Mountain Town News: Climate variability is normal, but warming springs are not |

Mountain Town News: Climate variability is normal, but warming springs are not

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

WESTMINSTER — In Pennsylvania, the groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil saw no shadow this year. That is supposed to portend an early spring.

In the Rocky Mountains, early springs have been coming no matter what. This was a cold winter in many places, but on average the climate has been warming for several decades. It’s sure to get much warmer yet.

A case in point is Colorado’s North Park, headwaters of the North Platte River but a short distance from the headwaters of the Colorado River and also Steamboat Resort.

There, according to Dr. J.J. Shinker, an associate professor from the University of Wyoming, the temperature overall has increased 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1909.

But warming during the spring months of March, April and May has been disproportionate, rising almost 4 degrees on average since 1909.

“That’s a lot of warming in a short period of time,” she told members of the Colorado Water Congress at a recent conference. She also pointed out that warming at high elevations has been disproportionately greater than the global average.

This disproportionate spring warming then produces earlier runoff in the North Platte and other rivers. On average, runoff occurs five days earlier for every degree Celsius in warming.

This matters to water managers, who try to ensure the irrigation ditches still have enough water come August and September. It also matters to mountain resorts as warming springs shrink the backend of ski season.

But everybody should be concerned for two more reasons, said Shinker. First, the worst droughts we’ve seen, the worst on record since Eurosettlement about 150 years ago, don’t come close in depth and intensity to those of the past. Forest fires of the past were also giant affairs.

This was part of natural variability. But now there is the overlay of what might be called unnatural variability.

“The warming that we are seeing is occurring at a rate that is outside the range of natural variability,” Shinker said in an interview after her talk to Colorado water managers. “And it’s occurring as a result of the greenhouse gases that result from human activity.”

Paleoclimatologists can tell much about shifting climates of the past 12,000 years by studying high mountain lakes. Consider Emerald Lake, which is in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, near the trailheads to the state’s two highest mountains, Elbert and Massive. Scientists studying lake sediments and other clues have documented shorelines that a millennium ago were much lower. The droughts then lasted for decades, even hundreds of years, in what are called megadroughts.

Lake of the Woods, which is located in Wyoming along the Continental Divide south of Jackson Hole, also offers evidence deciphered by scientists of a megadrought 5,200 years ago.

The point, said Shinker, is that natural variability has always occurred in the interior West. So have extreme events such as the wildfires that accompanied a megadrought in North Park about 2,000 years ago.

In the Colorado River Basin, scientists have reached much the same conclusion. Undeniably, there have been several hard drought years since 2000. But Brad Udall of Colorado State University and other scientists have concluded that it’s not a drought as conventionally understood. Rather, rising temperatures have begun causing more evaporation and transpiration, resulting in less water getting downstream.

That doesn’t mean conventional climatic forces don’t have swagger. From her post in Wyoming, Shinker studies what causes natural climatic variability in the interior West, such as movement of the polar jet stream north and south. But now there’s an overlay, one created by human activities.

One word leads to another in a lift line at Deer Valley

PARK CITY, Utah — Testosterone ruled in a case of two skiers at Deer Valley. Citing a police report, the Park Record reports a confrontation that started when one of the two men blocked the other from getting into a lift line. Why wasn’t clear.

This led to an argument, shouting top to bottom on the next ski run. At the next life line, one skier took off his skis, and the other skier tackled him and held him down. At least one punch was thrown.

‘The Odyssey’ read in its entirety at Taos

TAOS, N.M. — Homer’s “The Odyssey” was read in its entirety over the course of two long afternoons in Taos last weekend. The reading was sponsored by the society of the Museum of the Southwest. The Taos News reports that the readers used a 2017 translation by Emily Wilson, the first English translation of the epic poem published by a woman.

Does electricity produced at dams count as ‘clean?’

KETCHUM, Idaho — Idaho Power, the electrical utility that serves much of Idaho, including Ketchum and Sun Valley, has announced a goal of getting to 100% clean energy by 2045. But in this, there is some disagreement about what constitutes clean.

The utility has cut the intensity of carbon emissions from its energy mix by almost half in the last 14 years. And compared to the carbon footprint of electricity in much of the country, including Colorado, the utility is already light on carbon: just 24% from coal and natural gas.

This will affect Wyoming, as some of the power for Idaho comes from the Jim Bridger plant, which is near Rock Springs, roughly halfway between Jackson Hole and Park City.

Idaho Power — like other Pacific Northwest states — is blessed with abundant hydroelectric power. But Ben Lzicar sees nothing clean about the hydroelectric power produced by building dams. Writing in the Idaho Statesman, he cites the threatened populations of steelhead salmon as well as orcas, plus the hundreds of miles of healthy and vital riparian habitat that were destroyed when the dams were constructed during the 20th century.

“Moving the goalposts back by calling dams ‘clean’ isn’t doing anyone good,” he wrote.

Banff gateway town looks into dimming glaring lights

CANMORE, Alberta — Towns and cities have been shifting to LED lights, because they’re more energy efficient. But brighter isn’t necessarily better.

That’s the conclusion already drawn in Canmore, the town at the entrance to Banff National Park, which is butting heads with FortisAlberta, an electrical utility. It wants to install LED lights with brightness measured at 5,000 Kelvins.

Other towns and cities, studying the literature as well as looking at LED lights, have concluded that less is better, as Canmore’s Andy Esarte, the town’s manager of engineering, has already decided. The Rocky Mountain Outlook reports that the town has commissioned a study at a cost of $20,000 to find the right balance.

Lights of more than 3,000 Kelvins “create a harsh glare, making it difficult to see clearly at night,” says the International Dark-Sky Association.

The American Medical Association, in a 2016 study, warned that too much blue light — as produced with 5,000 Kelvins — can suppress melatonin production, leading to disrupted sleep and other health risks.

The utility disputes some of this contention. “There is no evidence that LED streetlights impact human sleep cycles any differently than high-pressure sodium streetlights that have been used for the past 30 years,” said Alana Antonelli, manager of corporate communications and marketing.

She cited a U.S. Department of Energy study that concluded LED lighting poses no more risk than other lighting technology.

But the American Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health issued a report in 2016 warning of potential dangers.

“Although data are still emerging, some evidence supports a long-term increase in the risk for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity from chronic sleep disruption or shiftwork associated with exposure to brighter light sources in the evening or night,” the report stated.

John Barentine, of the International Dark-Sky Association, suggests that mountain towns look at what Jasper is doing. The town has very harsh, blue-rich, 5000-Kelvin white LED roadway lights. A company called Lumican — a partner with the association — intends to retrofit the town with “warm” white LED lights, down to 1700 Kelvins. Those lower-Kelvin lights, Barentine said, superficially resemble the old sodium lights with which most people are familiar.

In parallel, Parks Canada intends to apply for International Dark-Sky Park status for Jasper National Park. The municipality has shown interest in accreditation as an International Dark-Sky Community.

“I hope this turns into a model for similar mountain towns, especially those in (or are gateways to) parks and similar protected areas. Jasper is currently very over-lit, and the problem is made worse in the winter when there is snow on the ground. We hope the solution that Lumican is trying to put together for Jasper will make all the stakeholders happy. Better lighting is more attractive to both residents and visitors, improves nighttime safety, and keeps the night sky over the national park dark.”

Denver will soon convert 44,000 outdoor fixtures. It plans to hew to a maximum 3,000 Kelvins, which falls closer to the transition between yellow and blue light.

San Juan communities move to preserve dark

OURAY — Ouray and Ridgway, towns on the northern flanks of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, are considering taking steps to become designated as dark-sky communities by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Ridgway, which is really more of a ranch town but with knock-dead beautiful views of Mount Sneffels and other 14,000-foot peaks, is well-positioned, reports the Telluride Daily Planet. The town got new streetlights, and although not required to, they are gentler, rather than brighter.

Norwood, about an hour west of these towns and Telluride, has already been designated for its dark skies.

Val Szwarc, who assisted Norwood in that effort, pointed out that Ouray County — where Ridgway and Ouray are both located — already is “designated as a Right to Farm County.” This protects qualifying farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits filed by individuals who move into a rural area where normal farming operations exist, and who later use nuisance actions to attempt to stop those ongoing operations.

Ouray County, she said, needs a designation as a place for the “Right to See the Milky Way.”

Ski town library has vinyl discs now in part of national wave

JACKSON, Wyo. — Don’t pitch your record collection just yet. Vinyl has been making a comeback, but so have CDs and even cassettes.

Taking note of this resurgence, the Teton County Library in Jackson has now gathered 34 discs, many of them rock classics like Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” or the Rolling Stone’s “Sticky Fingers,” that can be checked out. There’s also a smattering of jazz and folk, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Last year was the 12th straight year of growth for the medium, which has led to a stampede of repressing old classics as well as a lively resale market.

Now reservations and a fee to see Hanging Lake

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Come May 1, you won’t be able to drive to the trailhead to Hanging Lake, a charming waterfall and scenic pool of water amid limestone cliffs reached via a relatively easy 1.8-mile hike from Glenwood Canyon.

The U.S. Forest Service, working in partnership with the city of Glenwood Springs, has made the popular destination one that requires a permit year-round. And from May 1 to Halloween, the only access will be shuttle buses from Glenwood.

The Forest Service began taking steps to limit access after a 23% increase in the number of visitors in 2016. Altogether, visitation doubled in five years.

This is the third significant attraction along the Interstate 70 corridor in Colorado to which access is being limited. First was the road to Maroon Bells, the pair of 14,000-foot peaks outside of Aspen. There, visitors must take free shuttles during summer and autumn days. Driving there during the evening and early morning is still permitted.

The Forest Service also instituted a permit system for Conundrum Hot Springs. The springs are located just below timberline, not far from the crest of the Elk Range, between Aspen and Crested Butte. The springs are reached by a hike that has 2,800 feet in elevation gain across a distance of more than 8 miles.

Located about an hour west of Vail, visitors will be capped at 615 per day at Hanging Lake.

Of the user fees collected for the shuttle and the permit system, 5% will be allocated toward operations, including a ranger equipped to look after the lake and answer questions.

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