Here’s the release from Colorado State University:
Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Center, is retiring after over 30 years of service with Colorado State University. Waskom is a member of CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, where he has worked on water-related research and outreach programs, in addition to overseeing the Extension Water Outreach program.
The Colorado Water Center is one of 54 Water Resources Research Institutes created by the Water Resources Act of 1964, which collectively form the National Institutes for Water Resources. As a division in the Office of Engagement and Extension, the Center aims to connect all water expertise in Colorado’s higher education system with research and education needs of the state’s water managers and users, building on the rich water history at Colorado State University.
“CSU has a long history in water-related research, education and outreach, areas that grow increasingly critical to our world every day,” said President Joyce McConnell. “Reagan’s deep wisdom and expertise as the director of the Colorado Water Center has been matched by his humanistic, thoughtful approach to this work. We are grateful to him for his incredible research and leadership, and we will continue the strong engagement he has modeled with the many water faculty, students, stakeholders and users across the state.”
“Reagan is a respected water expert and leader. Colorado has benefitted from his expertise, CSU is better from his service, and our future conversations on water are strong with our Center leadership and researchers,” said Blake Naughton, vice president of Engagement and Extension.
Gimbel interim director
With Waskom’s retirement, Jennifer Gimbel, currently a senior water policy scholar, will serve as interim director of the Water Center. At the center, Gimbel’s focus is on Colorado River issues and developing curriculum and teaching an interdisciplinary graduate class on Western water issues.
Gimbel was the principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of Interior from 2014 to 2016, during which time she oversaw the department’s water and science policies and was responsible for the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey. She also served as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board from 2008 to 2013. She brings unique skills and experience working with the water community at the state, regional and federal level, as well as a proactive and creative approach to problem-solving. She has a bachelor of science and Juris Doctorate from the University of Wyoming and a master of science from the University of Delaware, and has authored numerous articles and presentations on state and federal water law.
Supporting Gimbel in this role, Julie Kallenberger will serve as associate director, assisting in leading and ensuring execution of research and education programs, outreach activities, communications and operations in support of the center’s mission. She will work directly with the center’s senior research scientists, CSU Extension water specialists, and water experts to advance knowledge and solutions to priority water challenges. Since 2008, Kallenberger has served as a water education specialist. She holds a bachelor of science degree from South Dakota State University and a master of science from CSU.
Additional information on the search for the next director of the Water Center will be available in 2021.
We know that global warming is forcing many animals around the world to flee their normal habitats, but now, an exhaustive analysis has shown marine species are booking it for the poles six times faster than those on land.
Drawing together 258 peer-reviewed studies, researchers compared over 30,000 habitat shifts in more than 12,000 species of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.
The resulting database, named BioShifts, is the first comprehensive analysis of its kind, and while the database is limited by our own, human research biases, the data we have certainly suggests marine species are following global thermal shifts much closer than land animals.
While land species definitely are moving closer to the poles as the planet heats up, this shift is “at a pace that is much slower than expected, especially in areas with warm climates,” the authors write.
In the review, amphibians were found to be moving up slope at over 12 metres a year, while reptiles seem to be headed towards the equator at 6.5 metres a year.
Insects, which incidentally carry many diseases, were found to be moving poleward at 18.5 kilometres per year.
Relatively, that’s a lot, but in the bigger picture, marine species were moving towards the poles at an average pace of nearly 6 kilometres per year, while land animals were only shifting upslope at a mean pace of nearly 1.8 metres per year (slightly faster than previous estimates for land species, but still comparatively slow).
This discrepancy between land and water could exist for several reasons. It might, for instance, be a product of temperature sensitivity. Air conducts heat 25 times less effectively than water, and many land animals can easily regulate their body temperature if they want.
On the whole, this would logically leave marine species and many ectotherms – cold-blooded species – much more susceptible to Earth’s fluctuating temperatures.
Plus, animals in the water can migrate a lot easier if the need arises. On land, human activities often impede the movement of animals. In fact, when animals were exposed to a high degree of anthropogenic disturbances, the authors of this analysis found they tended to move against the thermal grain and not with it.
This is consistent with the general idea that land use and climate change may force species in opposite directions, a sort of push and pull of re-distribution.
“On land, habitat loss and fragmentation due to land use changes may impede the ability of terrestrial species to track shifting isotherms [lines on a map connection regions with the same temperature],” the authors write.
“These complex interactions need to be accounted for to improve scenarios of biodiversity redistribution and its consequences on human well-being under future climate change.”
If the authors are right, and marine life is tracking along temperature changes more closely, it could have dire and far-reaching repercussions. Some of which we might have seen before.
During the Permian-Triassic Extinction, the most calamitous event in Earth’s history, researchers say very few marine organisms stayed in the same habitat as oxygen levels plummeted.
“It was either flee or perish,” according to oceanographer Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington, and for over 50 percent of marine species at the time, it was unfortunately the latter.
Today, as temperature increases squeeze animals into ever-narrowing habitat ranges, those animals already swimming towards he poles are also at risk of running out of cooler water.
Of course, this is happening on land, too. Animals found high up in the mountains are said to be riding an “escalator to extinction” as temperatures and competition push them over the brink. It’s just that in the water this escalator seems to be moving faster.
“We suggest that commercial fishing may speed up the displacement of marine species distribution through resource depletion and population crashes at the trailing edge, whereas low constraints on dispersal in the oceans may allow marine species living close to their upper thermal limits to better track climate warming at the leading edge,” the authors predict.
As impressive and necessary as the new database is, however, the authors acknowledge it has serious limits.
Despite its comprehensive nature, the meta-analysis used to create BioShifts only covers 0.6 percent of all known life on Earth, and the animals we have researched tend to be the most charismatic, or important to humans, focused predominantly in the northern hemisphere.
So while we call this a global meta-analysis, it’s not really. Instead, it’s as close as we can get given the circumstances.
Still, we can only work with what we’ve got, and it looks like the animals we do know of are struggling to find new habitats in the face of a growing climate crisis.
BioShifts is a way for us to help track those changes so we can possibly predict what will happen next.
North America’s sagebrush steppe ecosystem is home to more than 350 species of plants and animals, many of which live nowhere else. It sustains the water supply, economies, and culture of Western communities. But a deadly invader threatens to send it all up in flames. Learn how cheatgrass and other invasive weeds threaten this ecosystem’s very existence and what we must do to save it: https://rockies.audubon.org/sagebrush/cheatgrass-fire
New research reveals a creeping, permanent dryness expanding across the United States. It’s much more than “drought,” and researchers hope more accurate descriptions will spur critical action.
After nearly two decades of declining water flows into the Colorado River Basin, scientists have decided the word drought doesn’t cut it anymore. We need different terms, they say, to help people fully grasp what has happened and the long-term implications of climate change — not just in the Southwest, but across the country.
The term that’s caught the most attention lately is “megadrought.”
It’s not a new word, but it’s one that’s come sharply into focus in recent months, following a study published this April in the journal Science that found the North American Southwest has experienced an abnormally severe drought over the past two decades — its second driest stretch in 1,200 years.
Archaeological evidence has linked previous decades-long megadroughts to several historical societal collapses, including the Mayan civilization and Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China.
Let that sink in a minute if you need to.
The researchers, led by A. Park Williams of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, say this prolonged megadrought — which reached from Oregon and Idaho down to northern Mexico — would likely have been just a bad drought if not for climate change. The increase in temperatures from our burning of fossil fuels supercharged naturally varying conditions, creating one of the worst megadroughts in human history.
“The new study provided a nice basis to what many of us have felt now for a number of years,” says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, who was not involved in the research. “The basin has really entered a fundamentally different period than what we experienced during the 20th century.”
That may not come as a surprise to those who have noticed that the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are now sitting half-empty.
But linking modern reality to the megadroughts of history is something new — and researchers say this and other changes to our language matter for the future.
The current megadrought in the Southwest is defined not so much by declining precipitation — although that did have an effect too — but by increasing temperatures from climate change. That’s going to continue to climb as long as we keep burning greenhouse gases.
Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, have spent more than a decade studying the effect of this warming on the Colorado River, a crucial water source in the West. The river irrigates 5 million acres of farmland, provides water to 40 million people in seven states — including in the West’s biggest cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver — and helps keep the lights on in the “city of lights,” among other towns.
This exploitation has come at an ecological cost, though. Thanks to diversions for our various human uses, the river now runs dry before it reaches the sea. More water rights have been allotted than nature can provide, which is undoubtedly a management issue (although a complex one to solve), but in the last two decades this is being more acutely felt.
In part that’s because less water is running off into the basin.
Udall and Overpeck found in a 2017 study published in Water Resources Research that Colorado River flows between 2000 and 2014 were 19% below normal. Reduced rainfall was partially responsible. But on average, they found, about one-third of the runoff decline resulted from warming temperatures from human-caused climate change.
Higher temperatures from this “hot drought,” as it’s also called, means more evaporation from water bodies and soil, more evapotranspiration from plants and more sublimation from snow. For the West, where water resources are stretched thin already, this can have far-reaching economic and ecological consequences.
Which brings us to another proposed change in the way we describe things.
In a 2018 paper the Colorado River Research Group, which includes Udall and Overpeck, called for new language to describe the scientific reality on the ground. The term “drought,” they wrote, wasn’t accurate.
“Aridification,” they argued, was a more fitting description.
The semantics here are important.
Aridification, they explained, “describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment — an evolving new baseline around which future extreme events (droughts and floods) will occur.”
Or more simply: Drought is temporary. Aridification is permanent.
This reinforces the fact that climate change isn’t a distant phenomenon, but one that’s already underway and causing life-altering changes. Depending on where you live, it’s causing more severe floods, destructive hurricanes, prolonged droughts or lengthened fire seasons.
And it’s here to stay, given our current course. The “new normal” of climate change could, like megadroughts, be felt for decades.
“We’ve been wanting to make the case that this is not a normal drought,” says Udall. “A drought implies that some kind of return to normalcy will occur in the near future, and that’s not what we’ve seen and not what the science tells us is likely to happen.”
This isn’t a problem contained to just the Colorado River basin or the Southwest, either.
Warmer summer temperatures are likely to reduce flows in other key western rivers, including the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, and rivers across California’s Sierra Nevada, other research has shown. And warming temperatures are driving similar changes further east, too.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined flows in the Missouri River, the country’s longest river, which cuts through the Midwest. The researchers, led by USGS scientist Justin Martin, found that during the first decade of the 2000s the Upper Missouri River Basin had drought conditions “unmatched over the last 1,200 years.”
The culprit? Warming temperatures from climate change that reduced runoff from snowfall in Rocky Mountain headwater streams that feed the Missouri.
Same story, different river.
But while that paper did occasionally use the term “megadrought,” it mostly characterized what’s happening in the Missouri as a “severe drought.”
Framing the problem in that manner, some say, may not be enough to convey the seriousness of the situation or to inspire action from water managers and the public.
To change the narrative, we have to change the framing, Udall and Overpeck argue in a new commentary published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in response to the Missouri River study. Thinking of what’s happening on the Missouri, and other rivers across the West, as a drought, they wrote, ignores the real and long-term effect that warming temperatures will have on our rivers.
“This translates into an increasingly arid Southwest and West, with progressively lower river flows, drier landscapes, higher forest mortality, and more severe and widespread wildfires,” they wrote, “not year on year, but instead a clear longer-term trend toward greater aridification, a trend that only climate action can stop.”
And that gets to about the only good news in any of the recent research. We know what’s causing the problem. We just need to do something about it.
A first step is making sure changes in water-management policy reflect scientific reality, and that’s where using language for planning that matches the task at hand becomes crucial.
Water managers traditionally use the past as a guide by examining the hydrologic record to calculate important baselines for the average high and low flows, the size of possible floods and the length of probable droughts.
But that’s all changing now “because the future is no longer going to look like the past,” says Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and coauthor of the book Science Be Damned: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. Now, he says, “water managers are trying to move forward in what we call ‘deep uncertainty’” — a process that requires planning for any number of plausible futures, including a very dry one.
We will get a chance to see what this looks like at the basin-scale as a seven-year process to renegotiate how the Colorado River is shared among its many uses is now underway.
Whether those at the table take to heart the scientific findings about the prognosis for “aridification” and “megadrought” will have big ramifications on the future ecological, economic and political health of the Colorado River basin.
Outside the basin the larger work continues as well.
“The sooner emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are eliminated,” Udall and Overpeck concluded, “the sooner the aridification of North America will stop getting worse.”