Canaries in the coal mine
Mountain trends point to balmy future for West

What’s left of the 2007-08 snowpack dots the deeper recesses of the San Juan Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness earlier this week. A recent conference in Silverton, hosted by the Mountain Studies Institute, took a look at climate trends in the mountains, which typically are a bellweather for trends at lower elevations./Photo David Halterman

by Allen Best

A few years ago, Connie Millar was trying to work on a project with a national monument. Millar, a California-based paleo-ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, says she was rebuffed. The monument’s manager, she said, wanted nothing to do with any discussion of climate change. It was still a touchy subject among federal land managers.

Today, this has changed. In broader society, there was a “tipping point” in attitudes about climate change about 18 months ago. Some say it was because of Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” or perhaps the polar bear pictures, or even the latest International Panel on Climate Change report, which stated, with 90 percent confidence, that humans are partly responsible for the changing climate.

Whatever the cause, society has begun to come to grips, and now federal land managers and other scientists are, too. “It’s something new in the last six months,” said Millar, a principal organizer of a gathering on mountain climate and ecosystems held recently in Silverton.

The conference, which was hosted by the Mountain Studies Institute June 9-12, attracted more than 120 scientists from across the West, as well as assorted others. The conference was sponsored by the Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains, or Cirmount. The goal of the group, in part, is to create a better and expanded network of monitoring stations in high mountain locations. Colorado has only two mountain monitoring stations – one at Niwot, northwest of Boulder, and another in Senator Beck Basin, between Silverton and Telluride, which is maintained by Chris Landry’s Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

The argument for research stations is that the mountains are like canaries in coal mines. In this case, they serve as early predictors of change to come to lower elevations. Already, high-mountain temperatures have increased far faster than in the valleys.

Dozens of presentations on topics related to this and other warming-related issues, were given in Silverton’s tin-ceilinged town hall over the course of the three days. Some ideas, though simple in expression, were complex in implications. Such was the case with water. Between 60 to 80 percent of precipitation in the West arrives in the mountains in the form of snow. Even drizzly Seattle depends upon snow in the Cascades.

Most impressive of all is the Colorado River Basin, which includes the Animas, Dolores, Uncompaghre and other rivers that cascade off the flanks of the San Juan Mountains. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide vital sustenance for everywhere, from the haciendas of San Diego to the cornfields of Nebraska, up to 34 million people by some estimates.

Junction Creek flows toward its confluence with the Animas River. studies throughout the West point to earlier run-off due to warming temperatures. Such a trend could mean a shortage of water for the West, which relies on mountain snowpack for most of its water./Photo by David Halterman

Water managers have always assumed they were planning for a future that looked like the past. In the West, that’s a limited rear-view mirror, with only 100, maybe 150, years of records. But new evidence of climate change is forcing a firm nudge to the idea that the future won’t necessarily look like the past.4

What the future is almost sure to bring is more heat – much more than the rise of recent decades. “The American West will be the epicenter for warming,” said Roger Pulwarty, of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.

Whether the future will bring more snow, or less, remains uncertain. Warmer clouds can carry 30 percent more precipitation, which might mean lots of snow. Unlike the computer models that show heat, forecasts regarding precipitation are more murky. The only clear message is that winter will, on average, be much shorter – as it already is in California’s Sierra Nevada, where runoff is typically 20 days shorter. More isolated sampling also finds earlier runoff over the last 30 years in Colorado, but with a stronger signal in the San Juans.

One of the problems with forecasting precipitation as the globe warms is the coarseness of computer models. While several dozen models show broad trends, such as heat, precipitation in the West depends so much upon the interaction with mountains. Earlier computer models showed the Rocky Mountains as only slight bumps, like the highest point in Kansas. But now, computer scientists are working to come up with finer-scale models, which instead of showing grids every 50 kilometers, show them every few kilometers. That still isn’t the sort of resolution that will show the verticality of an Eolus, Vestal Peak or El Diente, but it will be a marked improvement.

David Inouye, a biologist from the University of Maryland who summers near Crested Butte at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, said a diary kept by scientists there since the 1970s reveals a clear shift in spring, beginning in about 1998. The snow has been melting more rapidly in recent years, April is becoming significantly warmer, and ground squirrels, marmots and other small animals are appearing earlier. But not all animals respond in the same way to the warmer spring temperatures. For example, while marmots have been appearing in April, intermittent cold may be causing increased mortality.

For others, the essential question is of adaptation – a difficult proposition when the future remains so uncertain. “Everybody talks about adaptation, but nobody really knows how we should go about it,” said Hans Schreier, of the Institute for Resources & Environment at the University of British Columbia.

But, Schreier and other scientists do realize some changes can be made now. For example, global warming is likely to produce more intense storms. For the rapidly growing mountain towns in the Columbia River Basin of British Columbia, that suggests a need for more innovative approaches to stormwater management. Expansive asphalt parking lots, for example, might best be interspersed with swales where storm waters will be allowed to more slowly dissipate.

Closer to home in the San Juans, the warming trend from about 1990 is clear, even if the impacts are not, said Koren Nydick, executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute.

Millar, the paleoecologist, advised San Juan land managers to make decisions knowing the future will not necessarily look like the past. “Practice ecological management outside the box,” she said, advising a “mix-and-match” collection of tools. “No single solution fits all cases.”

Reflecting on her last 20 years as a scientist in a federal agency, Millar said it was difficult to get a conversation going with land managers. She was, for example, among the first to talk up the increase in forest fires as a consequence of changed climate – talk that was initially dismissed. Now, climate change is being discussed – and everybody is asking how to manage lands under this new regime. “A year ago the door flung open, we fell in, and they said, ‘Now what do we do?’” she said.



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