How might climate change affect Colorado?

Glacier Basin Campground 1950s

A few years ago, Dr. Jes Thompson, climate change communication researcher at Colorado State University, was asked to bring a group of visiting conflict resolution practitioners and scholars on a short field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Dr. Thompson asked Judy Visty, the chief of research at the park to join the group and talk about some of the climate change work and research the Park was doing. The group stopped at Glacier Basin campground inside the park.

The trees surrounding the campsites had recently been cleared because pine bark beetles had killed most of the trees. The dead trees posed too great a safety risk to park visitors to leave them standing. While at the campsite, the visiting group discussed how warming temperatures were leading to increasing populations of pine bark beetles in the park, which in turn was causing increased numbers of dead trees needing to be removed in areas where visitors were standing, stopping, or sleeping.

During the field trip, one of the attendees asked Dr. Thompson to take a moment to stop and talk with her; she appeared quite upset. Growing up, her family had spent many years visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, camping in the same place the group had visited on the field trip. During her youth, the campsite was well-wooded and very beautiful. Now that it was logged, the site looked and felt completely different. It did not conjure up the same warm feelings it had when she has vacationed there as a child with her family. The contrast between the campsite as she knew it as a child and the present state of the campsite was a personal connection to climate change and its impacts that this woman never expected. The woman told Dr. Thompson that she wished that she had brought her parents with her, staunch climate change deniers; she thought the experience would change their perspective and she vowed to bring them back with her the next time she visited Colorado.

Glacier Basin Campground 2009

Drawing a personal connection to the influence of climate change in everyday life is not always easy. Much of the climate change happening today feels too subtle for most of us to connect with. However, programs like Project BudBurst and the BudBurst at the Parks partnership with Rocky Mountain National Park, remind us to look at our surroundings with a more watchful eye. In doing so, we may begin to notice how ecosystems are changing around us in seemingly small, but significant ways.

Like the example above illustrates, climate change is altering the environment of Colorado. Between 1977 and 2006 (approx. 30 years) the average annual temperature in Colorado rose by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures are expected to increase another 2-4 degrees over the next 50 years. Nearly all of Colorado has experienced this warming trend, with the exception of the southeast corner, which is going through a cooling trend. The warm temperatures currently experienced by residents living close to the Kansas border are projected to be experienced in future years by residents living as far west as the Front Range. And winters and summers are projected to keep warming up.

Unlike many other states, the effects of climate change on precipitation in Colorado are less clear. What scientists can predict, however, is that in parts of the West, warmer temperatures will likely lead to more rain and less snow and the snow itself will have a lower snow water equivalent. Data also suggest that snowpack at elevations below 8,200 feet will decrease. Water resources are also being influenced in other ways. Spring runoff, for example, is already occurring two weeks earlier now than in 1978, leading to reduced late summer flows that farmers rely on.

What does this mean for the Rocky Mountains?

Hairy Woodpecker on Ponderosa Pine

Rocky Mountain National Park, a national landmark visited by over three million people every year, is not immune to climate change. The pine bark beetle example at the beginning of this article is just one example. The pine bark beetle is a native species to the park and to Colorado. In the past, when temperatures were cooler, the pine bark beetle went through approximately one life cycle per season. With warmer temperatures coming earlier and hanging around later each year, the beetles now have accelerated developmental periods in some years, allowing them to go through two life cycles in a season. More life cycles produce larger populations of beetles and more damage than before. Other organisms, such as migratory birds, are also demonstrating behavioral changes. For example, American robins are arriving in southern Colorado two weeks earlier than they did in 1981, and yellow bellied marmots are emerging from hibernation significantly earlier than they did in the 1970s.

Climate models predict that these and other changes will continue. Spring is expected to advance about 2.3 days every decade. Migrations of neotropical birds to the Rocky Mountains are projected to decrease by 39%. It is also expected that diversity in alpine tundra environments, which are often patchy, will decline. American pika, a small mammal found in the tundra, may not be able to find enough suitable habitat to support viable populations. There is also concern among researchers and enthusiasts that alpine plants will not be able to migrate fast enough to adapt to the changing climate and prevent extirpation. As plant and animal ranges expand and contract with changing climates, park managers may need to alter how they respond to, and educate visitors about, these changing resources in the future.


Photos: Top-Glacier Basin campground at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) circa 1950s, courtesy of John Morris, National Park Service; Middle-Glacier Basin campground at RMNP 2009,courtesy of Dr. Jessica Thompson; Bottom-Hairy woodpecker on a Ponderosa pine at RMNP, courtesy of Russell Smith, National Park Service

Dr. Jessica Thompson, Assistant Professor, Warner College of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, pers. comm.

Climate Change in Colorado: A synthesis to support water resources management and adaptation. 2008. Colorado Water Conservation Board and University of Colorado at Boulder. Boulder, Colorado.

Ashton, I. W. 2010. Observed and projected ecological response to climate change in the Rocky Mountains and Upper Columbia Basin: A synthesis of current scientific literature. Natural Resource Report NPS/ROMN/NRR-2010/220. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Bentz, B. 2008. Western US Bark Beetles and Climate Change. Available at USDA Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.