Balance of the 2020-2021 winter season in the Aragonese Pyrenees: little snow and nearly empty mountains

Balance de la temporada invernal 2020-2021 en los Pirineos aragoneses: poca nieve y montañas casi vacías

At the end of March, our avalanche monitoring work during the winter months in the Aragonese Pyrenees came to an end. It has undoubtedly been a strange period. The main reason was the pandemic, which led to many ski resorts and tourist facilities being forced to close or operate at minimal capacity due to movement restrictions. The situation only improved significantly during specific moments like Easter, with the winter season coming to an end.

But in terms of weather, it has also been a gloomy winter with rather limited precipitation, warmer temperatures than usual, and notable episodes of Saharan intrusions that colored the peaks with reddish hues.

However, no one is better suited than our colleagues Iban González, a snow specialist geologist with six years of experience in local avalanche forecasting, and Jose Antonio “Tato” Canela, a mining engineer and professional technician in snow and level 2 avalanche technician certified by the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), whom we introduced publicly some time ago, to provide an assessment of the season and give us a better understanding of their work.

Iban Gonzalez (@elurjausi en Instagram)
Jose Antonio «Tato» Canela (@tatocanela en Instagram)

¿What work does Arantec carry out in terms of winter road maintenance and which geographical area is monitored?

Iban: Our task is to predict avalanches in Somport, Panticosa spa, Ordesa meadow, and Llanos del Hospital in Benasque. The entire work area is located in the autonomous community of Aragon.

Tato: As Iban mentioned, we monitor and study the variability of the snowpack and its stability. The goal is to ensure that the roads remain open and do not pose a danger to users and workers.

How many people are part of the team? How is it organized?

Iban: Within the team, there are different roles, such as forecasters and field technicians. At the beginning of the season, we distribute the work in rotating shifts. We exchange roles if necessary, always coordinated by the technical director.

Tato: The technical team of snow specialists at Arantec, for example, consists of 5 professionals. Tasks are assigned based on the technical profile of each specialist. Examples of this include the role of the technical director, forecasters, and field technicians.

What is a typical workday like during the monitoring season, and what preparation is required (consulting weather reports, etc.)?

Iban: The key is to monitor the snow and weather conditions by analyzing models and meteorological stations, webcams, etc. Based on this preliminary analysis, we prepare field campaigns to analyze the snowpack and its evolution on-site. This way, we can determine the specific danger of avalanche channels (areas where snow masses move from the feeding zone to the accumulation zone) that we need to monitor.

Tato: With the information Iban mentioned, we create stratigraphic profiles and stability tests, complemented by other observations. This monitoring then forms the basis for the danger bulletins we provide to the client.

How would you describe the season that just ended? What would you highlight in particular?

Iban: The season has been poor in terms of snow. After a snowy and cold start, the trend changed in mid-January. Snowfall, for example, became rare, and temperatures were higher than usual. Additionally, the episodes of brown snow we had in February played a significant role in the rapid melting of the snowpack. The snow conditions in the western Pyrenees, in general, resemble the first week of May in a normal year rather than the first week of April.

Tato: As my colleague Iban mentioned, in December and January, we had nearly a month of below-zero temperatures with precipitation. The winter season held promise but turned out to be strange and atypical. The winter season stood out for the significant lack of snowfall, high temperatures, and extensive layers of Saharan dust. These accumulations of dust and sand cause the snow to melt rapidly. Today, we have to ascend above 2,000 meters in north-facing slopes to find regular snow, something I hadn’t seen at this time of year in years.

In countries like the USA, the pandemic has led to an increase in outdoor activities, with thousands of people heading to the mountains during the winter months, thus increasing the risk of avalanches. Have you noticed a similar situation in the Pyrenees during moments when mobility was not restricted?

Iban and Tato: Mountain activities in areas with unrestricted mobility have increased significantly. For example, in some areas, there has been noticeable access by individuals without training or experience. However, in the Aragonese Pyrenees, the activity has been notably lower due to mobility restrictions. This factor, combined with the stability of the snowpack for much of the season, has resulted in fewer avalanche accidents in this sector of the Pyrenees.

In March 2021, the newspaper La Vanguardia reported on a study warning of the reduction of the ski season in the Alps due to climate change. Are these changes also noticeable in the Pyrenees?

Iban: Without specific data at hand, my personal perception in recent years is that the seasons are becoming shorter, mainly due to rising temperatures. Although every year there are cold and wet periods with snowfall, warm, high-pressure, or rainy periods are increasing.

Tato: I completely agree with my colleague. Over the past years, there has been a reduction in the total number of precipitation days. However, episodes of rain and snowfall are increasingly intense and forceful. As the years go by, I believe that the amount of snow at low altitudes will decrease, and the snow line will rise due to increasing temperatures.

How would you like the upcoming season to be?

Iban: One that starts in November and ends in May. I would like to have heavy snowfall at the beginning and alternating days of cold and moderate snowfall afterward. Dreaming doesn’t hurt.

Tato: I would love for it to be a long season (the longer, the better!). Ideally, we would have consistently cold weather from start to finish (like winters of the past). I would also ask for high precipitation (20-30 cm per week), sunny days, and few episodes of strong winds. Additionally, I would hope for good periods of instability and avalanche activity with well-formed and developed weak layers. And to complete the wishlist, I hope that next season will allow for inter-provincial mobility. This would at least make it possible for people interested in snow and avalanche training to attend. Dreaming is free.

We conclude this assessment with a selection of some images from the season. Thanks to Iban and Tato for your analysis!

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