Working to keep the West special

RMCO's Monthly Newsletter

This is our latest monthly newsletter with information about news and developments on climate disruption and its impacts and on climate action in the West. You can sign up for our newsletter, sent by email, by sending a request to admin@rockymountainclimate.org.

June 2018

The Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers:
"Poster children for what climate change is doing to the Southwest"

The latest map from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows a vivid picture of the seriousness of  drought conditions currently centered on the Four Corners region, with severe (orange shade), extreme (red), and exceptional (brown) conditions affecting nearly all of Arizona and New Mexico, and much of southern Colorado and Utah. 

Drought conditions inevitably manifest themselves in depleted river flows. According to the May climate briefing from the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, t he Upper Colorado River Basin as a whole is headed for the fifth-worst runoff season since 1964, with 40% of average inflows to Lake Powell expected.

Conditions are even worse in the Rio Grande basin in New Mexico, where last winter's mountain snowpack was the second-lowest on record and spring runoff is about one-sixth of average.Some farmers say that you can nearly walk across the Rio Grande, where flows are rivaling the lowest-flow year of 2002. Water rationing for irrigators began in mid-May. See In a warming West, the Rio Grande is drying up, New York Times, May 24, 2018 and Drought challenges northern New Mexico farmers, Santa Fe New Mexican, May 26, 2018.

Jonathan Overpeck, longtime climate researcher f ormerly at the University of Arizona, and now the dean of the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains that today's droughts are different from those of the past. "What we're seeing now in the drought that's going on is that it's more due to temperature increase and less due to precipitation deficit," he says. "More and more so, the droughts will really be defined by hotness, by warm temperaturesthat just suck the moisture out of the soil, suck the moisture out of our rivers." See As warming continues, 'hot drought' becomes the norm, not an exception, New Mexico Political Report, May 13, 2018.

Last year, Overpeck and Bradley Udall at Colorado State University's Water Institute (and the chair of RMCO's board of directors) p ublished a study  showing that flows on the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below the 1906-1999 average between 2000 and 2014. One-third of those losses, they showed, were due to higher temperatures, rather than changes in precipitation. They also wrote that if warming continues, the Colorado River could see 20 to 35 percent decreases in flows by 2050 and 30 to 55 percent decreases by 2100.

"Both of these rivers are poster children for what climate change is doing to the Southwest," concludes Overpeck.

See additional drought coverage at Dismal Western snowpack is a climate "warning sign", E&E News, May 14, 2018. 

  News about RMCO

The subject of Climate change means a hotter, drier future in the Colorado River headwaters, study says, KUNC public radio, June 5, 2018, is Climate Change in the Headwaters: Water and Snow Impacts, RMCO's February 2018 report compiling  the latest science on climate change in the Colorado River headwaters, which we prepared for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. 

RMCO's 2016 report finding that the Boulder area could average 38 days a year 95° or hotter by the middle of the century under a continued high emissions scenario is also featured in a story about what looks to be a hotter-than-normal summer this year. Boulder County likely faces hot summer, weekend to provide preview, Boulder Daily Camera, May 25, 2018.

News about Climate Disruption

Climate Vulnerability Assessments    

Impacts of climate change in California significant and increasingly stark, new report says, news release, California Environmental Protection Agency, May 9, 2018. The new report updates 36 indicators of climate change and its impacts. The report will be followed this summer by California's Fourth Climate Change Assessment and the California Adaptation Forum.  

Water

Even in northerly states where snowfall was average or above this year, evidence mounts on the shifting hydrologic cycle and its impacts:

Wildfire

What if our forests don't come back?, Outside, May 9, 2018. The magazine begins a series chronicling the impacts of climate-change-driven wildfires with a story about the possibly permanent disappearance of ponderosa pine forests from Bandelier National Monument and the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, and the expectation that current drought conditions not seen in the 125-year record could result in a fire year much like the devastating 2002 and 2011 seasons in the Southwest.

In Full Community Costs of Wildfire, newly released by Headwaters Economics, findings are drawn from analyses of five large wildfires from around the West since 2002. Among the report's major findings are that:

  • Almost half of the costs of wildfire are paid for at the local level,impacting homeowners, businesses, and government agencies, and nearly all of those costs result from long-term damages such as landscape rehabilitation, lost business and tax revenues, degraded ecosystem services, depreciated property values, lost business and tax revenues, property and infrastructure repairs, and impacts to tourism and recreation.
  • Suppression costs comprise just nine percent of total wildfire costs.

Wildlife and Fisheries

'This will be a big deal for people who fish for trout', Idaho Statesman, May 7, 2018. In Global warming of salmon and trout rivers in the northwestern U.S.: Road to ruin or path through purgatory?, scientists at the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station document an average 1.8° F increase in summer and fall river temperatures since 1976 and resulting impacts on cold-water fisheries, project a continuing increase for 40 years, and suggest adaptive strategies.

Can this bird adapt to a warmer climate? Read the genes to find out , The Conversation, May 29, 2018. Scientists sequenced the genomes for separate yellow warbler populations across the United States to determine genomic vulnerability and the ability to adapt to climate change. Among the findings are that in parts of California and the Rocky Mountains, areas that have the highest genomic vulnerability, yellow warbler populations have already declined. This could mean that climate change has already affected these populations, and those effects are likely to become even more severe.

News about Climate Action

Regional, State, and Local Climate Policies

Checking the math on California's cap and trade: Is it adding up?, Times of San Diego, May 27, 2018. Some observers say that the state's emission reduction system has a serious structural problem with too many unused pollution credits, which could drive polluters to rely on credits rather than actually reducing emissions.

In a first, California requires solar panels for new homes. Will other states follow?, Inside Climate News, May 10, 2018. The California Energy Commission adopts a rule that requires r ooftop solar installation for most new houses and apartments by 2020. The requirement is part of a larger package of updated building standards that are projected to add about $30 per month to a typical monthly mortgage payment, but save that same household $80 per month in energy costs, and to increase the state's solar capacity by 200 to 400 megawatts per year. 

Can a city really sue an oil company for climate change? Wired, May 25, 2018, explores the legal issues facing coastal communities suing fossil fuel corporations over climate damages, and more recently Boulder County and the City of Boulder in Colorado.

Students get Utah lawmakers to acknowledge climate change and need for action, Ogden Standard-Examiner, May 17, 2018. Logan High School students mounted a sophisticated two-year campaign that enlisted the support of the business community, non-profits, and legislators to pass House Concurrent Resolution 7  and to get Gov. Herbert to sign it. It calls for using sound science when it comes to the environment, recognizes the consequences of climate change for Utah citizens, and encourages innovation to reduce emissions while also growing the state's economy. RMCO says: Way to go, students!

National Parks

National parks report on climate change finally released, uncensored, Reveal, May 18, 2018. The National Park Service releases a  report  charting the climate-change-driven risks to coastal national parks from sea level rise and storms, reversing edits in an earlier draft by NPS higher-ups that deleted every mention of humans causing climate change. As a pioneering advocate of assessing and addressing climate change in the park system, RMCO breathes a sigh of relief on this one.  

Clean Energy

Solar is starting to replace the largest coal plant in the western United States, Fast Company, May 30, 2018. The Navajo Nation is investing in solar farms following the decision by utilities to retire early the infamously polluting Navajo Generating Station.

Xcel Energy says carbon emissions down 35 percent since 2005, Denver Post, May 23, 2018. According to its Corporate Responsibility Report, Xcel also expects to surpass a 50 percent reduction by 2022 throughout its eight-state service territory, largely by retiring aging coal plants and replacing them with renewable sources, and all without passing on any cost increases to customers.

Fossil Fuels

Electric power sector consumption of fossil fuels at lowest level since 1994, Energy Information Administration, May 29, 2018. And carbon dioxide emissions have also declined, by about 25-30 percent during the last decade. 

National Policies

In rebuke to Pruitt, EPA science board votes to review climate policy changes, Inside Climate News, June 1, 2018. Board members, many of whom were appointed by Administrator Pruitt, say they have received little information about their inquiries on the science driving Pruitt's policy changes, and vote overwhelmingly in favor of a full board review of the agency's most important actions to dismantle climate policy.

How Trump's 'Soviet-style' coal directive would upend power markets, Utility Dive, June 4, 2018, and Trump prepares lifeline for money-losing coal plants, Bloomberg, May 31, 2018. The President's directive to save coal and nuclear plants from retirement could reshape the federal government's relationship with the U.S. power sector and lead to an unraveling of wholesale power markets, energy researchers and former regulators say.

'Climate change is real,' carmakers tell White House in letter, Bloomberg, May 21, 2018. Reacting to the impending rollback of federal auto efficiency and emissions standards, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry's leading trade group, tells the Office of Management and Budget they "strongly support" continued alignment between federal mileage standards and those set by California. 

Resource of the Month

Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT)

The Spring 2018 issue of Mountain Views is the latest of the biannual periodicals from CIRMOUNT, which feature contributions from leading practitioners of climate science in the West. A theme of this issue is the mountain water-cycle puzzle, particularly regarding severe droughts and rising temperatures. Also in this issue is information and registration materials for MtnClim 2018, CIRMOUNT'S biennial conference scheduled for September 17-21, 2018 at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic, Colorado. The overarching theme for this year's meeting is, "Anticipating climate change impacts in mountains: Embracing variability."

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