Trees growing at high elevations below melting snow fields. Warming and snowpack declines in Colorado and the Rockies are projected to worsen through the 21st century. (Greg Pederson, USGS, 2009)
Diminishing snowpack in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains due to warming temperatures has partners joining forces to lessen impacts on the region’s ski industry, wildlife resources and quality of life.
A study released earlier this month by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that snowpack declines in Colorado and the Rockies during the last 30 years are unusual compared to the past few centuries. Prior studies by the USGS and other institutions attribute the decline to unusual springtime warming, more precipitation falling now as rain rather than snow, and earlier snowmelt.
The warming and snowpack decline are projected to worsen through the 21st century, foreshadowing a strain on water supplies. Runoff from winter snowpack—layers of snow that accumulate at high altitude—accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the annual water supply for more than 70 million people living in the western United States.
According to a news release, the study supports research by others estimating that between 30-60 percent of the declines in the late 20th century are likely due to greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining part of the trend can be attributed to natural decadal variability in the ocean and atmosphere, which is making springtime temperatures that much warmer.
“What we have seen in the last few decades may signal a fundamental shift from precipitation to temperature as the dominant influence on western snowpack,” USGS scientist Gregory Pederson, lead author for the study, said in the release.
Using ClimateWizard.org, scientists at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) compared average temperature and precipitation changes of seven ski resorts in the Rockies over the coming century. The seven Western resorts would experience temperature increases from the current average of 20.27 degrees Fahrenheit to 24.37 by 2050 and to 27.30 by century’s end.
Western resorts are expected to face a range of climate-related challenges: outbreaks of pests like the mountain pine beetle are already reducing tree cover and increasing vulnerability to fire. Extreme events such as wet avalanches and heavy rains during the ski season, as well as drought,are likely to become more common in a warming climate.
Western resorts are expected to face a range of climate-related challenges, such outbreaks of pests like the mountain pine beetle, drought, and wet avalanches and heavy rains during the ski season. (Flickr/Richard Johnson)
So, can anything be done to prepare for sparser snow seasons ahead?
Yes, says Frank Lowenstein, TNC’s strategy leader for climate change adaptation. In addition to reducing their collective carbon footprints, Lowenstein saysresorts can work to protect the resources on which they will become even more reliant—water and forest cover. Because snowmaking requires a reliable source of water to pump through cannons over the slopes to make snow, ski areas can prepare for climate change byrestoring wetlands and floodplains to store water. Forests also act as windbreaks and shade against the sun and reduce erosion into water sources.
TNC and the National Ski Areas Association, based in Colorado, are discussing ways to incorporate ecosystem-based adaptation into Sustainable Slopes, an initiative developed in partnership with theNatural Resources Defense Council.
“Protecting upland forests and better water management can support snow sports and provide year-round benefits to millions of people,” Lowenstein says.
Conservation of high altitude wetlands and forested ecosystems can provide direct and indirect benefits to wildlife like the threatened Canada lynx. (Flickr/Jacme31)
These same measures can also benefit wildlife, says Al Pfister, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in the agency’s Western Colorado field office.
Pfister says conservation of high altitude wetlands and forested ecosystems provides both direct and indirect benefits to many wildlife and plant species that are dependent on these ecosystems. “For example, conserving forested habitat within and around ski resorts provides habitat connectivity and habitat for the food base for the federally threatened Canada lynx,” he says.
Likewise, federally endangered fish such as the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker benefit from efforts to retain snow at high altitudes to provide more natural hydrologic regimes (changing rates of flow and levels and volumes of water) in the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa Rivers. Pfister says natural hydrologic regimes with high spring snow melt runoff provide the spawning and rearing habitat requirements of the endangered fish and their young.
"The work of TNC and the National Ski Areas Association complements that of the Upper Colorado River Recovery Program, where the Service, Bureau of Reclamation, TNC and dozens of other partners are implementing management actions to recover endangered fish and provide a safety net for climate change-related water shortages in the Upper Colorado River Basin," he says.
Authors: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, With information from the U.S. Geological Survey
Contacts: Leith Edgar, USFWS, 303-236-4588 email@example.com
Al Pfister, USFWS, 970-243-2778 ext. 29
NPR interview with USGS Scientist Gregory Pederson