Snow patterns are changing across the world in mountain communities, and the time is now for places like Southwest Colorado to adapt, said Heidi Steltzer, a Fort Lewis College professor and local climate scientist.
Steltzer spoke Wednesday afternoon at the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Green Business Roundtable about the future of mountain economics amid a warming climate.
Recently, Steltzer was an author on the mountains chapter of the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change report on how less snow is expected to alter the environment. The report was released in September.
Steltzer said mountains don’t cover much of the Earth’s surface, but they serve as the headwaters for vast numbers of people, cities and agricultural lands.
But increasingly, with global temperatures on the rise, the presence and persistence of ice and snow on the landscape are changing across the world’s mountains.
“Systems are changing in a way I never expected to see,” Steltzer said.
One of the key findings in the IPCC’s report, for instance, was weighing the reality of disappearing glaciers and the potential impacts on the communities that rely on them in places like the Andes and the Himalayas.
“News of changing snow is concerning to me … and it means some mountain communities may not have the water they need, and they may need to relocate, just like the small island communities in the South Pacific,” she said.
While the situation in the San Juan Mountains isn’t as dire, researchers have noted changes in snow patterns here, signaling the need to adapt. The study found snow arrives later, melts sooner and covers less ground than in years past.
“It’s hard to talk about in a community that loves its snow, and where businesses depend on that snowpack,” Steltzer said. “But while the news isn’t great … there’s so much we can do to improve the situation.”
Steltzer said it’s imperative to reduce the amount of fossil fuel emissions and shift to more renewable energy sources. For the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere, she said there needs to be a concerted effort to take those gases out of the air.
And, she said it’s important to make strides to curb climate change not just on a global scale, but also locally. One example, she said, would be to address the dust on snow issue, which accelerates melting of the high country snowpack.
The dust, she said, comes from high deserts around the Colorado Plateau, and local officials should push for better management of these lands to reduce the spread of dust.
“When those lands become available for further development, there should be active campaigns to minimize (the impacts),” she said. “It’s a shared watershed.”
The IPCC’s report revealed warming global temperatures are affecting snowpack across the world and communities in those areas in vastly different ways.
“There are people who are already seeing disaster and catastrophe in their backyards,” she said. “To a far greater extent than we’ve seen here.”