Prominent climate scientist predicts Summit County’s climate in 2050. It might not be what you expect
March 17, 2018
The good news: In 2050, snow will still be falling in the central mountains, and Summit County will still be a premiere skiing destination.
The bad news: There will be less snow, shorter winters and not enough water to go around.
Those were some of the predictions offered by Klaus Wolter, a climate scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, who has studied climate data in Colorado for almost three decades. Wolter spoke Thursday, March 15, at CMC Breckenridge at an event titled "What will Summit County's winters be like in 2050," hosted by the High Country Conservation Center and the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District.
Wolter, who also works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has most recently been working on predicting climate patterns all over the country, and when it comes to Colorado his predictions for climate change are not as dire as one may expect.
“Pluses are that we won’t be as affected by climate change as the rest of the country, and that we will probably see more visitors and skiers coming up here in the future. The minus is that we will see more visitors up here.”Mike ConnollyExecutive director of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District
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Wolter set out the obvious: the world is getting warmer and temperatures "are virtually guaranteed" to continue to get warmer in the decades to come. Even if humans begin to rein in carbon emissions, the damage is already done. It may take at least 100 years and a few generations before temperatures start coming back to normal.
For Colorado, the temperature rise has been even more significant. "2017 is the warmest year on record in Colorado in the last 120 years," Wolter declared. "Since the 1910s and 20s, Colorado has warmed up more than the rest of the country or the world."
Those warmer temperatures, Wolter said, have a few different impacts for climate up here in the mountains. For one thing, shoulder seasons will be longer and winters will be shorter. The slow ramp up to snow Summit has been seeing for the past two seasons will be the norm, and spring will start earlier and earlier.
Old timers may remember that early spring might not be as bad, as the county has often seen snowstorms in May and even June. However, Wolter said he went through 40 years of snow and precipitation records in Breckenridge and noticed a definite trend when it comes to snowfall in the spring.
"In spring — March, April, May — the trend has very clearly been going down," Wolter said. "You don't get powder in the spring anymore. Count yourself lucky if it happens, but it is not very common. That is the price you pay for higher temperatures."
Despite shorter winters and muddier shoulders, Wolter offered a bit of good news: according to his models, in 2050 Summit should only see 10 percent less snow by early spring than we see now. Wolter said this was mostly due to the altitude and unique geography of the area, which has a natural cooling effect. That puts Summit in much better shape than most of the planet when it comes to skiing, as it will be one of the few places with somewhat reliable snowpack.
"This is something we have to remember, in the world of skiing it is all relative," Wolter said. "I come from Germany, there are places in Germany that some years the resorts can't even open anymore. Same in the Pacific Northwest and New England. So, compared to that, a 10-percent reduction is still a lot better than no snow at all."
Warmer temperatures will also mean more moisture in the air, but Wolter is not confident on what results that will bring. Moisture means warmer temperatures, and it is unclear if conditions will be reliable enough for moisture to turn into actual precipitation. With water usage continuing to climb as the state population grows, unreliable precipitation may be a larger concern going forward for Summit and the rest of the west as water becomes a scarcer and scarcer resource.
During his presentation, Wolter also pointed out an interesting side note about the pine beetle epidemic that devastated Colorado's forests. Dead trees shed their needles and leaves, which usually capture snow and precipitation. Fewer needles mean more snow hitting the ground and turning into water runoff for the rivers and aquifers. Currently, Summit is actually benefiting from that phenomenon, meaning the area is receiving more water than it would with healthy trees.
Overall, Wolter said, Summit County should not be too scared of the future when it comes to climate. But for all intents and purposes, reliable powder seasons are at an end, and the county will need to start adjusting to the new normal.
Mike Connolly, executive director of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, said he found the presentation very interesting and that the public should be listening to knowledgeable people like Wolter.
"It's interesting to know that we're going to see shorter seasons that begin later and end earlier, and that we won't see the same snow we were used to," Connolly said. "Pluses are that we won't be as affected by climate change as the rest of the country, and that we will probably see more visitors and skiers coming up here in the future. The minus is that we will see more visitors up here."
Connolly said that the collaboration with HC3 to bring Wolter to speak in Summit was a successful one, and is part of a series of interesting speakers the FDRD is planning to bring to Summit to explore climate and environmental issues. He hopes that the community continues to turn out and learn from these knowledgeable people.
For information about future speaker events and other events hosted by the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District and High Country Conservation Center, visit FDRD.org/calendar and HighCountryConservation.org/calendar/.