Climate study shows a high emissions trajectory could have a negative impact on Summit County’s economy and quality of life
Winters could get warmer and shorter, and summer seasons could see a heightened threat of wildfires
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the amount of money the towns of Breckenridge and Frisco contributed to pay for the commissioned study.
A study released at the end of August confirmed many environmentalists’ worst fears: In the coming decades, Summit County will become much hotter if emissions are not dramatically reduced.
That’s according to the worst-case scenario. In the report’s best-case scenario, the county will still become warmer but not nearly as much, and temperatures could be reduced after 2040 if emissions are reduced significantly.
These were the results for Eagle and Summit counties in parallel studies produced by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, which was commissioned by the two counties. Summit County government paid $5,000, Breckenridge paid $3,000, and the town of Frisco pitched in $5,000, requesting an additional analysis of the Vail Pass/North Tenmile Creek area, which provides the town’s water.
During a Summit Board of County Commissioners work session meeting Tuesday, Sept. 21, Rocky Mountain Climate Organization President Stephen Saunders presented his organization’s findings and warned county leaders about what could become of the summer and winter seasons.
In his report, Saunders said the changing climate could create more smoke and hazy conditions, create a lack of water availability, impact tree mortality and insect infestations, and have negative effects on the local winter and summer tourism seasons. Though all noteworthy, Saunders said it’s a heightened risk of wildfires that worries him the most.
“When we have our worst wildfires is when we’re hot and when we’re dry,” he said. “Last summer, we were hot and dry, and this summer we were hotter but wetter. Here in Colorado, this was not a bad wildfire season. We dodged a big bullet so far, but I look at California. That’s what we’re going to have here.”
At the end of the meeting, Saunders imparted a bit of wisdom on the county commissioners about how the community could better guard itself against the threat of wildfires.
“If I were a county commissioner, I would be thinking in terms of if we have (an East Troublesome Fire) here or one of the California-scale fires here, will I look back and think, ‘Did we do everything we could have done to save lives and safe homes, save our economy,’ because it’s devastating,” he said. “We’ve lost towns — literally.”
Saunders noted that it’s not just the responsibility of local entities and added that state and federal organizations have a role to play, too. Still, he urged the commissioners and county staff to take a closer look at policies currently in place.
In addition to voicing impacts on the summer season, Saunders noted in an interview that the county’s winter isn’t immune to the effects of climate change. Warmer temperatures, increased precipitation and shorter seasons could all occur within the next century, according to the report.
Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said she is already starting to witness some of these changes play out.
“It makes it really difficult for staffing of public works and things like that in terms of plowing because it seems that (the snow) comes at once instead of just steady as it used to be,” she said. “People who have lived here a long time … probably have better history on what it’s like, but I just don’t ever remember these massive one-time (events) and then nothing for a long time. It used to be more regular.”
Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard, who prioritizes climate change issues in his role, said the county currently has a few programs in place related to its climate action plan and noted that the findings of the report were heard loud and clear.
“These models really demonstrate that … we could be on a trajectory that could have catastrophic impacts not only to our way of life and our economy but our community,” he said. “But we also could be on a trajectory that we could manage and maintain what we have today, and I think that’s the key takeaway as we look at policy and our own goals.”
Saunders stressed that there isn’t one single policy that will mitigate the effects of climate change and that it’ll take a whole host of strategies to truly make a difference.
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