Mountain Town News: Why is climate change frying the Colorado Plateau? |

Mountain Town News: Why is climate change frying the Colorado Plateau?

Allen Best, author of Mountain Town News.
Courtesy of Allen Best

Colorado Plateau stands out

on global warming map

OURAY, Colo. – Climbers gather each January in the canyon shadows of the San Juan Mountains to test their skills on giant columns of ice. The towers in the Ouray Ice Park are created by feeding water to the canyon walls, but the cold is natural.

It’s not as cold in Ouray County as it used to be, though. A data set assembled by The Washington Post shows Ouray as one of the places with the most rapid rise in temperatures in the lower 48 states since the late 19th century. Average temperatures have increased 2.3 degrees Celsius, or 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other counties in western Colorado and eastern Utah have warmed significantly. Utah’s Grand County, where Moab is located, increased 2.5 degrees C. Colorado’s San Miguel County, home to Telluride — a short distance from Ouray — had a 2.2-degree C rise.

The Washington Post drew on statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Division Database between the years 1895 and 1918. It found uneven warming across the United States, with some areas of the South actually cooling a bit. Rhode Island and New Jersey stand out for their heating, as did Los Angeles.

The biggest blob of red and burgundy on the Washington Post’s map was in the mountains and deserts of the Colorado Plateau. The newspaper noted that the area altogether has exceeded the 2-degree C threshold that policymakers, based on the advice of scientists, have identified as critical threshold for global warming.

The newspaper’s work echoes that of a 2014 report, “Climate Change in Colorado,” which also called out spiking warming in western Colorado through 2012. Every year since then with the exception of 2013 has been much warmer than the 20th century average.

Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist, says he’s not sure why that portion of Colorado has been warming disproportionately. “We could definitely quibble about some of the details on their maps, but the overall picture is nicely represented,” he says.

The cause of rising temperatures globally has long been understood: the sharp increase in greenhouse gases, which traps heat near the Earth’s surface. The regional variations sometimes remain puzzling.

“This ‘forcing’ is quite well understood; the physics of it have been known for over a century. How it plays out in, say, Telluride can be trickier. It involves local factors—land-use changes and the terrain in general,” Schumaker told the Telluride Daily Planet.

Directly linking greenhouse gases and changes in a mountain valley remains complicated. “Certainly a substantial fraction is connected to global warming, but in complex terrain areas, and with changes in land use over the last century, those factors can also be important,” he told Mountain Town News.

Broadly speaking, the higher latitudes will warm (and are warming) more than the tropics. Alaska has had outsized warming streak, but Costa Rica, not so much.

“But elevation effects are still an area of active research, in part because we don’t have a lot of reliable data at high elevations (say, above 10,000 feet) nor do models represent the terrain of Colorado particularly well.”

Several teams of scientists in recent years have issued studies that identified rising temperatures as playing a large role in declining flows of the Colorado River. About 92% of the river’s flows originate upstream of the Grand Canyon, much of it in western Colorado. Flows since 2000 have declined 19% from the 20th-century average.

Brad Udall, a scientist with the Colorado Water Institute, told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in February that 2018 was the hottest and driest year in the Four Corners region since records were first kept in 1895.

Udall said that a study that he and two other researchers published in 2018 found 50% of flow reductions in the first 14 years of the century were due to higher temperatures. The other half were due to shifting precipitation patterns.

“It is clear the Colorado River, and the entire Southwest, has shifted to a new hotter and drier climate, and, equally important, will continue to shift to a hotter and drier climate for several decades after we stop emitting greenhouse gases,” he said.

Aspen Skiing minimum

pay this winter $15/hr.

ASPEN, Colo. – The Aspen Skiing Co. last year boosted its minimum wage from $12 per hour to $13.50 per hour. This year, it’s boosting the minimum again to $15 per hour.

Caleb Sample, the company’s director of talent acquisition, told The Aspen Times that he hopes is that the wage boost will make Aspen more appealing as it sets out to fill its 1,000 to 1,500 seasonal openings.

The obvious comparison is against Vail Resorts, which last year boosted its hourly minimum to $12.25 per hour. Vail has not announced a new minimum for this coming ski season.

Colorado’s minimum wage is $11.10 per hour. However, a new law gives municipalities and counties the authority to set their own minimum wages beginning in 2021.

Two women, two rabid bats:

How often does this happen?

JACKSON, Wyo. – Two women, both in the backcountry about 30 miles apart in and around Jackson Hole, had bats fall from trees onto them within a week of each other. When they brushed them off, the bats bit both the women. And in both cases, the bats were rabid.

Coincidence? Yes, most likely, experts tell the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Nicole Bjornlie, a non-game mammal biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish, told the newspaper’s Tom Hallberg. “Rabies is pretty rare, but we do get some cases that pop up,” she said. “It’s is really odd that they both involved bats falling out of trees.”

About 0.5% of wild bats have rabies.

But there’s also this: two rabid bats were found in Teton County in 2017, and one of them bit a person.

One of the victims this year, Ashley Pipkin, reacted as most of us would. She was sitting around a campfire when the bat either fell from a tree or flew onto her neck in the dark. She grabbed it, then the bat bit her. As it so happened, one of her friends —it was a group of biologists – had the rabies vaccine. They put the bat into a lunch box and took it to a lab, where it was tested positive.

She is now going through a month-long regimen of four or five rabies shots. Being bit by a rabid animal used to require 20 shots in the stomach, but in the last several decades easier, if still uncomfortable, shots in the arms have proven effective.

More on the terror of

wolf attack on campers

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta – A necropsy confirmed that the wolf that wolf that attacked campers near Lake Louise recently was in poor health, although not suffering from rabies.

The wolf was shot soon after it started sniffing around a tent containing Matt Rispoli and his wife and three children. Unsure of what it was, Matt pushed on the fabric of the tent to try and scare the animal away. The wolf then broke through the tent and bit him.

What happened next was revealed by Elisa Rispoli in a Facebook post transcribed by the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

“It was like something out of a horror movie. Matt literally threw his body in front of me and the boys, and fought the wolf as it ripped apart our tent and his arms and hands. We were screaming for help as he was fighting it and trying to save us, for what felt like an eternity (but I think it was anywhere from one to three minutes)” wrote Rispoli.

“I laid my body on top of the kids and Matt pinned the wolf to the ground and opened its jaw with his hands, and the wolf started to drag Matt away, while I was pulling on his legs trying to get him back. I cannot and don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly describe the terror.”

The wolf left after a neighboring camper threw a huge rock at the wolf and the family was able to get inside a car.

It was the first-ever reported attack of a wolf in a Canadian national park. Two attacks have been reported in provincial parks.

Whistler probably to

jettison name ‘squaw’

WHISTLER, B.C. – It appears that Whistler’s elected officials intend to change the name of Squaw Valley Crescent.

The street was named in honor of the California resort that was the winter Olympic venue in 1960. But the Whistler council has been asked with some regularity to change the name, as squaw by some accounts is a slur against female aboriginals, generally called First Names in Canada and Native Americas in the U.S.

Pique Newsmagazine says municipal councilors say they will consult with both the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations as well residents of the street in question if they go forward with a renaming.

Utilities plan to shut off

power in times of fire risk

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Two electrical utilities that serve the Lake Tahoe Basin have announced they plan to shut off electrical deliveries when the risk of catastrophic wildfire becomes too great.

The remarkable if horrific story that precedes the decision was the Camp Fire that killed 85 people last year in Paradise, Calif. It was caused by electrical lines that sparked tinder-dry vegetation into an almost instantaneous conflagration.

The Tahoe Daily Tribune reports that both Liberty and NV Energy plan to notify customers 48 hours in advance of any power shutdown. “Shutting off the power is a last resort for us,” said NV Energy’s Kristen Saibini. She said research based on conditions in the last 18 years suggest shutoffs once a year for one hour. Liberty estimates shutoffs occurring once every 5 to 10 years.

Groups fear e-bikes on

non-motorized trails

DURANGO, Colo. – None of the U.S. land agencies have said they plan to allow e-bikes on trails currently off-limits to motorized vehicles. Just the same, a coalition of 50 conservation and advocacy groups have started worrying.

The Durango Telegraph explains that the coalition sent a letter to leaders of the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. “We understand that federal land management agencies are currently considering policy changes to allow e-bikes on non-motorized trails,” the letter reads. They go on to say: Don’t do it!

What has the environmental groups stirred up is the appointment of David Bernhardt to be secretary of the Department of Interior, the agency that oversees the national parks and BLM lands. The Forest Service is within the Agriculture Department.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a 2017 blog, described Bernhardt as a litigator and lobbyist who has “devoted much of his career to fighting protections for lands, waters, and wildlife on behalf of mining, oil, gas and water interests.”

E-bikes have certainly been taking off. Market research firm NPD Group reports a near doubling of sales from 2016 to 2017.

The International Mountain Bike Association doesn’t advocate closing the door on all e-bikes on trails, even those currently restricted to non-motorized use. Instead, the group wants land managers to develop individualized regulations for how and where pedal-assisted electric mountain bikes can be used. Such bikes top out at 20 mph.

“We support trail access for Class 1 eMTBs and support shared use on trails as long as access is not lost or impeded for traditional mountain bikes,” the group says.

Matt Carpenter’s stunning

100-mile record still stands

LEADVILLE, Colo. – It’s been 14 years since Matt Carpenter set a stunning time on the Trail 100 among the peaks of the Sawatch Range west of Leadville. Carpenter, a one-time maintenance worker at a Vail hotel, completed the 100-mile course in 15 hours, 42 minutes. That was a full hour and a half better than the best time delivered before.

The Leadville Herald-Democrat recalled Carpenter’s feat was so extraordinary that when he crossed the finish line, only his wife, Yvonne, and race course officials were there to recognize the accomplishment. The course is mostly above two miles in elevation and, at one point, tops out at over 12,500 feet in elevation.

This year’s male winner, Ryan Smith, finished in 16 hours and 33 minutes. The female winner, Magdalena Boilet won in 20 hours, 18 minutes.

How Trump’s tariffs may

affect Aspen companies

ASPEN, Colo. – The Aspen Daily News tried to get at what impact President Donald Trump’s tariffs on China will impact at least some of its citizens, those businesses based in Aspen with manufacturing in East Asia.

One company, High Society Freeride Co, has skis and snowboards produced in Denver. But its popular paddleboards are made in China.

“We haven’t found a place domestically yet that can build the high quality that we look for in paddleboards, so we do it in China, because that is where we can get the best products,” said Reggie Charles, the founder.

Another company, Strafe Outerwear, manufacturers its goods in Vietnam. The company’s chief operating officer, Carl Walker, reported talks of new tariffs there, too.

“That’d be devastating,” he told the Daily News. “The type of tariffs that exist in China might now are large enough that our entire margin would be eaten by that. This could crush companies in certain industries.”

But there could be a ricochet effect, even if new tariffs are not added to goods produced in Vietnam.

“We’ve had to relay strong relationships with manufacturers in Vietnam. For five years we’ve been working with the same people,” Walker said. “My worry is that some bigger company will be leaving China because of the tariffs, and we could get squeezed out of a good relationship. I hope that doesn’t happen.”

The unsavory link between

trash and a robust economy

JACKSON, Wyo. – One way to measure the robustness of an economy is the amount of trash that gets generated. By that simple measure, the economy of Jackson Hole hasn’t been this lively since 2008.

In July, Teton County broke the 2008 record for the most waste generated in a single month, surpassing the old record by 15%. Much of the new trash coms from construction and demolition waste. The volume of floors, walls, carpets and other debris from scrapped homes and other buildings rose nearly 60% this year.

Just how much trash can a community with a full-time population of 24,000 people and a few hundred thousand visitors during a summer month generate?

The reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide points to the town square in Jackson, the city block famed for its elk-antlered arches. Trash during the month of July was enough to bury that square block 16 feet deep in refuse. All of last year’s trash would create a mound 134 feet high.

The News&Guide notes that the month in 2008 that the previous record was when the Great Recession began. Others say it actually began in December 2007. Whatever the beginning date, high-end resort communities kept on motoring for months after poor communities became torpid.

Also notable is the trash conflicts with Teton County’s embrace of the Road to Zero Waste. Obviously, this will be a long haul.

Getting cars to ski areas

in California and Colorado

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Transportation officials in California may seek to reduce congestion on Highway 89 between Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows and Interstate 80 at Truckee by putting the highway’s shoulders to work.

The plan, reports the Sierra Sun, would involve allowing busses to use highway shoulders on two miles of the most congested segments. The buses would ferry passengers who have left their cars at park-and-ride lots.

In Colorado, something similar is at work. Already, Interstate 70 has been reconfigured between Denver and Summit County to allow motors willing to pay tolls to gain access at congested times, so far limited to weekends. This is for east-bound lanes.

Work has recently begun on reconfiguring the highway in its west-bound lanes to achieve the same purposes. In effect, two lanes are being expanded to three lanes.

Along with this, Colorado has been expanding its popular purple-and-black Bustang bus routes. Several buses — plush and with WiFi — already ply I-70. Bustangs will go specifically to Loveland and Arapahoe Basin ski areas beginning this winter, and Copper Mountain has shown interest, The Denver Post reported.

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