The effects of climate change are already apparent in the Southwest, and especially noticeable in the San Juan Mountains is a decrease in snowpack, which increases the chances and severity of wildfire and threatens water supplies.
That was one of two major messages from the chapter on the Southwest in the fourth National Climate Assessment released at the end of November, said Gregg Garfin, an associate professor in climate and natural resources and policy at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Garfin was a co-leader of a team of 14 authors on the chapter. The team included Emile Elias, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and an affiliate professor at Fort Lewis College.
The second major area where climate change is apparent in the Southwest, Garfin said, is its impact on the California coastline with warm temperatures and harmful blooms of algae based on increased carbon dioxide that place toxins in the ecosystem and harm the health of fish.
Six states were included in the Southwest region in the National Climate Assessment – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The congressionally mandated document is the fourth comprehensive look at climate change impacts in the United States since 2000 and is produced by 13 federal departments and agencies overseen by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
“We’re seeing drought, wildfires, heat waves and extreme events that are more frequent and bigger problems,” Garfin said.
Marcie Bidwell, executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute, said Southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains are seeing some of the impacts of global warming.
She said the region has seen a 2-degree Fahrenheit increase in mean average temperatures over the past 30 years.
“The trend in increasing minimum temperatures is having a bigger impact for us,” she said. “It’s led to less cold winters. It’s a bigger impact than increased heat in the summer. We’re seeing more rapid runoff in spring, and the spread of beetles is aided by the lack of killing, sub-zero winters for the beetles.”
From 2011 to 2016, California was in a drought, and Garfin said it exemplified prolonged dry periods caused by climate change.
Garfin said problems are also interrelated and build on each other.
He noted low reservoir levels in California and elsewhere in the region are a result of drought and lack of snowpack.
Speaking of the compounding effect of drought, he said: “The results is increased wildfire risk. We’re affecting insects. We’re pumping more hard water from underground because of decreased reservoir surface water.”
The quality of water in rural towns especially is at risk from drought, as towns rely more on drilling for water, he said.
“There’s a connection and interaction between different impacts. The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone,” he said.
Climate change has led states and communities across the region to take actions and begin planning for a warmer climate, a good thing, Garfin said.
On Tuesday night, the city of Durango held an open house to look at building resiliency to cope with increased warming.
Imogen Ainsworth, sustainability coordinator for the city of Durango, said the event brought together several nonprofits and government agencies dealing with climate change and allowed an array of agencies to find areas where they could collaborate and cooperate on efforts and also identify areas where they could avoid duplication of efforts.
The open house also allowed the city to gather information about how to build resiliency to cope with warming that could inform and guide city policy in the future.
Garfin said the use of renewable energy is on the increase across the Southwest, a natural given the solar- and wind-generation potential of the region, and he estimates the increased reliance on renewable energy has saved “billions” in health costs.
He also noted an increased use of prescribed fires to contain the risk of wildfire and an increased recognition among communities and homeowners near forests of the need for thinning treatments and creation of defensible spaces.
“We’ve seen various kinds of community and individual efforts that make up a patchwork quilt to address the warming issue, but we need to address it in a more coordinated way,” he said. “Just to have ad hoc efforts is not sufficient.”
A combination of incentives and regulations to address climate change is necessary, Garfin said.
“Regulations have worked to decrease air pollution and increase public safety, and that’s not any different for climate change,” he said.