Changes in climate likely to be costly in Colorado
October 25, 2004
SUMMIT COUNTY – While potential large-scale global warming impacts to the Arctic and Antarctic regions are making national headlines, high alpine ecosystems of the Southern Rockies – including Colorado’s mountains – face similar threats.”In Colorado, climate change means less snow, less water, more wildfires, less biodiversity and less economic opportunity, as there is less water available for development,” said Stephen Saunders, president of the recently formed Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. “We may be in the most vulnerable part of the country with regard to climate change,” he said. “The net effect in Colorado could be xerification – a change from a semi-arid climate to an arid desert environment.” Saunders is a former high-level cabinet official in the Clinton administration. He recently helped launch the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, along with Summit County Commissioner Tom Long and other partners such as Denver Water and the Aspen Skiing Co. The new group is the first to zero in on the potential effects of climate change on the geographical region encompassing Summit County. Vera Smith, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club, said global warming is here, and could be incredibly costly to Colorado, both economically and environmentally.Smith and Saunders delivered their messages during a recent climate change presentation at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden.”Hopefully we can impress on policy-makers in Colorado that we have to address climate change right here,” Smith said.Most weather experts have been discussing the recent drought in terms of just the past four or five years. But snowfall in Colorado and across large parts of the Southern Rockies region has been below long-term historic averages for 14 of the past 18 years.As many as 85 percent of automated snow measuring sites across the region have tallied below-normal accumulations recently, indicating that dry conditions are widespread rather than isolated to a few spots. The news is not good, said Saunders, who discussed a variety of climate models developed by researchers at different institutions, including the Western Regional Climate Center.Significant patterns show up in all the studies, he said.In general, the scientists agree that temperature increases will be greatest in the winter, at night and at higher elevations, Saunders said.Some models indicate a 60 percent reduction in the average snowpack for the Southern Rockies during the next 30 years, and some studies have concluded that skiing and associated tourism will not survive that change, he said. Some studies show that lightning-sparked wildfires could increase by 30-40 percent in coming decades, and that high mountain ecosystems and alpine tundra could disappear within decades – the shortest blink of an eye on a geologic time scale. Warming also will have an almost immediate effect on bark beetle activity, Saunders said. Warmer average temperatures are already enabling the tree-munching insects to complete their lifecycles in one year rather than two, which could lead to an unprecedented spread of bugs like mountain pine beetles, which are already devastating wide swaths of Colorado’s forests.”There could be a tremendous decline in the abundance of alpine wildflowers,” Saunders said, citing research by a Crested Butte-based scientist who has been heating small plots of ground by about three degrees to measure the effects of warming. The report from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory shows species diversity and abundance declining precipitously with only slight increases in average temperatures.”It is some serious bad news,” Saunders summed up. “For Colorado, what we have at stake is very much at risk from how we meet our energy needs,” he said, advocating for a switch to renewable energy sources that could cut the emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. “With what we have to lose, Colorado should lead the nation,” he said. So far, only four communities in the state – Boulder, Fort Collins, Aspen and Denver – have adopted greenhouse gas reduction programs, he said.The Colorado Mountain Club speaker series is being held in conjunction with the club’s third annual Mountainfest, a celebration of the state’s mountain environment and culture. Conservation experts will discuss birds that connect the Southern Rockies with the Arctic (Nov. 3), as well as a talk on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Nov. 20).For information, visit http://www.cmc.org or http://www.rockymountainclimate.org.