Rocky Mountain Climate Watch: Here we go

Dylan and I have missed planes and trains all over the world together, so getting ready for a three-day trip to Southern Colorado isn’t a big deal as far as packing. But we are amped to start our Rocky Mountain climate reporting trek with a visit to the high San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. After piling some camping gear, Frisbees and few extra t-shirts into the back of our trusty old Pathfinder, we head west on I-70, then south over the Grand Mesa. At Powderhorn Ski area, we stop for a round of disc golf to stretch our legs, tossing casual 200-footers down the broad slopes of the deserted mountain, past rusty snowmaking pipes and silent chair lifts — ski resorts can be weird places in the summer.

-9Disc golf at Powderhorn Ski Area.

We are set to meet Chris Landry at Red Mountain Pass at 7:30 the next morning and when we do, we’re psyched to see that he also has a Nissan Pathfinder — older than ours — with more 220,000 miles. We climb in and head for a high alpine basin were Landry has been closely monitoring snowpack, soil and plant communities for about 10 years, gaining invaluable insights that can only come from long-term monitoring.

-10Downtown Silverton, Colorado, 6:45 a.m.

We’re still in the midst of our trip and haven’t had time to compile a full story, but we wanted to share a few images and report that the growing number of dust storms blowing up into the San Juans and the rest of the Southern Rockies is having big effect on snowpack dynamics and runoff. In some years, the peak snowmelt is now happening a couple of weeks earlier than it used to.

That may not sound like much, but in a compressed mountain summer that only lasts a couple of months to begin with, two weeks is a big deal. In some cases, the storms bring in so much dust that it’s changing basic soil chemistry, with as-yet unknown impacts to the tundra of the Colorado Rockies.

Rocky Mountain climate researchChris Landry checks wiring on a tower of instruments all designed to measure conditions in the high alpine zone of the San Juans.

-2Looking south from near Red Mountain Pass, in the heart of Southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Colorado wildflowersThere is some evidence that changes in the snowpack caused by increasing concentrations of dust are affecting tundra plant communities.

Rocky Mountain Climate Watch is part of a two-month crowdfunded journalism project investigating how global warming is changing the Rocky Mountains, from glaciers and Alpine tundra down, to forests, fields and streams. In a series of reporting treks, Bob and Dylan Berwyn will visit with scientists who are monitoring the changes, and talk to ranchers, skiers and mountain town residents who are experiencing the changes. The series will appear as the “Rocky Mountain Climate Watch” blog in the right-hand column of the Colorado Independent homepage.

We’re encouraging readers to ask specific questions about global warming in the Rockies, and we’ll make every effort to have the right person answer the question. We’ve also been fostering a social media dialogue via Twitter at the #ClimateRangers hashtag and the @bberwyn feed, and we’d love to see your comments and questions on the Colorado Independent Facebook page.

Meet Bob in person and hear about his work at The Colorado Independent’s open house Thursday, August 28, 7-9 p.m., 700 Kalamath Street, Denver.


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