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Colorado Climate Change Catastrophes

Posted 11/11/2023 by Riley Rimkus

The Reid Glacier in Colorado’s Glacier Bay National Park is shown only a few years apart, depicting the climate impacts that will only become more severe unless a change is made. upper photo by G.K Gilbert, lower photo by Ron Karpilo

The rise in global warming poses large issues to Colorado’s environment and society.

Climate change is an issue that is not limited to the endangered arctic animals and melting ice caps. The western United States has had a larger increase in average temperatures in the past decade than any other part of the country – a pattern that is predicted to continue. In Colorado, climate change has cascaded into many crises affecting the local environment, fauna, and people. 

The global average temperature has risen by one to two degrees. While this might not seem drastic, on a global scale, this development will result in extreme weather. As stated by AP Environmental Science teacher Brett Butera, “If we increase the global annual average temperature by one degree celsius, that means that the amount of moisture in the atmosphere would increase by around seven percent.” With this increase in humidity, storms that are driven by moisture, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hail, will become more common. 

In terms of Colorado, the surrounding environment is at risk as the Rocky Mountains have many ecosystems which would be subject to an immense change. Mountain species have evolved to only thrive in narrow temperature ranges, making them among the most vulnerable to climate alterations. “There will be a shift from specialist to generalist species,” explained Butera.  Without the consistent temperatures of the Rocky Mountains, many specialist species will not be able to survive. This classification of animals and insects have a limited diet and rely on specific habitat conditions to be able to live. Without this specific niche, specialist species die off as they are unable to adapt to the changing climate. On the other hand, generalist species, like the invasive mountain pine beetles, are able to thrive. As stated by 305 Colorado, “rising temperatures and fewer below freezing winter days allow pine beetles to thrive at higher elevation.” These insects infest forests, killing off large numbers of trees, resulting in habitat destruction and less species diversity.

The warming atmosphere also has an impact on aquatic species. As atmospheric temperatures increase, water temperatures rise too, which lowers the survival rate for fish, plants, and other aquatic animals. Without a sufficient amount of fish, entire food webs are thrown off. 

In the densely populated metropolitan areas of Colorado, there are also issues with water scarcity as the hot weather causes the water in reservoirs and rivers to evaporate. Historically, the Colorado River has provided water for Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. With less water to go around, there may be a debate around how much water each state will be allotted, which could lead to political battles between those involved. All in all, each state will face water scarcity and have to allocate their water, meaning individual people will be hit. 

According to Butera, Colorado has “been in a mega-drought for twenty years;” a statistic that does not ease the worry of water scarcity. Despite the heavy rains this past summer, the state is still in a drought. Warm temperatures enhance evaporation, which dries out the soil. The dryness increases the possibility of wildfires, a devastating natural disaster that already damages the environment. Once a fire starts, putting out the flames is difficult as dry conditions allow a rapid spread. 

The TJ community has also been impacted.  Recently, the school has undergone a two year process to add air conditioning to the building. When TJ was built in 1960, temperatures were not hot enough in the late summer to have a cooling system. In recent years, temperatures have reached 100 degrees on school days during the beginning of the school year, posing a need for the new system. This also brings up equity issues as air conditioning is expensive and not all schools have money to afford new units. This means that students and staff from these schools will continue to suffer in the rising heat.

Although a large discussion is placed on the warming of Colorado, it is important to note that this does not mean Colorado will not face large amounts of snow and extreme low temperatures in winter. This is a result of an El Niño year, which is an event that can trigger amplification of weather events. Butera explained that “El Niño, because it is increasing the temperatures in the equatorial pacific, overall tends to increase the global average temperature. We will be breaking heat records in Colorado, but at the same time, because it’s an El Nino year, Southwestern Colorado will have record breaking snowfall.” 

The economy also takes a hit as a large portion of the economy in mountain towns are based on winter activities such as skiing and snowboarding. With a shorter season, ski resorts are not able to generate as much money. Yet another hit to individuals’ finances is damage from the extreme weather, such as hail. Butera states that there will be “more hail in Colorado which is going to be bad for insurance companies that have to pay, which will drive up insurance premiums.” 

Without a change in current practices, Colorado is threatened to face what could be compared to a dystopian society due to climate change. However, people can take action to reduce the effects. “One thing people can do locally is replace their turf/grass lawns with drought tolerant native plants and landscaping,” recommended Butera “This is known as xeriscaping, which is based on the word xeric which means containing little moisture; very dry.” Households can also switch over to LED light bulbs and energy-efficient electric appliances, which will reduce reliance on nonrenewable energy sources like gas and coal which contribute to global warming. Additionally, as often discussed, biking and walking when possible is beneficial. When looking for accessible, helpful tips on how to reduce one’s carbon footprint, Denver residents can visit Denver Water. The frightening future that Colorado is moving towards now can still be modified if residents take initiative to make change.