Ask Eartha: Is the warm weather due to climate change?
November 11, 2016
It's November, and I'm still riding my bike in Summit County. Are we witnessing the effects of climate change first-hand?
— Noah, Frisco
Thanks for your question, Noah! You're not alone — many of us have been enjoying the extended fall we've been having while simultaneously commenting on the unseasonably warm weather. And with three local ski areas pushing back their opening dates, it's no surprise you're wondering if this is a sign of things to come. I can't give you all the answers in this short column, but here's some information to get the conversation started.
First, we need to make an important distinction between weather and climate: Weather is what happens around us on a day-to-day basis. When we talk about weather, we're referring to the conditions in the atmosphere over a short period. Climate, on the other hand, is average weather over long periods of time. Climate tells us that we can expect cold, snowy winters in Summit County, and weather is why we get huge snowstorms one week and nothing the next.
With that brief background, it should make sense that one warm fall does not provide unequivocal evidence that climate change is happening. That means the warm weather we're having isn't a smoking gun that climate change exists. But multiple warm falls? Then we start to see a trend, and trends contain the data relevant to discussions of climate change. For example, 15 of the hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. In Colorado, statewide average temperatures increased by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit between 1977 and 2007, and climate models predict that Colorado will warm at least an additional 2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. Some people argue that the climate has always been changing, and that's true. Now, what's different — and alarming — is the rapid rate of warming we're witnessing.
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What does all this mean for Colorado? Well, while we might not have to concern ourselves with rising seas, we do live in an area with a strong tourism economy, and most of those tourists are coming for our climate — snow is our wintertime currency. In fact, our ski and snowboard industry — the largest in the United States — contributes over $2 billion dollars to Colorado's economy. Warmer temperatures will have an impact on springtime snowpack, which is predicted to decrease by 2050, particularly at elevations below 8,200 feet. Perhaps this isn't immediately alarming in higher-altitude Summit County, but ski areas at lower elevations could be facing shorter seasons, thus negatively impacting local economies.
Beyond our Summit County winter sports bubble, scientists predict we'll see increased frequency and severity of drought, leading to a longer wildfire season. Drought can also strain water supplies and therefore cause losses in agricultural income. Of course, impacts will be felt differently across the varied ecosystems of our state, but no sector is immune; climate change stands to negatively impact Colorado.
How can you get involved?
Climate change is a global problem with no easy fix, so it's easy for people to feel incapable of change. But take heart! There are several concrete actions you can take to decrease your carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced directly and indirectly by your lifestyle).
Learn more. Watch movies like "Chasing Ice" and "Before the Flood"; read books and articles; attend workshops; calculate your carbon footprint; read Summit County's Energy Action Plan at highcountryconservation.org/energy — there are a variety of ways you can learn more about climate change and its impacts. The more you know, the better you'll understand efforts underway to mitigate the negative effects of a warming climate.
Take action. Decrease your carbon footprint, and encourage others to do the same. Decrease your energy consumption by getting an energy audit on your home and completing a retrofit project. Take public transportation more often, even just once more per week. Support local food movements to take a chunk out of transportation miles. Start composting your food waste.
There are numerous actions you can take that have an impact, and the more you do, the more your family and friends will take notice. Finally, in the spirit of the election season, voice your support of policy proposals designed to minimize the effects of climate change and to promote renewable energy technologies.
Together we can create change, but we need to join as a community to best protect our ecosystems, our economies and our water supplies. If you can't figure out how to get started, the staff at HC3 would be happy to offer suggestions.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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