Shifting climate — regional experts weigh in on the economics of change

Shifting climate — regional experts weigh in on the economics of change

17 September 2008

published by

 Vail, CO, USA — Alarming projections about the impact of global warming used to be regarded with the same sort of indifference as that paid to doomsday prophets who proselytize from street corners.

It just seemed a little out there.

Because for the most part, gas was still cheap, and yeah, you felt bad for the penguins and polar bears losing a slice of their habitat. But like those exotic animals, changes in climate seemed like something that only happened in far-off places. After all, does a temperature change of a degree or two really make that much difference?

But like an intense storm gaining strength in the Atlantic, there seems to be a combination of factors that lead to the growing realization that climate change is here, and it’s something that needs to be dealt with. Rising gas prices, along with more frequent and more destructive hurricanes and erratic weather patterns suggest that — call it global warming or not — the climate is in a state of turmoil.

And, just as the debate over Iraq has evolved into a “what do we do now” discussion, talk about climate change is becoming less of a blame game, and more of a serious conversation on how it can be solved.

According to environmental experts, combating climate change may pack a sizable price tag with it as well.

A University of Maryland study from October 2007 argued climate change is “fraught with ‘hidden’ costs,” which includes replacing roads and bridges, re-routing traffic, losing workdays and productivity, providing temporary shelter and supplies, and relocating and retraining people. It also predicts a general atmosphere of uncertainty and risk, which interferes with the insurance and investment industries.

We asked some regional experts what they thought about some of the more specific costs we may find here in the valley, should current projections on climate change hold true.

A glance at the tree line above Vail reveals the extent of the pine bark beetle problem facing Colorado.

While the exact cause of the infestation is difficult to pinpoint, mild winters ensure the beetles will continue to thrive, said Trey Schillie, an ecosystems specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Schillie said scientists have found there needs to be a certain number of consecutive days with low temperatures to kill off the beetles.

“In a slightly warmer climate, they don’t get knocked back like they normally would. And historically, when this happens, their reproductive cycle shortens and increases in frequency, so there’s physiological things happening, too.”

Koren Nydick, executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute, agreed, and added that the pine beetle problem only compounds the danger of a forest fire by turning trees into tinder.

“Climate is just one of the factors, but conditions have changed to really favor [beetles],” she said. “Now we have general warming interacting with past forest management that put out all the fires, and has resulted in a much thicker forest than the natural state.”

With a thicker forest and increase in die-offs, a massive forest fire becomes a distinct possibility, bringing with it higher costs of suppression and mitigation.

Nydick said her research shows forest die-offs have occurred in the past, “but not to the extent that we’ve seen recently.”

The danger, explained Nolan Doesken, state climatologist for Colorado at CSU, is that the warmer temperatures will cause an earlier snowmelt.

“An earlier melt means the forest will dry out sooner, and lengthen the potential season for forest fires,” he said. “This is important because the winds are stronger and the air is drier early in the season, so many of the bigger, faster and more catastrophic fires happen early in the year.”

A drier (and wetter) future
Most environmental experts were quick to point out that water is the single biggest issue for Coloradans.

Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, said the extent of climate change in Colorado could be dramatic.

“It will have an effect on skiing and everything related to winter sports, as well as property values,” he said. “But by far the biggest effect is that of water supply — it dwarfs everything else.”

At first, the story on precipitation can be a little tough to decipher with some predicting flooding while others claim a drought is more likely.

Oddly enough, they may both be right.

What most environmental experts now project is a shift in precipitation from snow to rain, which is more problematic than it sounds.

For the most part, Coloradans rely on snowpack for water supply, so a shift from snow to rain could cause storage issues. Compounding the problem is the fact that a hard and early runoff increases the risk of flash flooding.

“So when you have more precipitation coming in the form of rain instead of snow, that just adds in more water to the existing channels, and it’s more concentrated for a shorter amount of time, and that energy of more water coming down the channel just erodes the soil.”

Schillie explained resulting sedimentation carries a “huge potential price tag,” because vegetation is stripped from the ground.

A study headed by Kundzewicz and published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal from earlier this year found water quality would diminish with even a slight increase in water temperature.

The researchers found warmer temperatures alter the “operation of key chemical processes in water,” and a change in the volume of water (during a heavy rainfall) results in more “dilution of loads.” In a practical sense, this means water treatment facilities may suffer. The study concludes climate change raises the risk of “water infrastructure malfunctioning during floods; and overloading the capacity of water and wastewater treatment plants during extreme rainfall.”

But in addition to flash flooding overwhelming water treatment facilities, there may — perversely enough — also be a water shortage.

Stephen Saunders explained the problem with feast-or-famine precipitation.

“With periodic warming in winter, we’ll have runoff in the winter and not just the spring, so we’ll have the bulk of runoff several weeks earlier,” he said. “The summers will be hotter and drier, with greater evaporation in streams and from the soil, which affects everything from ecosystems, to livestock and crops, and people’s lawns.”

Finding a way to store the gushing waters from the earlier runoff becomes crucial, he said.

“The real complication is the Colorado River, because it’s not just a silo — we’re all in it together in this basin.”

Saunders is referring to the Colorado compact, which allocates water from the Colorado River to cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The problem is that claims to the water have swamped the supply, said Dr. Ian Billick, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Billick said climate change brings with it greater variations in precipitation, and drier years could pose major problems for the state.

He said if less water is available, cities in the lower basin are entitled to the “first half of water” in the river, and cities in the upper basin are legally obligated to let the water flow downstream.

“One of the things that comes with climate change is greater variance,” Billick said. “And with a bigger change in precipitation from year to year, you start to have problems, because the dry years wind up becoming even drier.”

Changes in the timing of winter runoff could have major implications for the rafting industry.

“From what I hear and from what the scientists are saying, Colorado is going to be hit really hard economically,” said DeEtte Huffman, founder and executive director of the Arkansas River Coalition.

Part of the reason whitewater rafting may suffer — in addition to increased evaporation — has to do with the timing of the spring snow melt.

As Koren Nydick of the Mountain Studies Institute put it, “If [the melt] is earlier, that creates some problems, because right now the timing is perfect, where students are getting out of college just in time to jump in a boat. If the timing of that changes, it could really throw everything else off.”

The resort impact
If there is a silver lining somewhere in the middle of these ominous projections, it’s that the ski resort industry may see some short-term benefits.

“We’re the ‘last stop out of hell,’ as someone put it in one of our meetings,” Koren Nydick said. “We’ve already been getting a lot of tourism and recreational users from places in the southwest and Texas, because they’re already hot and humid and are projected to become more so.”

This may also result in another population surge, Nydick said, as people from arid regions flock in “amenity-led migrations to cooler areas.”

An extension of that logic is the argument that Colorado resorts could enjoy a short-term spike in business, as warmer winters shorten the ski season at lower-elevation destinations.

But even this potential boost in business has its drawbacks, according to Stephen Saunders.

“The issue before too long will become ‘what does it take to keep skiing economically viable in Colorado? The Aspen company has been forthright in saying they don’t break even until sometime late in March, so it’s March and April that provide the money that makes it possible to do business,” he said. “In terms of skiing, if you knock a month off the year, you could have the snow, but you may not have the companies around to do anything with it.”

Along with a warmer spring and less predictable precipitation comes the threat of avalanches. And even though researchers aren’t quite sure how climate change precisely interacts with avalanches, they can make note of a few trends.

“If the duration of cold temperatures changes, that could change the balance of wet and dry avalanches we have now,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

He explained much more is known about dry avalanches — caused by wind or snow — than is known about wet avalanches, which come from water movement within the snow pack and typically only happen during spring when the snow begins to melt.

“We may have a hundred dry avalanches during the winter and maybe one wet avalanche total for the year,” he said, explaining the lack of data on wet avalanches.
“With warmer spring temperatures and the cold season being shrunk down to a couple of months, we’ll see a change in the balance of wet-dry activity, and have more wet avalanches in the fall and the spring, with multiple shifts from dry to wet instead of just one.”

Greene said in the last five years, the group has documented wet avalanches at times in the season they normally don’t occur.

“Some of these things, we’ve just never seen before. We had [a wet avalanche] in February a couple years ago, and we were all like, ‘Oh, my God!’”

Part of the avalanche center’s mission is to reduce the costs associated with combating avalanches. And given that the snow displaced in an avalanche can range from an inch to twenty feet, it’s difficult to even ballpark how much money could be spent on cleanup. The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates that closing Interstate 70 costs $1 million per hour.

The new problem then, is if the valley faces more wet avalanches, the Center knows much less about them and will be in more of a reaction mode than a prediction mindset.

“The way avalanches commonly effect the economy is by disrupting a lot of tourist-based programs like in ski areas or backcountry guiding,” Greene said. “It just ripples through the economy, and also affects the budget of local governments because they have to pay for rescues, and if there’s a year with six or eight people who need to be rescued, that can destroy a sheriff’s budget pretty quick.”

The price of valley life
State climatologist Nolan Doesken spoke at a local conference this summer with a variety of environmental experts from around the country. A number of them remarked on Vail being one of the few places in the nation where a town was built against a stream (Gore Creek), and didn’t carry a high risk of major flooding.

“The climate is such that it rarely dishes out extremely heavy rains at that altitude, and the snow melts in a well-behaved way, which means it melts steadily and the river rolls along within its banks week after week after week,” Doesken said. “If the climate changes to high-intensity rains, or if — for whatever reason — the snow melted more rapidly, that’s all it would take for there to be Vail chaos.”

He said smaller streams in other parts of the country have garnered more fear and respect because of their history to periodically flood, but that history here in the valley has been less dramatic.

“What I really find interesting is that in the past, people never would have chosen to live here in the first place. Go to Denver, Boulder — anywhere is more livable! So it’s really fascinating that as our society and the recreation industry matured, along with our ability to do construction in adverse locations, we made it an ‘in thing’ to live in places we used to try and avoid.”

A way out?
DeEtte Huffman, with the Arkansas River Coalition, holds out hope that conditions are changing just enough to favor renewable and sustainable energy alternatives. Huffman is based in Kansas and sees progress being made in a state not known for being progressive.

When Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius blocked coal plants from operating in the state, Huffman saw it as a sign that things could change for the better.

“It’s truly amazing to me that we had a governor who would stand up for that. It took us all by surprise, but if Kansas can be a model for anything like that it would be quite amazing, and I hope we can win … The answer [to climate change] is to be more concerned about greenhouse gases, and that’s a big political issue, but there are lots of good signs with action in smaller communities from churches and other groups.”

A few months ago, Dr. Norman Provizer, a professor of political science at Metro State College in Denver, mentioned that in the 1970s, the U.S. faced a fuel crisis with long lines at the pump, and it opted for the quick fix instead of a sustainable long-term solution.

His point was that higher gas prices offer the opportunity for change, and Huffman concurred.

“We’ve been tremendously dumb about the natural resources we’ve been blessed with, and we’ve just now woken up,” Huffman said. “It had to hit us in our pocketbooks before the average person can be concerned about it. Something had to wake them up.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien