Colorado’s vulnerability to climate change

Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study cover
Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study cover

Here’s the link to the report announcement from Western Water Assessment, the University of Colorado, and Colorado State University.

From Colorado Public Radio (Megan Arellano):

Vulnerability is not just a question of how climate change will affect resources in the state, it’s also a question of how well Colorado is prepared to deal with changes,” said Eric Gordon, co-lead editor of the report and a researcher with the Western Water Assessment.

Longer and more intense droughts are likely across the state, so growing crops with irrigation is going to be “a little more difficult,” said Gordon. Even cattle eat less during hot weather, which means ranching will probably be impacted as well.

Additionally, the report notes that public schools on the Front Range haven’t needed to be air conditioned in the past. As temperatures rise, that change could be “expensive to address,” says the report.

Below, more on four vulnerable state sectors:

  • Water: The state’s reservoirs can provide some buffering against some expected increases in water demand and decreases in flow, but entities with junior rights or little storage are especially vulnerable to future low flows.
  • Agriculture: Rising temperatures, heat waves and droughts can reduce crop yield and slow cattle weight gain. Colorado farmers and ranchers are already accustomed to large natural swings in weather and climate, but may find it especially challenging to deal with expected changes in water resources.
  • Recreation: Climate projections show that Colorado’s springtime mountain snowpack will likely decline by 2050, with potential impacts on late-season skiing. Spring runoff season may also be earlier and shorter, which could affect rafting. But the recreation industry and some Colorado communities are already making changes that could help them adapt to a warmer future. For example, Telluride ski area now markets itself as Telluride Ski & Golf.
  • Transportation: As temperatures increase, rail speeds must drop to avoid track damage, leaving the freight and passenger rail industries vulnerable to slowdowns or the need for expensive track replacements.
  • From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Charlie Brennan):

    Colorado could see more infectious disease, negative impacts on the elderly and people living in poverty, as well as stresses to water, cattle and crops as byproducts of future climate change, according to a comprehensive new report commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.

    “The important takeaway is, here’s what’s important to Colorado,” said Eric Gordon, co-lead editor of the 176-page report and managing director of the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado. “We’re not talking about things that have nothing to do with us, like sea level rise. This is what’s important to Colorado and what we should be worrying about.”

    The exhaustive report includes chapters devoted to seven separate sectors where the state might show vulnerability to climate change — ecosystems, water, agriculture, energy, transportation, outdoor recreation and public health.

    Dennis Ojima, co-lead editor of the report and a professor in the Ecosystem Science and Sustainability Department at Colorado State University, noted the degree to which each of those sectors can be seen as intertwined with the others.

    For example, Ojima said, “In a warmer climate, we need more irrigation and more energy to support that, and more air conditioning in our area in the summer requires more energy, but also more water for cooling. These multiple constraints start occurring when you start looking at the whole state of the system.”

    Among noteworthy findings of the report:

  • Climate projections show that Colorado’s springtime mountain snowpack will likely decline by 2050, with potential impacts on late-season skiing. Spring runoff season may also be earlier and shorter, which could affect rafting.
  • The state’s reservoirs can provide buffering against some expected increases in water demand and decreases in flow, but entities with junior rights or little storage are especially vulnerable to future low flows.
  • Rising temperatures, heat waves and droughts can reduce crop yield and slow cattle weight gain. Colorado farmers and ranchers are already accustomed to large natural swings in weather and climate but may find it particularly hard to deal with expected changes in water resources.
  • The report, presuming a conservative level of future greenhouse gas emissions, nevertheless forecasts a 2.5- to 5.5-degree increase in statewide temperatures by mid-century, relative to a 1971-2000 baseline. Also, Colorado will be more prone to extreme precipitation events in winter, but not necessarily during the summer.
  • The report states that impacts on public health are complex and hard to anticipate, but climbing temperatures may mean more frequent episodes of bad air quality and more common heatstroke, plague, West Nile virus and hantavirus.

    Temperatures in Colorado have been rising, especially in summer, and that trend is expected to continue, along with increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and wildfire.

    Even public schools in many Front Range cities are vulnerable to these changes, the report stated. Historically, schools in the state have not often required cooling, so many do not have air-conditioned classrooms.

    Boulder County, in fact, is spending $37.7 million from a $576.5 million construction bond issue passed in November to provide air conditioning to eight schools that don’t have it (five of which hold summer sessions).

    ‘How do we use this report to move forward?’

    The report was lauded by Stephen Saunders, president of the Louisville-based Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.

    “This first-ever state-specific synthesis of existing information on how climate change may affect us here will be very valuable to the state government, to local governments, and indeed to all Coloradans,” Saunders said. “Now, the question is, how do we use this report to move forward?”

    Saunders added, “The report itself points to the importance of preparedness actions by the state government, local governments and others to reduce our risks of future impacts. We believe those state government actions should include both a comprehensive state-government-wide preparedness plan, and specific actions by individual state agencies to factor climate change risks into their plans and management actions.”

    In its concluding chapter, titled “Moving Toward Preparedness,” the report cites the Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan for its overarching principles and suggests they should be integrated into “all forms of planning” to provide resilience in the face of future climate impacts.

    Some of those principles are ensuring flexibility, removing barriers to adaptation, recognizing the need for leadership and collaboration, plus preparing for multiple possible climate futures.

    From the Fence Post (Nikki Work):

    The report, called the Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study, was compiled by representatives of the Western Water Assessment, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado State University and National Center for Atmospheric Research. According to a press release from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the report was compiled using existing data and literature. The researchers then found issues in a variety of sectors, including public health, water, agriculture, recreation and transportation.

    “Vulnerability is not just a question of how climate change will affect resources in the state, it’s also a question of how well Colorado is prepared to deal with changes,” said report co-lead editor Eric Gordon in the release. Gordon is a researcher with the Western Water Assessment.

    The report discusses the warming trend in Colorado and the effects it could have. Examples of potential problems include reduced crop yield, cattle feeding, drought, less available water to those with junior rights and/or little storage, a decrease in snowpack, possible increases in the prevalence of West Nile Virus and the necessity of slower rail speeds to avoid infrastructure damage.

    “We also know vulnerabilities change over time, as environmental and socio-economic conditions change,” said the report’s co-lead editor and professor at CSU Dennis Ojima in the release. “It will be important to keep an eye on this changing landscape of vulnerability.”

    The full report is available at http://wwa.colorado.edu/climate/co2015vulnerability/.

    Leave a Reply