Panelists at McCain-Udall hearing detail state’s grim climate future

Some watersheds in Rocky Mountain National Park are seeing increased levels of nitrogen, a sign that climate change is causing ice pack to melt away. (Creative Commons photo by The_Brit2 via Flickr)
Some watersheds in Rocky Mountain National Park are seeing increased levels of nitrogen deposits, a sign that climate change is causing centuries-old ice pack to melt away. (Creative Commons photo by The_Brit2 via Flickr)

ESTES PARK — At a public hearing held Monday by the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks in this gateway town to Rock Mountain National Park, panelists offered details on the profound changes the park and the state will experience in coming years as a result of global warming.

Although the “open hearing” has been overshadowed in part by reports of the joint support for expanded nuclear power voiced by U.S. Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and John McCain of Arizona, panelists here painted a dramatic picture of the future of colorful Colorado that might not be so bright.

National Park Services Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Dr. Herbert C. Frost said that Rocky Mountain National Park as well as much of the West, is already experiencing the effects of global warming, which has made Colorado a much drier place, saying that one of the park’s watersheds has seen increases in nitrogen deposits, an indication that centuries-old ice pack is melting off.

Frost pointed to deforestation caused by bark beetles previously killed by cold temperatures, the increased frequency and duration of forest fires, changes in the kind of trees growing in the park, as well as the thinning of the high-country’s rabbit-like pika.

“There is documented evidence that our climate is changing, and changes in climate are already affecting land and water resources in the Rocky Mountain West,” said Dr. David Schimel, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Observations clearly show warmer temperatures and reduced precipitation, which are affecting our natural resources in the region. Colorado is two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than a century ago.”

Schimel added that even as the duration of “snow-covered months” decreases, the shrinking snow pack is causing drought instead of longer growing seasons. He said that these events are consistent with climate models that indicate the pattern of warmer, drier weather will continue.

“The impacts of climate change on natural resources tend to be at a maximum when the effect of warming is hot and dry. Within the U.S., both Arizona and Colorado are in the zone that is experiencing both warmer temperatures and less precipitation … That means that the effect on vegetation, in stream organisms– fish, insects, plants — are going to be very dramatically effected.”

He said that Alpine environments will continue to be “pushed off the tops of the mountains” and that grasslands could become a “dust bowl.”

Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, further explained why the effect of lower precipitation levels intensifies as time passes.

“If we have a 10-percent reduction in precipitation we will have a 20-percent reduction in the stream flow … Because we are dryer we are also going to be hotter. The human body cools from sweat evaporating. The planet cools in a similar way.” The water that is left on the surface will evaporate in the increased heat.

So how to reduce and mitigate the effects the panelists were describing?

To start, they said, there could be efforts to eliminate the non-native tamarisk tree to conserve water; increase forest growth to offset future beetle kills; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Schimel added that although large amounts of money have been put into forecasting climate change trends, few resources have been provided to predict specific outcomes. He recommended that more money be devoted to this cause. He also suggested that information management among researchers and park planners and foresters was an essential need not presently being met.

Saunders called for Udall, a Democrat, and McCain, a Republican, to support a National Park Service Climate Change office that would serve as a central hub for information collection. He commented that budget legislation currently under discussion in the U.S. House, which has allotted $10 million for the National Park Service to dedicate to climate change research, also prohibits the Park Service from using the money to establish such a center.

McCain said establishing such a center seemed reasonable.

Alice Madden, climate coordinator for Gov. Bill Ritter’s office, said she would prefer to see policies passed in the short term that would effect long-term results.

“My focus is around fuel switching,” she said.

She wanted to see Colorado reduce greenhouse gas emissions and recommended upping energy efficiency by “reaching into our existing housing stock and making sure our buildings are efficient.”

McCain, no strong advocate for the environment over the course of his career, acknowledged that climate change must be addressed.

“Climate change is real. It’s happening now,” he said.

But he added that he would not vote for a climate change bill in the Senate next month.

“First we deal with health care,” he said.

Udall, who spoke in favor of creating new pricing methods to conserve water usage as well as other methods of conserving natural resources and who recently spoke in favor of a strong comprehensive energy bill, did not address his stance on the cap and trade bill.

The generally somber event eventually brought humor from the well-noted occasionally sardonic McCain.

Referring to a McCain campaign gaffe from the fall in which he called for an end to the Colorado River Compact, Udall asked McCain if he would like to address the topic of water. McCain rose to the challenge.

“On behalf of the citizens of Arizona, we thank you for the water. My predecessor, Barry Goldwater, used to say, ‘In Arizona we have so little water the trees chase the dogs.'”

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