Ajax feels the heat
July 26, 2006
If humans do nothing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, skiing in Aspen will be toast by 2100.And that’s probably the least of the city’s worries, according to a new study on climate change. The Aspen Global Change Institute coordinated the study, which it unveiled Wednesday.Drier conditions will make it a challenge for the Roaring Fork Valley to supply its growing population with potable water as soon as 2030, according to institute founder John Katzenberger. Higher temperatures and little change in precipitation will require more irrigation of hay fields and other crops.And the Aspen area won’t be able to rely as heavily on its high elevation to protect it from major wildfire outbreaks. Rising temperatures, and quicker absorption of rain and snowmelt into thirsty soil, will place greater stress on the trees of the White River National Forest. That will make them more susceptible to insect outbreaks. That creates the potential for longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the study concluded.The vegetation covering Aspen Mountain probably won’t look like that of today by 2100. Some plants and animals will be forced to higher elevations. Some won’t make it and will probably become locally extinct, the study said. Aspen’s vegetation is expected to look more like Basalt’s of today, even though that town is 1,400 feet lower.Cataclysmic change possibleForget the effects on skiing. Global warming could bring “cataclysmic change” to living, let alone lifestyle, said Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency and a contributor to the study.”It’s a sci-fi catastrophe – that world,” Udall said of the scenario if nothing is done to slow global warming.
To paint the possible picture, the Aspen Global Change Institute took three global change models that are widely accepted in the scientific community. One assumes humans get their act together in time to lower greenhouse gas emissions. A “do-nothing” scenario assumes world population continues to climb along with industrialization and emissions. The third falls in between.Those models assume Colorado’s central mountains could see a rise in annual average temperature between six and 14 degrees by 2100.Aspen Global Change Institute assembled a team of scientists, economists, writers and other experts to apply those temperature increases and determine how they would affect the Aspen area. The results are contained in “Climate Change and Aspen,” which can be downloaded at http://www.agci.org.Death of the ski bumsA key part of the study looked at potential impacts to Aspen’s ski industry as well as to rafting and fishing. While the stakes might be higher than whether or not a ski bum can roll out of bed onto the Silver Queen Gondola in 2100, a look at the effects on skiing helps put global warming into terms Aspenites can better grasp, said Katzenberger.”Climate change is likely to be progressively more problematic to the ski industry as the century progresses,” the study said.Temperatures would be warmer and more precipitation would fall as rain rather than snow. So ski seasons would likely have to start later and end earlier. Snowmaking wouldn’t bail the industry out because of warm conditions and competition for water. Peak snowpack could occur in early February rather than March.”By 2100, there will be no consistent winter snowpack at the base of the ski areas except possibly under the lowest greenhouse gas concentrations scenario,” the study said.Warmer springs would bring earlier peak runoff, shortening the rafting season and creating the best conditions at times when tourists traditionally don’t visit, according to the study.
Earlier runoff could benefit fishing in June, but long-term implications are bleak. Lower streamflows in summer and fall along with higher water temperatures could have adverse effects on the fishery.Critical R&DDespite the dire forecast, Katzenberger expressed hope that identifying problems will help Aspen find ways to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The city conducted an earlier study to identify its major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, Aspen global warming project manager Dan Richardson is working on an “action plan” to reduce those emissions. The council will be asked later this year to approve that plan.”Then the proof will be in the pudding,” Katzenberger said. Five years from now, it will be evident if Aspen can successfully reduce its emissions, he said.Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud declared that the city government is “committed” to the goal. She and other speakers said the inevitable visibility of all things Aspen could help inspire other communities to follow suit.Susan Hassol, a highly respected environmental writer and researcher from Basalt, said efforts like Aspen’s will be key to making any progress on slowing global warming. Federally mandated action is key to making a dent in the issue. However, local programs like Aspen’s are like “lab work” that will show what works and what doesn’t, Hassol said.Impacts by the numbers
If global warming continues to increase rapidly it could raise Aspen’s average annual temperature by 14 degrees by 2100, according to a study the Aspen Global Change Institute coordinated.That would have tremendous ecological impacts, including: Skiing would come to an end in Aspen by 2100 and possibly before then. “Reducing emissions could preserve skiing at middle and upper elevations. In general, the ski season is likely to start later and end earlier. Snow depths will be reduced. Spring melt will begin earlier. Summer and fall streamflows will likely drop because of peak runoff occurring earlier in the spring. “With the local population expected to increase by 75 percent by 2030, and associated water demand continuing to grow, the potential for water shortages will increase,” the study said. Larger and more intense wildfires will accompany hotter springs and summers. “For the Aspen area, global warming means higher air temperatures, reduced snowpack, forest stress, and increases in the number of trees killed by insects. Together, these are projected to lead to longer, more destructive fire seasons,” the study said.For the full range of ecological impacts, visit the Aspen Global Change Institute’s website at agci.org and click on the link to the “Climate Change and Aspen report.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.