I’m in Steamboat Springs for the Colorado Water Congress’ Summer Conference. I drove the Leaf over because there are now 2 DC Fast Charger installations in Middle Park: One in the Town of Fraser and one in the Town of Granby. Also, the free Level 2 chargers are still around in Kremmling for that boost over Rabbit Ears Pass.
Climate change has been accumulating slowly but relentlessly for decades. The changes might sound small when you hear about them – another tenth of a degree warmer, another centimeter of sea level rise – but seemingly small changes can have big effects on the world around us, especially regionally.
The problem is that while effects are small at any time, they accumulate. Those effects have now accumulated to the point where their influence is contributing to damaging heat waves, drought and rainfall extremes that can’t be ignored.
The most recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is more emphatic than ever: Climate change, caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels, is having damaging effects on the climate as we know it, and those effects are rapidly getting worse.
Earth’s energy imbalance
An excellent example of how climate change accumulates is Earth’s energy imbalance. I am a climate scientist and have a new book on this about to be published by Cambridge University Press.
The Sun bombards Earth with a constant stream of about 173,600 terawatts (that is 12 zeros) of energy in the form of solar radiation. About 30% of that energy is reflected back into space by clouds and reflective surfaces, like ice and snow, leaving 122,100 terawatts to drive all the weather and climate systems around us, including the water cycle. Almost all of that energy cycles back to space – except for about 460 TW.
That remaining 460 TW is the problem we’re facing. That excess energy, trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is heating up the planet. That is the Earth’s energy imbalance, or in other words, global warming.
In comparison with the natural flow of energy through the climate system, 460 TW seems small – it’s only a fraction of 1 percent. Consequently, we cannot go outside and feel the extra energy. But the heat accumulates, and it is now having consequences.
To put that in perspective, the total amount of electricity generated worldwide in 2018 was about 2.6 TW. If you look at all energy used around the world, including for heat, industry and vehicles, it’s about 19.5 TW. Earth’s energy imbalance is huge in comparison.
Interfering with the natural flow of energy through the climate system is where humans make their mark. By burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and releasing greenhouse gases in other ways, humans are sending gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere that trap more of that incoming energy rather than letting it radiate back out.
Before the first industries began burning large amounts of fossil fuels in the 1800s, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was estimated at around 280 parts per million of volume. In 1958, when Dave Keeling began measuring atmospheric concentrations at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, that level was 310 parts per million. Today, those values have climbed to about 415 parts per million, a 48% increase.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and increased amounts cause heating. In this case, the human increment is not small.
Where does the extra energy go?
Measurements over time show that over 90% of this extra energy is going into the oceans, where it causes the water to expand and sea level to rise.
The upper layer of the oceans started warming around the 1970s. By the early 1990s, heat was reaching 500 to 1,000 meters (1,640 to 3,280 feet) deep. By 2005, it was heating the ocean below 1,500 meters (nearly 5,000 feet).
Global sea level, measured by flights and satellites, was rising at a rate of about 3 millimeters per year from 1992 to 2012. Since then, it been increasing at about 4 millimeters a year. In 29 years, it has risen over 90 millimeters (3.5 inches).
If 3.5 inches doesn’t sound like much, talk to the coastal communities that exist a few feet above sea level. In some regions, these effects have led to chronic sunny day flooding during high tides, like Miami, San Francisco and Venice, Italy. Coastal storm surges are higher and much more destructive, especially from hurricanes. It’s an existential threat to some low-lying island nations and a growing expense for U.S. coastal cities.
Some of that extra energy, about 13 terawatts, goes into melting ice. Arctic sea ice in summer has decreased by over 40% since 1979. Some excess energy melts land ice, such as glaciers and permafrost on Greenland, Antarctica, which puts more water into the ocean and contributes to sea level rise.
Some energy penetrates into land, about 14 TW. But as long as land is wet, a lot of energy cycles into evapotranspiration – evaporation and transpiration in plants – which moistens the atmosphere and fuels weather systems. It is when there is a drought or during the dry season that effects accumulate on land, through drying and wilting of plants, raising temperatures and greatly increasing risk of heat waves and wildfire.
Consequences of more heat
Over oceans, the extra heat provides a tremendous resource of moisture for the atmosphere. That becomes latent heat in storms that supersizes hurricanes and rainstorms, leading to flooding, as people in many parts of the world have experienced in recent months.
Air can contain about 4% more moisture for every 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.55 Celsius) increase in temperature, and air above the oceans is some 5% to 15% moister than it was prior to 1970. Hence, about a 10% increase in heavy rain results as storms gather the excess moisture.
Again, this may not sound like much, but that increase enlivens the updrafts and the storms, and then the storm lasts longer, so suddenly there is a 30% increase in the rainfall, as has been documented in several cases of major flooding.
In Mediterranean climates, characterized by long, dry summers, such as in California, eastern Australia and around the Mediterranean, the wildfire risk grows, and fires can be readily triggered by natural sources, like dry lightning, or human causes.
Extreme events in weather have always occurred, but human influences are now pushing them outside their previous limits.
The straw that breaks the camel’s back syndrome
So, while all weather events are driven by natural influences, the impacts are greatly magnified by human-induced climate change. Hurricanes cross thresholds, levees break and floods run amok. Elsewhere, fires burn out of control, things break and people die.
I call it “The straw that breaks the camel’s back syndrome.” This is extreme nonlinearity, meaning the risks aren’t rising in a straight line – they’re rising much faster, and it confounds economists who have greatly underestimated the costs of human-induced climate change.
The result has been far too little action both in slowing and stopping the problems, and in planning for impacts and building resilience – despite years of warnings from scientists. The lack of adequate planning means we all suffer the consequences.
[The Conversation’s science, health and technology editors pick their favorite stories. Weekly on Wednesdays.]
From The Greeley Tribune (Bruce Finley):
Colorado officials plan to measure use more precisely and pay farmers to send more to Lake Powell
As federal authorities impose the first-ever mandatory cuts in how much water Arizona, Nevada and Mexico take from the Colorado River, the states higher up the river face rising pressure to divert less.
That has Colorado officials embarking on an effort to install measuring devices across the Western Slope to precisely account for just how much farmers, ranchers and cities siphon out. The state is also developing a program to pay farmers, cities and industries to use less of their allotted shares of river water so that more could be banked in Lake Powell to meet the state’s legal downriver obligations to California, Arizona and Nevada.
All of this comes after the summer’s emergency draw-down of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and other federal reservoirs to leave more water in the 1,450-mile river.
Monday’s [August 16, 2021] declaration by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation orders Arizona to cut the water it draws from Lake Mead by 18% (512,000 acre-feet), Nevada by 7% (21,000 acre-feet) and Mexico by 5% (80,000 acre feet). The cuts must begin next year.
The feds also declared that Colorado and its upper basin neighbors (Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) will be allowed to deliver a little less water next year to Lake Powell, reducing the amount measured at the top of the Grand Canyon from 8.23 million acre-feet to 7.43 million acre-feet. That’s because shrinking mountain snow, drought and heat are depleting headwaters, authorities said.
Still, average annual flows of water in the Colorado River Basin have decreased by 19% since 2000, federal records show. And water levels in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead have been falling steadily for years as 40 million people tap the river. This year’s record low levels (both about a third full) triggered the declaration.
New projections unveiled by federal hydrologists that the river basin will dry out faster than previously expected may trigger additional cuts before 2025 based on states’ agreed-on operating procedures.
“It’s all connected, one river system, and we’re just in different points of pain,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy.
Colorado Division of Water Resources director Kevin Rein met with ranchers and farmers around western Colorado last month seeking guidance on how best to install flumes and other devices to measure how much water they divert…
Meanwhile, Colorado Water Conservation Board officials have scheduled a working session this month to consider expansion of pilot program efforts to pay farmers, cities and industries to use less water, which analysts have said could cost the state hundreds of millions.
Board director Rebecca Mitchell, who also represents Colorado in negotiating with other states over the river’s water, said headwaters users “understand the risks and vulnerabilities we face due to severe drought and a potentially hotter and drier future.”
From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):
Fossil fuels don’t just damage the planet by emitting climate-warming greenhouse gases when they are burned. Extracting coal, oil and gas has a huge impact on the surface of the earth, including strip mines the size of cities and offshore oil spills that pollute country-sized swaths of ocean.
Years of research has shown how the fracking boom has contaminated groundwater in some areas. But a study published on Thursday in the journal Science suggests there is also a previously undocumented risk to surface water in streams, rivers and lakes.
After analyzing 11 years of data, including surface water measurements in 408 watersheds and information about more than 40,000 fracking wells, the researchers found a very small but consistent increase in three salt compounds—barium, chloride and strontium—in watersheds with new wells that were fracked. While concentrations of the three elements were elevated, they remained below the levels considered harmful by the EPA.
Such salts are commonly found in water coming from newly fracked wells, making changes in their levels good markers for fracking impacts on surface water, said co-author Christian Leuz, professor of international economics at the University of Chicago. The three economists who did the research specialize in studying the effectiveness of environmental regulations.
Though the impact the researchers detected was small, the data came from diluted water in rivers and streams that were often far from wells, Leuz said, so the concentrations could be higher farther upstream and closer to the fracking operations.
The findings suggest that the rapid pace of “unconventional oil and gas development,” like fracking, may be outrunning scientists’ ability to monitor its impacts on surface water. “Better and more frequent water measurement is needed to fully understand the surface water impact of unconventional oil and gas development,” said economist co-author Pietro Bonetti, with the University of Navarra, Spain.
The researchers said they couldn’t determine human health impacts from the elements for two reasons, Leuz said.
First, “there is not enough public data to analyze potentially more dangerous substances,” he said, and second, ”there are limitations in available water-quality measurements.” Even though some states require fracking companies to disclose chemicals in their fluids, they aren’t always listed in public water monitoring databases, Leuz added.
The 2005 amendment to the Safe Water Drinking Act, known as the Halliburton Loophole, also made tracking harder by exempting hydraulic fracturing fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act, preventing the EPA from regulating fracking fluids…
The data needs to be further analyzed to understand if requiring drilling companies to be transparent about what’s in their fracking fluids led them to clean up their operations, she said, but the study published today also provides important information for drafting regulations and focusing future monitoring and research on potential trouble spots that are more vulnerable to pollution.
Early research on fracking impacts was mostly on groundwater contamination, but in 2016, the EPA published a report with a “more complete record of localized evidence,” that found the potential for surface water pollution under certain circumstances, Michelon said.
From The Craig Daily Press (Eliz Noe):
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.
From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):
Wildlife crews and water quality experts struggle to even assess the damage, as emergency management officials warn of threats to the western lifeline for years to come.
After decades of fierce arguments over damming up more of the water that rightfully belongs in the Colorado River, nature built a new dam in 5 minutes.
What happened to the fish? What happened to the river channel? What happened to drinking water downstream? Where did all the rafters go?
The relative silence about the river itself stems in part from immediate questions of who is in charge. For the highway, it’s CDOT. For the river, from the federal side, at least three different branch offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a say in any fixes, said emergency services director Mike Willis.
“Albuquerque, Sacramento and Omaha, just for a few miles’ stretch of the river,” Willis said,of the Army Corps involvement. Others who need to be consulted on any river rehab include the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and many more.
Sorting out changes to the river could take years, not just months, Willis said. The debris, from rockslides made worse by wildfires that burned up binding vegetation, blocked the Colorado River channel completely at Blue Gulch before the relentless river cut its way through the pile within minutes.
“The channel has changed now in several places. And so we have to be thoughtful about it, do we put the river back in its original channel or live with the channel as it is, and mitigate and protect the critical infrastructure downstream,” Willis said.
One of the first problems, Willis noted, is that the altered river flow may endanger the all-important highway. The changing channel has pushed debris up against the canyon’s complex bridge structures and overhangs, and the continual push of the water could undermine the road.
“In fact, the CDOT engineers have identified some areas where that is the case,” Willis said. “And so we need to assess that carefully and in those instances, we probably will push the river back to its original flow.”
As for wildlife recovery efforts in Glenwood Canyon, Willis said, the multi-agency task force dealing with the Colorado River has not given Parks and Wildlife full access in the slide area to start making detailed assessments…
Parks and Wildlife northwest division manager Matt Yamashita said biologists were still gathering information about the slide’s impact and waiting for full access to the river bed. But he’s concerned about mud smothering food and breeding spots for Colorado River species for miles downstream…
The Colorado and its tributaries are also vital resources for humans living along the riverbanks, long before the waterway delivers farm water to Arizona or drinking water to Los Angeles. Glenwood Springs takes its drinking water out of Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek before they hit the Colorado, and sometimes from the Roaring Fork River, if necessary, city public information officer Bryana Starbuck said.
“All of our water source intakes are below burn scars (Grizzly Creek fire and Lake Christine fire) which means that the landscape is very sensitive to heavy rainfall, which causes these debris flows or high sediment-transport incidents,” Starbuck said in an email response to questions. “Given the nature of burn scars, stabilization of the land will take time and impacts will continue to develop.”
Just as highway engineers in the canyon are looking uphill to design ways to keep future slides off the highway, Willis said, naturalists will have to work with them to think of ways to keep new slides from cutting off the river itself for years to come.
“We do not feel like this is a one time deal,” Willis said. “It’s not a one and done.”