatic phenomenon in the tropical Pacific can impact snow forecasts in mid-latitude Europe simply take a globe (rather than a map on a flat surface) and look properly at the size of the Pacific. It covers half the Earth. And the tropics, of course, cover a much larger surface area than the high latitudes. So the tropical Pacific is the largest surface ocean mass in the world. As a result, El Niño is the largest climatic influence simply because the volume of water involved is so large. Water is far denser than air (784 times more dense at sea level), and subsequently holds much more heat. So warming this huge mass of surface water in the central and eastern tropical Pacific (+4°C above average) significantly warms the world as a whole. A strong El Niño event also means a strengthened jet stream (because there is a larger temperature difference between the poles and the tropics), and stronger Atlantic storms over Europe. It will influence the world’s climate for the next 6 months and looks set to be the largest event in recorded history (article, article), larger than 1982-83 and 1997-98.

The El Niño of 1982-83 is blazed on my brain. As a child on a sheep and cattle property in Australia I remember my father taking our small herd of cows out on the road side as there was no grass left in our paddocks. Only the bull was not a bag of bones! I have always wondered how this was possible. January 1998 was the first year I skied in the Pyrénées. It was before snowmaking was widespread, and I remember a January with no snow below 1700m. I had a ball anyway, learning to ski at Luz Ardiden on my now father-in-laws 185 cm straight skis. How I would ever turn them now I do not know. Young legs are marvellous things!

Along with the El Niño signal Metéo France highlights the positive sea surface temperature anomalies in the eastern North Pacific Ocean associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. With the seas off California and Mexico also being up to 4°C warmer than average this is reinforcing the El Niño event resulting in an ensemble model result (1) where the tropics (30N-30S latitude) are predicted to be significantly warmer than average for the trimester Dec-Jan-Feb. This also applies to most of North America and Eurasia. Cooler than average temperatures are expected in the North Atlantic and the Southern Oceans, along with the southern US states and Mexico. This El Niño and PDO induced warming is predicted to lead to a warmer winter in Europe, with the cold blob in the North Atlantic attenuating this in Britain and Ireland.

The cold blob in the North Atlantic (see map above) has received plenty of press over the last six months. One prominent study (2) suggests it is evidence of a slowing meridional overturning circulation (MOC), the surface to bottom global ocean circulation that takes at least 1000 years to complete a loop around the global oceans (and the area of my PhD study). They suggest meltwater from Greenland, which is now losing 100 billion tonnes of ice each year, is capping the subpolar North Atlantic (see blog post here) and reducing sinking. Other scientists suggest that the cold blob may be a result of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (see article here). There may well be links between these two hypotheses – watch this space – the science is young and it’ll be interesting to see it develop!

To finish with the winter forecast Gavin also covers sunspots (we are nearing the bottom of the cycle, which means a cooling influence), the hurricane season (not many this year, which is correlated with a warmer winter), big Arctic sea ice melt season (means less blocking activity and a warmer winter), good Siberian snow cover (favours Siberian blocking events and cold European winters). Overall he concludes that Dec-Jan are likely to be mild, with colder conditions arriving from February onwards. This sounds similar to last year, albeit for different reasons, and is in line with all the commercial weather forecasters. For the moment there is snow on the slopes, most Pyrenean resorts opened last weekend to service the Spanish crowds, and Christmas snowcover looks assured.

Mood and Mental Health at Altitude

At Hotel Les Templiers in Luz we have some cycling clients from Utah in the USA. I was having a look around their new website when I noticed they had been interviewed on local radio. I had a listen, and, more interesting that what they said was what the guest before them had to say. Professor Perry Renshaw has been researching what he calls the Utah Paradox. Why people say they love the mountain lifestyle, and Utah is rated as the US’s happiest state, but why it has some of the highest rates of suicide and antidepressant use in the USA. Apparently the reason may be that altitude affects the way our brains produce both serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is the happy hormone – it makes us feel relaxed and stable, and as a result also has a pacifying effect. Dopamine is the doing hormone. Like a cup of coffee it helps you focus and act. At altitude our brains make less serotonin and more dopamine. If your brain makes enough serotonin then the reduction doesn’t matter and you’ll probably just experience a boost from the extra dopamine. But if you have already

low serotonin production then a move to altitude might lower it to levels that start to cause problems for your mood. The effects begin at about 600m, and start to become significant when you’ve stayed there for over 30 days. So a week’s skiing holiday will probably give you a dopamine boost (as will the adrenaline associated with the speed and fun) but won’t have any impact on your serotonin levels. But if you stay for a couple of months, it might. The higher you go the larger the effect, simply because there is less oxygen in the air. Utah as a state has an average elevation of 2000m. Extra oxygen through a breathing apparatus at night may well help. Something I didn’t know was that women make 50% less serotonin than men. And make less as they get older. So middle aged women are the hardest hit. Is this why women in our area are always wanting to retire down the valley and the men would often prefer to stay up high? Read more about it here. A final twist is that Utah has 50% less ADD and ADHD than New York – the hypothesis is that the extra dopamine helps focus.

Avalanche Science

There is growing awareness of and research into the human element in avalanche disasters. To make a totally obvious point, an avalanche is not a disaster until there is a human being in it. Avalanches are everywhere in the mountains, as are floods, rock and mud slides. The mountains are a study in gravity. Gravity is acceleration (not speed) at 9.8m²/sec, which makes gravity dangerous. Defying gravity is wondrous, and it is wondrous because it is improbable – we know this when we see it, which is why we are amazed. But no-one defies gravity for very long.

Having lived in the mountains for 12 years I have heard my fair share of stories and experienced the pain of people we have known dying, in avalanches and other accidents at altitude. Some lovely clients shared the story of their daughter’s death while snowboarding in the Alps. But it seems there is an almost fatalistic acceptance that this is part of life in the mountains. Powder Magazine and Black Diamond have teamed up to produce a haunting feature on the subject, called The Human Factor which shares stories and the developing science. The follow up feature is also excellent. Take the time to watch these. And start conversations with your friends and guides.

While coming to the end of writing this newsletter, I wondered whether there might be a link between altered brain chemistry at altitude and decision making in avalanche terrain. A quick google search reveals that dopamine (as we might well imagine) is indeed linked with appetite for risk. A study (3) where people were given a dopamine supplement drug found they were more likely to take larger risks. Further reading suggests that it is not even the winning that causes the release of extra dopamine, but the actual taking of the risk. Which is why we might continue with risky behaviour such as gambling even when we don’t win. This National Geographic article gives a nice overview.

More surprising for me was finding that lowered serotonin levels also increase risky choices (4). So at altitude its a double whammy – the lack of oxygen increases our dopamine production and lowers our serotonin production. Add that to an inherently risky mountainous environment and you have a triple whammy.

Sébastien Escande from the French Snow and Avalanche Centre says “We see a discord between the analysis and the decision. In effect we have something unconscious that intervenes, that makes us deviate completely from what would otherwise be a logical decision, based on good analytics, to a decision that is ultimately completely incoherent with regard to what we should be able to see.” Is this the role the altered levels of neurotransmitters are playing? Next time you are making a decision in a high altitude environment these findings are worth taking into account. Let’s remember all the things we love about the mountains too – the winter sunshine (sure serotonin booster), the clear air, the views, and arriving at the bottom safely for a beer!

The SNGM (Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne), the National Association of Mountain Guides in France concludes that whatever the results of the science, they are intent on pursuing a global culture change privileging the idea of the mountains as a terrain for the expression of human qualities and values rather than a terrain for great performance feats. This is an excellent aim and one we wholly subscribe to.

Enjoy the winter of 2016, whatever you are up to. Your thoughts on any of this material are welcome.

Sian Grigg
December, 2015.


(1) EUROSIP (MétéoFrance, European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, Met Office, National Centers for Environmental Prediction)

(2) Rahmstorf, S., Box, J., Feulner, G., Mann, M., Robinson, A., Rutherford, S., Schaffernicht, E. (2015): Exceptional twentieth-Century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation. Nature Climate Change (online).

(3) Rob Rutledge, Aug. 2015,

(4) Long et al., 2009: Serotonin shapes risky decision making in monkeys, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Vol 4(4), pp. 346-356.


Altitude training is a favourite with athletes – why do some respond and some not?

Why do different people have different levels of dopamine to start with? Might altitude be the answer for those who are short of a  dopamine receptor or two… Altitude as a cure for addiction.

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