West’s climate outlook downgraded

Meltdown is in the forecast for the Four Corners region. A new study is pointing to global warming causing larger changes in snowmelt in the Southwest than originally expected. Increased wildfire risk and new water management challenges for agriculture, ecosystems and urban populations are expected to be byproducts of the climate change.

New modeling by Purdue University Climate Change Research Center suggests that the situation may be twice as dire as had been projected by earlier studies. The high-resolution climate model used by the team was better able to reproduce the complex topography of the western United States and capture details of the effect of snow cover on the climate system, as well as the historical record of runoff.

Noah Diffenbaugh, senior author of the study, said the influence of melting snow on regional climate is far greater than that of increased greenhouse gases alone.

“The heat trapping from elevated greenhouse gases triggers the warming, but the additional warming caused by the loss of snow is what really creates the big changes in surface runoff,” he said. “Scientists have known about this general effect for years. The big surprise here is how much the complex topography plays a role, essentially doubling the threat to water resources in the West.”

Sara A. Rauscher, another author of the paper, added that the melting snow contributes to a feedback loop that accelerates warming. “Because snow is more reflective than the ground or vegetation beneath it, it keeps the surface temperatures lower by reflecting energy from the sun,” she said. “When snow melts or does not accumulate in the first place, more solar energy is absorbed by the ground, warming the surface. A feedback loop is created because the warmer ground then makes it more difficult for snow to accumulate and perpetuates the effect.”

The amount and timing of the runoff from snowmelt is critical to the success of water management in the western United States, she added. Water resources for the area are reliant on snow acting as a natural reservoir during the cold season that melts and releases water in the warm season.

The study also suggests a substantial change in the runoff season, with the peak date more than two months earlier than today in some regions, Diffenbaugh said.

“During the past 50 years, the peak runoff time has moved 10 to 15 days earlier,” he said. “It is not surprising that as we look to the future, the projected changes are much greater than the historical changes. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions has been relatively small for the past 50 years compared with where we are headed over the next several decades if substantial changes in energy technology and population growth do not occur.”

CDOT unveils wildlife warning system

A wildlife first has gone into action between Durango and Bayfield. This week, the Colorado Department of Transportation put into operation a first-in-the-nation Wildlife Detection System on U.S. Hwy. 160 just east of the Florida River. The section of highway has one of the highest rates of animal-vehicle collision in Colorado.

The new system consists of a mile-long cable buried one foot deep and 30 feet from either side of the roadway. Typically used for perimeter security by military installations, prisons and airports, this “intrusion-detection” technology will sense the presence of wildlife and notify motorists of the danger.

“We overlaid our accident data with a Division of Wildlife map of wildlife migration and it was clear that a high number of animal-vehicle collisions were happening right within a major migration route,” CDOT Resident Engineer Chris Beller said.

The underground cable in the Wildlife Detection System emits an electromagnetic field that can detect the presence of large animals. It then transmits information to a sensor module in that particular zone, which communicates to an on-site control module that activates electronic signs to warn motorists. There are 12 signs (six on each side of the highway) in the test section. When an animal triggers the system, two signs for each direction of travel will light up.

Seven speed radar detectors have also been installed to register motorists’ speed both outside and inside the test zone so that drivers’ base speed and reaction speed can be monitored. The radar system will also monitor traffic counts, useful for follow-up analysis of the data.

“The variable we’re looking for is motorist behavior,” CDOT Environmental Specialist Tony Cady said. “To test the validity of this system, we need to determine if there’s a drop in speed and

also whether this is a long-term behavior change, or just something motorists stop reacting to after a period of months.”

Initial planning and design for the system began back in 2005, and construction began in May of this year. The entire project, including equipment, installation and contractor expenses, cost approximately $1 million.

Schools take up safe routes for kids

Durango students will be “walking and wheeling” their way to the classroom next week. A partnership including local governments and top professional cyclists will be promoting safe routes to school.

The event, called Walk and Wheel to School, is set for Wed., Oct. 8, in an effort to promote safe walking and cycling by area students. Walk and Wheel is an offshoot of the Safe Routes to School program, which was created in the 1970s in Denmark over a concern for the safety of children walking and riding to and from school.  

Durango School District 9-R is partnering with the city and county to show its support for safe walking and wheeling to school. Several local schools will be encouraging students to walk and wheel to school, but the big event this year takes place at Park Elementary. Walk and Wheel gets under way at 7: 30 a.m. with a short ceremony, prize giveaways, refreshments and snacks, followed by a special walking and wheeling trek around the school.

Students at Park, their parents and members of the community are encouraged to walk and ride side-by-side with local professional cyclists at the event. Specialized’s Ned Overend, U23 national champion Tad Elliott, Scott Bike’s Drew Edsall, Kenda/Titus racer Andy Schultz and Durango DEVO’s Chad Cheeney will all be on hand for Walk and Wheel.

Downtown drivers are encouraged to drive safely next Wednesday and be on the lookout for kids taking part in the event.

Neutral Twin Buttes session scheduled

One local group is looking for the middle road to Twin Buttes. The Grassroots Visioning Project is hosting a neutral session on the controversial development proposal this Thursday. The goal of the session is to allow people with differing opinions to share their views and discuss alternatives in a safe place.

“We hope to head off any revival of the adversarial dynamics that prevailed during the River Trails Ranch period,” said organizer Bliss Bruen. “Too many people are walking away from public life, because it can be so polarized, just when our collaborative skills and energy are needed more than ever.”

The Thurs., Oct. 2, session runs from 5:45 - 8 p.m. at the Pine Room of the La Plata County Fairgrounds. It is set up as a facilitated neutral forum where people will hear the range of issues and concerns and pros and cons, and then sit down together and learn about some alternative proposals. Attendees will have the opportunity to look at the project through the lenses of wildlife, economics and affordable housing, transportation and city-county regulatory tools. Participants will also be able to have their comments submitted into the public record as this will be a noticed public meeting. Americorps volunteers from Fort Lewis College will help facilitate the dialogue. For more information contact: bliss.bruen@gmail.com.

– Will Sands



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