New study analyzes climate change impacts in Colorado |

New study analyzes climate change impacts in Colorado

On May 31 2014, Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier briefed about 70 people at Summit High School for a mock wildfire scenario staged by first-response agencies, local government and other organizations to test their communication and coordination.
Alli Langley / |


Water: The state’s reservoirs can provide some buffering against some expected increases in water demand and decreases in flow, but entities with junior rights or little storage are especially vulnerable to future low flows.

Agriculture: Rising temperatures, heat waves and droughts can reduce crop yield and slow cattle weight gain. Colorado farmers and ranchers are already accustomed to large natural swings in weather and climate, but may find it especially challenging to deal with expected changes in water resources.

Recreation: Climate projections show that Colorado’s springtime mountain snowpack will likely decline by 2050, with potential impacts on late-season skiing. Spring runoff season may also be earlier and shorter, which could affect rafting. The recreation industry and some Colorado communities are already making changes that could help them adapt to a warmer future, with added warm weather activities at Breckenridge Ski Resort for example.

Transportation: As temperatures increase, rail speeds must drop to avoid track damage, leaving the freight and passenger rail industries vulnerable to slowdowns or the need for expensive track replacements.

Source: The Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study, a 2015 report compiled by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the University of Colorado Boulder, the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University, the North Central Climate Science Center and the National Center for Atmospheric Research and reviewed by 30 experts from state offices, consulting groups and academia.

Unlike Florida, which recently made headlines after word leaked that its Department of Environmental Protection was not allowed to use the term climate change, Colorado isn’t facing the threat of being underwater as the polar ice caps melt.

The state is confronting its own set of critical vulnerabilities, which a new report recommends the state not only talk about openly but also work to address.

Karn Stiegelmeier, chair of the Summit Board of County Commissioners, said climate change is factoring into too few decisions made by local leaders.

“Unfortunately people don’t think about it enough. As soon as we get another drought people will think about it some more,” she said.

“We expect the climate to be drier, the winter season shorter. So along with that is higher fire danger, and we’re being very proactive with our CWPP.”Karn Stiegelmeier,chair of the Summit County Board of County Commissioners

A bill passed by the state legislature in 2013 spurred the report, “The Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study,” which was released in February and analyzes the climate-related challenges state residents and leaders will deal with in coming decades.

The report breaks down impacts by seven sectors: ecosystems, water, agriculture, energy, transportation, outdoor recreation and tourism, and public health.

The study also details ways Coloradans are already grappling with these issues and where other strategies may help.

“Vulnerability is not just a question of how climate change will affect resources in the state, it’s also a question of how well Colorado is prepared to deal with changes,” said Eric Gordon, co-lead editor of the report.

Gordon is a researcher with the Western Water Assessment (WWA), a part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder that is funded primarily by NOAA.

He edited the report with Dennis Ojima, a professor in the Ecosystem Science and Sustainability Department at Colorado State University.

“We also know vulnerabilities change over time, as environmental and socioeconomic conditions change,” Ojima said. “It will be important to keep an eye on this changing landscape of vulnerability.”


The report specifically mentions Summit County as being vulnerable to increased wildfire risk because so much of the county is surrounded by forest and residents live, work and play in what’s called the wildland-urban interface.

The WUI (pronounced “WOO-ee”) is where the wildfire risk is most concentrated, and that risk is expected to increase statewide as Colorado’s climate becomes warmer and drier.

Roughly 117,000 Colorado homes lie within land classified as WUI, with the largest number of homes, about 22,900, in Summit County, the report says.

Researchers at CSU project a 300 percent increase in Colorado’s WUI, from 715,500 acres in 2000 to 2,161,400 acres in 2030, as more land is developed near forest.

In Summit, according to the State Demography Office, population likely will grow by 1 to 2 percent every year for the next 25 years.

One way Summit is addressing wildfire risk is through the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

“We expect the climate to be drier, the winter season shorter,” Stiegelmeier said. “So along with that is higher fire danger, and we’re being very proactive with our CWPP.”

She called the document the most robust local wildfire protection plan in Colorado. When mandated by the state, many other communities created plans that are just a paragraph long, she said.

Depending on how WUI is defined, said Steve Lipsher, public information officer with Lake Dillon Fire Rescue, almost everyone in the county could be considered at risk.

Large wildfires sometimes produce ember showers that can rain down a mile and a half away from the actual flames, he said.

For that reason he often reminds residents and property owners seeking to reduce wildfire risk to their homes that they moved to Summit to live not on bare lots but in the woods. That means their homes will be harder to protect if a fire comes close.

Despite Summit being surrounded by forest, Lipsher said, its wildfire risk is much less than that on the Front Range, where metro areas fight fires every few years because they have more people and property to protect and their environments are warmer, drier and often windier.

High Country snowpack protects Summit from fire for most of the year, but wildfire season could grow longer with climate change.

Hotter weather also will increase insect activity, and the intensity of the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic, which killed large portions of Summit’s trees, has been attributed in part to warmer winters.


Forest Service management of public lands aligns with Summit’s CWPP, said Ross Wilmore, fire management officer for the east zone of White River National Forest.

Dillon Ranger District officials have said recent clear-cutting and other vegetation projects aim to reduce wildfire risk near people, property and utility infrastructure.

District ranger Bill Jackson said the study has influenced what he thinks is important for local forest management.

“It caught my attention,” said Jackson, who arrived on the district in January.

He has been listening to his staff and local property owners about where there might be areas that could use more attention from the Forest Service in terms of cutting projects.

A Forest Service contractor will be starting more clear-cutting this summer north of Breckenridge.

The White River National Forest awarded its fourth and final contract Wednesday, March 18, for its Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Project.

That contract was for 277 acres near Red Tail Ranch, said Cary Green, timber management assistant for the forest’s east zone, at a Forest Health Task Force meeting Wednesday.

Most of the trees in that zone, called Ophir South, are beetle-kill lodgepole pines that will be clear-cut over the next few years, he said.

Also this summer, clear-cutting work will begin on a 441-acre contract on Ophir Mountain that was awarded last year, and cutting work will continue on the roughly 50 acres remaining in a 206-acre contract known as Ophir North.

Cutting has been completed on the 358 acres of Ophir East, Green said, though clean-up work remains.

Most of the wood cut is being hauled to the biomass energy plant in Gypsum.


Besides wildfire risk, the report details how climate change will impact outdoor recreation, including skiing, Summit’s biggest economic driver.

“We’re the lucky ones. We’re the high ski areas, so we’ll be the last to be impacted,” Stiegelmeier said.

Still local ski areas have invested in snowmaking equipment as well as summer and year-round recreation activities.

The report also analyzes effects on water supplies.

Though Summit is a headwaters community, a drier climate will mean more competition for Summit’s water, and those with junior rights will receive less and less water as those with older, senior water rights are legally given priority.

The report uses another Summit County example when describing climate change’s impacts on fish and other aquatic life.

Researchers investigating the Snake River near Dillon theorized that rising air temperatures most likely melted permafrost and led to a drop in water tables, resulting in increased metal concentrations.

Those changes in water chemistry could make marginal fish habitats uninhabitable and threaten water supplies.

Read more about climate change impacts in Colorado — including effects on agriculture, infectious disease and infrastructure — in the 176-page report on the Western Water Assessment’s website:

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