A Fort Lewis College professor has been selected to take part in a United Nations report that seeks to assess the impacts of climate change, focusing on how less snow is expected to alter the environment.
Heidi Steltzer, an associate professor of biology at FLC, said the study is headed by the International Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental arm of the UN that assesses the risks and impacts of climate change around the world and possible response actions.
The report, Steltzer said, was two years underway when one person on the panel had to leave because of health issues. In September, Steltzer was tapped to help on the section of the study that focuses on how less annual snowfall affects mountain ecosystems.
“We want to understand the impacts of retreating glaciers, degradation of permafrost and changes in snowpack,” she said. “It’s pretty significant in any ecosystem to be snow-covered or not snow-covered, and we want to attribute changes in the mountains directly to those three things.”
For this report, there was no on-the-ground research, Steltzer said. Instead, statements and conclusions have to be supported by a peer review scientific publication from the past five years. She has enlisted the help of two FLC students in gathering all the information.
“Ultimately, the goal is to find as many papers as possible that are review articles that show a pattern,” she said. “So we can show it’s not just happening in one mountain region. It’s happening in many.”
Steltzer has been a mountain scientist since 1994. She earned her Bachelor of Science in biology at Duke University and a doctorate in ecosystem ecology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. She joined the FLC faculty in 2009 and has led field studies in Colorado, Greenland and Alaska.
She said living in the San Juan Mountains and being able to study the environment firsthand has helped her understanding of climate change’s impact on the ecosystem.
“We grow our intuition in science by living where we do our research,” she said.
Across Colorado, snowpack has declined 20% to 60% since the 1950s, according to the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, with the snow season now 34 days shorter than historic norms.
While the UN study looks around the globe for the impacts of less annual snowfall, Steltzer can see the decrease in snowpack right out her backdoor in the San Juan’s.
Just last summer, during the extreme drought in Southwest Colorado, Steltzer went out to see how the absence of snowpack affects wildflowers. By early July, most flowers had already bloomed, she said, and were past their peak far too early.
The conclusions of the report are under embargo until its release in September. The hope, Steltzer said, is the report will help inform governments around the world about how to adapt and respond to the challenges presented by climate change.
“When there’s a good understanding of the problem, and the technology is available, we need to try to agree to make the changes,” she said. “I’m hopeful we can do that.”