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Sunday, June 12, 2011

What’s to Be Done With 15 Feet of Snow in June? Utah Knows - NYTimes.com

What’s to Be Done With 15 Feet of Snow in June? Utah Knows

Tom Smart for The New York Times

The Rieders family, Josh, left, Brandon and their father, Brad, also planned to golf while in Utah.

LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — At the base of a slope that at this time of year usually tests the skills of mountain bikers, roughly 60 skiers and snowboarders, hoping to get first tracks on the mountain, waited for the 8 a.m. opening of the tram at Snowbird resort.

Tom Smart for The New York Times

Eric Jucker, 75, is among the many skiers attracted to Snowbird. The resort is scheduled to stay open for snow sports until July 4.

Wina Sturgeon

The United States freestyle team is at Snowbird, where the moguls coach Scott Rawles gave pointers to Taryn Baker, 13.

Wina Sturgeon

Snowboarders are also enjoying the resort, which had 775 inches of snow this season. It averages 500.

These were not bitter-enders hoping to eke out runs on a thin swatch of snow. At this northern Utah resort, it is still winter. There is hardly a bare spot on the mountain. Piles of snow line the vast parking lot. With much of the country in the grip of record-high temperatures, it was 31 degrees here Friday morning. Snowbird has announced that it will be open for snow sports three days a week until July 4. And it could stay open even later.

An unusually heavy winter snowfall and a cold, wet spring have resulted in a record snowpack in much of the mountain regions of the West. Bob Bonar, the general manager at Snowbird, said the mountain received more than 775 inches of snow this season, well above its average of 500.

“We even got 20 inches of powder over Memorial Day weekend, and our current average base is more than 15 feet,” Bonar said. “The holiday may not even be the end. We may stay open a few weekends longer if the snow stays good.”

But if the giant snowpack remains a boon to skiers at Snowbird and atSnowbasin Resort about 70 miles to the north, it has been problematic to others.

Ed Chauner, director of the Intermountain Cup Mountain Bike Racing Series, said he had to change the site of a race last month because the original site, Sundance Resort, still had 10 feet of snow. A race planned at Snowbird on July 2 is also in jeopardy because, Chauner says, “there’s still 20 feet of snow on parts of the course.”

“All this weather is killing us,” Chauner said. “No one can get out and train during the week, because it’s been so cold and wet. If they can’t train, they don’t come out to race. Our rider numbers have been way down.”

The La Niña phenomenon is behind the weather anomaly, said Lindsay Storrs, a meteorologist at KUTV in Salt Lake City. In a La Niña year, she said, cooler than normal water temperatures in the Pacific off the coast of Chile leads to cooler and wetter weather in winter and spring in the western United States.

“Troughs develop along the West Coast of the U.S. when this occurs,” Storrs said. “That allows storms to continuously drop out of the Gulf of Alaska, giving the western U.S. above average precipitation.”

Snowbird’s full parking lot is testimony to the attraction of this season’s late snow.

“I have skied for 72 years, and I’ve never skied snow like this in June,” said Eric Jucker, 75, a Swiss citizen who travels back and forth from Laguna Beach, Calif., to Salt Lake City.

Martin Martinov, a Bulgarian biophysicist living in Park City, Utah, got off the tram Friday and said, “I’ve never seen snow like this that you didn’t have to hike to get to at this time of year.”

The record conditions are even attracting out-of-towners. Bradley Rieders of Woodbury, N.Y., traveled to Snowbird with his sons, 23 and 26.

“We came out here to ski and golf on the same day,” Rieders said. “We flew all the way out here just for that. The weather is beautiful, the skiing is fantastic; it’s paradise, just unbelievable.”

Snowbird has its large tram and two lifts operating, offering access to every run on the mountain. By extending the closing date to July 4, it will be open 202 days this season, a record by one day.

“There are places on the mountain that will probably retain snow all summer long,” said Emily Moench, the resort’s communications manager.

The fact that summer is still a long way off for Utah’s Wasatch Mountains works out well for the United States freestyle team, which is training at Snowbird. Scott Rawles, the moguls head coach, said the team was saving money by not having to travel to South America. Winter in the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t usually begin until August, and the only available snow in June and July is on glaciers crowded with the national teams of other countries.

“That is huge for us,” he said.

But just as the snow has hampered Chauner’s mountain bike series, it has even had an adverse effect on the overall operations at Snowbird, which likes to present itself as a four-season destination. The resort would normally be starting summer activities by now.

“Aside from the fact that the weather is cold and wet, the Alpine Slide track is buried under many feet of snow,” Moench said, referring to a popular summer attraction.

Jeff Robins, chief executive of the Utah Sports Commission, which works to attract major sporting events to the state, said the unusual weather had been particularly disruptive in the north.

“We’re seeing the golf season starting later this year,” he said, “and the weather has created issues for the spring sports that are typically played in high school and college — from tennis to track and field, soccer, baseball, softball, the weather has created challenges for competitions typically held in spring. It’s not just snow in the mountains, but rain that is affecting recreational activities like fishing, kayaking, camping, mountain biking and hiking.”

While the delay for northern Utah’s summer activities will have an economic impact on the state, it may be the least problematic of the overall weather effects.

“The snowpack we have right now is 525 percent of normal,” said Brian McInerney, the hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Utah. “The lower level snowpack from 7,500 to 6,000 feet is already gone, but the mid-elevation snow from about 7,500 to 9,000 feet is still there.”

He added: “Our soils were already saturated starting in March due to a heavy rainfall in early spring. Now, if you try to ride or hike on these soils, they will still be wet, still be saturated. If you use the trails at all, especially for mountain biking, it’s going to screw them up.”

The most serious consequence of the huge snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains may be lurking well below the summits, especially if the weather changes rapidly to the typically hot northern Utah temperatures of late June and July.

“Once it starts going, the inertia of melting snowpack goes pretty fast,” McInerney said.

The speed of the melt has state officials concerned about flooding. Some rivers have already breached their banks and inundated homes and hundreds of acres of farmland. And though snow-riders are still loving the snow, it remains a threat, a vast rush of water just waiting to pour down on the valleys below.





What’s to Be Done With 15 Feet of Snow in June? Utah Knows - NYTimes.com



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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Bilingual Advantage

May 30, 2011

The Bilingual Advantage

A cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease symptoms. Dr. Bialystok, 62, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, was awarded a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science. We spoke for two hours in a Washington hotel room in February and again, more recently, by telephone. An edited version of the two conversations follows.

Q. How did you begin studying bilingualism?

A. You know, I didn't start trying to find out whether bilingualism was bad or good. I did my doctorate in psychology: on how children acquire language. When I finished graduate school, in 1976, there was a job shortage in Canada for Ph.D.'s. The only position I found was with a research project studying second language acquisition in school children. It wasn't my area. But it was close enough.

As a psychologist, I brought neuroscience questions to the study, like "How does the acquisition of a second language change thought?" It was these types of questions that naturally led to the bilingualism research. The way research works is, it takes you down a road. You then follow that road.

Q. So what exactly did you find on this unexpected road?

A. As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.

But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: "Apples grow on noses." The monolingual children couldn't answer. They'd say, "That's silly" and they'd stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, "It's silly, but it's grammatically correct." The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.

Q. How does this work — do you understand it?

A. Yes. There's a system in your brain, the executive control system. It's a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It's what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them.

If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain's networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what's relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it's that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

Q. One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. How did you come to learn this?

A. We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn't have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.

That evidence made us look at people who didn't have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer's patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer's symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn't mean that the bilinguals didn't have Alzheimer's. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.

Q. So high school French is useful for something other than ordering a special meal in a restaurant?

A. Sorry, no. You have to use both languages all the time. You won't get the bilingual benefit from occasional use.

Q. One would think bilingualism might help with multitasking — does it?

A. Yes, multitasking is one of the things the executive control system handles. We wondered, "Are bilinguals better at multitasking?" So we put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator. Through headphones, we gave them extra tasks to do — as if they were driving and talking on cellphones. We then measured how much worse their driving got. Now, everybody's driving got worse. But the bilinguals, their driving didn't drop as much. Because adding on another task while trying to concentrate on a driving problem, that's what bilingualism gives you — though I wouldn't advise doing this.

Q. Has the development of new neuroimaging technologies changed your work?

A. Tremendously. It used to be that we could only see what parts of the brain lit up when our subjects performed different tasks. Now, with the new technologies, we can see how all the brain structures work in accord with each other.

In terms of monolinguals and bilinguals, the big thing that we have found is that the connections are different. So we have monolinguals solving a problem, and they use X systems, but when bilinguals solve the same problem, they use others. One of the things we've seen is that on certain kinds of even nonverbal tests, bilingual people are faster. Why? Well, when we look in their brains through neuroimaging, it appears like they're using a different kind of a network that might include language centers to solve a completely nonverbal problem. Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism.

Q. Bilingualism used to be considered a negative thing — at least in the United States. Is it still?

A. Until about the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that bilingualism was a disadvantage. Some of this was xenophobia. Thanks to science, we now know that the opposite is true.

Q. Many immigrants choose not to teach their children their native language. Is this a good thing?

A. I'm asked about this all the time. People e-mail me and say, "I'm getting married to someone from another culture, what should we do with the children?" I always say, "You're sitting on a potential gift."

There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.

Q. Are you bilingual?

A. Well, I have fully bilingual grandchildren because my daughter married a Frenchman. When my daughter announced her engagement to her French boyfriend, we were a little surprised. It's always astonishing when your child announces she's getting married. She said, "But Mom, it'll be fine, our children will be bilingual!"





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