Aspen Global Warming Study: Grim Future


Richard Moore

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Aspen Global Warming Study Suggests Grim Future
By Allen Best
The Telluride Watch
August 4, 2006

ASPEN, Colo. - A new study in Aspen paints a dramatic picture of the area's 
climatic future should temperatures and atmospheric pollution continue to rise.

In a better-case future, in which the growth of global emissions of greenhouse 
gases are slowed, Aspen temperatures are projected to rise

6 degrees by the year 2100, giving it a climate comparable to what is now found 
at Los Alamos, N.M., or even Glenwood Springs, Colo.

On the other hand, if the direst warnings of scientists are correct and 
greenhouse gases remain unchecked, temperatures could rise 14 degrees by 
century's end, making Aspen's average daily temperatures more like those of Salt
Lake City or Boise.

Even in the better-case scenario, skiing is expected to shrink as a component of
Aspen's economy. In the worst-case scenario, skiing will disappear altogether.

These and other findings were released last month by Aspen town leaders, who 
have been working with climate scientists and others during the last year in an 
effort that, by several measures, is groundbreaking.

The study was the result of Aspen's Canary Initiative, which was launched a year
and a half ago by the city government. In the first part of that program, Aspen 
examined its own contribution to greenhouse gases. The study, released this past
winter, showed that Aspen was responsible for roughly twice the per capita 
emissions of U.S. residents, mostly due to jet travel by visitors and the 
lifestyles of its well-heeled residents.

The Aspen study may be the first time that broad, continent- and region-wide 
computer models have been used to deduce with precision the impacts of global 
warming in a very local area.

Older computer models projecting impacts of global warming were so broad that 
they failed to even show the mountain ranges of the West. Newer models do, but 
remain coarse.

"There are always limitations as you go to smaller and smaller regions," says 
John Katzenberger, executive director of the Aspen Global Change Institute. 
"Colorado is particularly challenging because it has storm tracks coming from 
different directions, and it also has the backbone of the continent. Whether 
storm tracks are on the east side or west side make a lot of difference."

Because of the limitations of existing computer models in predicting climate in 
local areas, Aspen took the unusual step of integrating several different 

"They're not precise for this small of an area," says Katzenberger. "That's why 
we used four methods, so we would come back at it from different angles and see 
if they came back with consistent messages."

The models used in the study did consistently show the same increments of 
warming, given certain levels of greenhouse gases. The more greenhouse gases 
that accumulate, the lesser the chances for skiable snow.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, stood at 250 parts per 
million in the atmosphere 200 years ago, at the start of the Industrial 
Revolution. Concentrations of the gas are currently at 379 parts per million. 
Many scientists say that 550 parts per million is the maximum that the earth's 
atmosphere can absorb without catastrophic consequences. Given current 
trajectories, concentrations are likely to hit that number in 2050. Aspen's 
worst-case scenario assumes 900 parts per million by the end of the 21st 

However, Katzenberger notes that 550 parts per million is not an inevitability. 
"It's possible, if the world really wanted, it could do better than that," he 
says. "And if it did so, the climate impacts could be greatly reduced."

Unlike future temperatures, the climate models for Aspen are unsure about future
precipitation levels. Again, this mirrors the more continent-wide models from 
which the local predictions were teased.

"Given the current state of climate modeling, what precipitation will do in 
northwest America, and with Aspen in particular, is really hard to say with any 
degree of confidence," says Brian Lazard, a hydrologist with Stratus Consulting,
a Boulder-based firm. "What we can say with a great deal of confidence is that 
the temperature will go up. It's just a matter of how much."

The warmer temperatures mean Aspen will see less snow and more rain. What snow 
it does get will melt more rapidly, up to three weeks earlier, mirroring changes
that have been documented in California's Sierra Nevada over the last 50 years. 
In other words, the runoff seen this year and in 2002 is likely to become the 
norm in future years.

Dan Richardson, the global warming project manager for the City of Aspen, says 
he is most taken aback by the implications of earlier runoff. "It's almost so 
big you can't get your arms around it."

The implications have also been under scrutiny in California, where much of the 
annual water supply comes from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.

Many of the study's key findings have been previously predicted, but the study 
gives them a stronger, scientific foundation. They include:

€ Local warming will force some plant and animal species to ascend to higher 
elevations. By mid-century, for example, the vegetation in Aspen is likely to 
look more like what is now seen near Basalt, a town that is 1,400 feet lower in 
elevation and 20 miles away. Species of the alpine tundra such as ptarmigan and 
pika will face threats of localized extinction, something called extirpation.

€ Rising temperatures will increase the likelihood of insect outbreaks. Cold 
nights and winters help keep insect populations in check. Warmer nights and 
winters, along with longer, warmer summers, will increase the risk of pests to 
spruce-fir forest and to aspen groves. Bark beetles in pine trees are likely to 
be less checked.

€ Existing invasive species such as Canada thistle and leafy spurge will spread,
and new non-native species may invade.

€ Ski season, if it remains, will occur at higher elevations, and during a 
shorter season. Rafting season will be shorter, and water supplies will be more 

€ Total precipitation has decreased 6 percent in the past 25 years, and at 
higher elevations of 10,600 feet, the precipitation has decreased 18 percent. In
addition, the amount falling in the form of snow has decreased 18 percent.

Results of the study, says Katzenberger, should be useful to communities making 
decisions about how to adapt to climate changes. The economy of Aspen, says the 
report, is more likely adaptable to climate change than are plants and animals. 
But, in general, the greater the warming, the more difficult and expensive 
adaptation to climate change will be.

Aspen figures to use its prominence to warn about the dangers of the current and
projected volume of greenhouse gas emissions. The Canary Initiative has received
major play in national magazines and TV broadcasts. It is also sponsoring a 
conference Oct. 11-13 geared toward mountain and gateway communities.

Aspen's next step will be to compile a draft action plan, to determine what it 
can do better to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Aside from its dependence on 
travel and its many large homes, the city and nearby Pitkin County have already 
taken many notable steps, among them adoption of building codes designed to 
maximize energy efficiency in buildings and a high reliance upon hydro and wind 

Informant: David Sunfellow
RUDKLA - 6. AUG, 22:12

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