Ecosystems react to climate change

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – For several years now scientists have known that species within mountain ecosystems are reacting to the changing climate. Pika, for example, are moving up in elevation.

But few places have such a strong empirical record for comparison as Yosemite National Park. There, a museum director named Joseph Grinnell set out nearly a century ago to seek specimens for his museum in Berkeley, Calif. Unlike other collectors, however, he and his assistants took elaborate notes on everything.

TheSacramento Bee’s Tom Knudson explains that because of those elaborate notes, researchers today can trace Grinnell’s footsteps to study what is different. Much has changed.

For example, during his traipsing in Yosemite, Grinnell found a species called the piñon mouse in the forests at around 7,000 feet. But when retired zoology professor Jim Patton went looking in 2003, he found the same species at 10,240 feet.

Rodent populations do expand and contract dramatically, but researchers think that global climate change has pushed the mouse up the mountain.

“Historic records for Yosemite indicate there’s been about a five-degree Fahrenheit increase in the maximum summer temperature for any given elevation,” said Les Chow, a data manager for the National Park Service.

Some species, such as bushy-tailed wood rats and water shrews, have also become uncommon. Another species, the alpine chipmunk, is virtually nonexistent.

Other species, such as the golden-mantled ground squirrel, remain but are moving upward. However, few species are migrating as rapidly as the alpine chipmunk. In 1915, the small chipmunk was omnipresent at Tuolumne Meadows. Now, it has retreated 2,000 feet upward.

“Maybe it’s the warming temperatures that it does not like,” reports Knudson. “Or perhaps it is the landscape changes that follow climate change – such as the creep of conifers up the mountain – that are pushing it higher onto the talus slopes. Alpine chipmunks prefer open areas, not shadow forests.”

Heat alone may not be driving the creatures upward. For example, in this case, scientists speculate that snow deposition may have changed, causing a different distribution of plants. That could impact the diet of the chipmunks, which feed primarily on seeds. Whatever the reason, if the current pace continues, the chipmunk will start running out of real estate in 35 to 40 years.


Changing politics swing Colorado

DENVER –The New Yorker in a recent article examined the politics of Colorado. The article argued that if Barack Obama hopes to win the West, he needs to understand how Democrats came to control Colorado. The ski towns were mentioned as what political operatives called a “blue strip.”

For most of the last 60 years, Republicans have controlled the Rocky Mountain West. They still do in those areas where ranching prevails.

But in 2004, a noteworthy trend became evident in Colorado – and, for that matter, in other parts of the recreation-dominated West. Places like Gunnison, Grand and Routt counties – homes respectively to Crested Butte, Winter Park and Steamboat Springs – bucked their Republican traditions and voted for a Democrat – John Kerry – for president.

Some ski-anchored mountain counties – notably Aspen-dominated Pitkin County and Telluride-dominated San Miguel County – have consistently voted for Democrats for decades. But this new “blue strip” of resort communities in formerly rural, traditional Republican ranch counties is “now full of second homes and growing,” observed Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s chief of staff, Jim Carpenter.

Carpenter has observed that change closely, as he grew up in Granby, located near Winter Park and within Grand County. For decades it was so Republican than the only local elections that mattered occurred in the primary. Everybody from county coroner to surveyer was registered a Republican, whatever his or her true leanings may have been. In 2004, however, Grand County crossed the aisle to Kerry.

This resort blue-strip, however, alone does not explain why Colorado became a swing state. Also important, noted theNew Yorker, were the growing number of Hispanics and, most important of all, the shift in Denver’s suburbs.

“Democrats often pay homage to the symbols of the American frontier,” concluded the magazine. “But the iconography of their Western strategy is not so much about mountain, cowboys, and tumbleweed as it is about tract houses, research labs, and wind farms.”


Airlines grapple with footprint

AIRPORTS EVERYWHERE – Can flying ever be green? So asksEcologist, a magazine from the United Kingdom, and it’s a question in which ski towns should be vitally interested as they go about measuring their carbon footprints.

The magazine says it’s fair to say that the airline industry has been trying. The fuel efficiency of airlines has increased steadily at around 1.2 percent a year, and is continuing to rise. Airlines have reasons to fly planes carrying more passengers. And Richard Branson, the entrepreneur and owner of Virgin Airlines, recently flew one of his planes with one engine operating on a weak blend of biofuel.

But these gains are dwarfed by the growth in airline use, up 8 percent a year in the UK.

“The simple fact is that if aviation continues to grow as predicted, then even with projected increases in efficiency it will use the UK’s entire allocation of carbon dioxide by 2050, were we to accept an 80 percent reduction target,” theEcologist observes.

The magazine does note the return of turboprop aircraft. One such plane, the Q400, is being used by Frontier for its flights from Denver to resort towns in the Rocky Mountains, and for shuttles between Los Angeles to Mammoth.

“Although they are both slower and noisier (for passengers) than jets, turboprops use between a quarter and a third less fuel, and offer considerably better economy on short-haul flights,” theEcologist notes.

How about hydrogen? So far, it’s no real answer. It emits only water, but water itself is a powerful greenhouse gas when in the atmosphere.

The magazine also notes emissions at altitude are roughly twice as damaging in terms of global warming. Partly because of this, aviation is responsible for at least 13 percent of emissions by the UK.


Jumbo Glacier Resort faces fight

INVERMERE, B.C. – The future of the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort is knotted. The ski area and potentially 6,400-bed resort has been pushed forward by the provincial government, but stubbornly resisted by two organizations, Wildsight and the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society. A disputed plebiscite conducted last year in the Invermere area found 80 percent of voters opposed.

The latest twist is a procedural one. The provincial government agreed to transfer the right to operate a ski training facility on Farnham Glacier. The new company, Glacier Resorts, was building an 800-meter road to the glacier and planned to install a portable platter lift.

Wildsight, one of the environmental groups, riled the public into creating a blockade. The government is not challenging that blockade, reports Whistler’sPique newsmagazine.

A more local newspaper, theInvermere Valley Echo, says that two First Nations groups are tilting in opposite directions on Jumbo. Ktunaxa Nation has joined the blockade – although it is also negotiating with the resort proponents. Another First Nations people, the Shuswap Indian Band, had previously gone on record supporting the project. The Shuswaps insist that the development is within their traditional territory.


Aspen and Vail at transport odds

ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co. isn’t about to share its mailing list with rival Vail Resorts Inc., and so it has thrown its business for transporting people from airports to a company called Gray Line Worldwide.

A company called Colorado Mountain Express for the last decade had cornered the business of transporting people from Denver International Airport, as well as from Eagle County Regional Airport, to ski resorts along and near Interstate 70. The company was owned by East West Partners, the land-development company.

But East West earlier this year decided to sell CME to Vail for $40.5 million. The deal is expected to be completed this fall.

Chuck Murphy, the managing member of Gray Line of Colorado, asked Aspen whether it was a concern that Aspen’s guests would be transported by Vail. Murphy told theAspen Times that 20,000 to 30,000 destination travelers go to Aspen each winter from either DIA or Eagle County Regional Airport. Murphy’s firm hopes to get at least a quarter of that business.

Whereas CME exclusively uses vans, the new company has an array of vehicles, from 10-passenger vans to 56-passenger buses, also called motorcoaches. The proposed fare from DIA to Aspen will be $105 one-way, and from Eagle County it will be $60.

– Allen Best

In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
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January 26, 2024
Paper chase

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January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows