Sunday, August 13, 2006

City Club of Boise - Rocky Mountain High: Global warming in the West

Back on July 24th, Karyn and I attended the City Club of Boise luncheon on global warming titled "Rocky Mountain High: Global Warming in the West". The session was very interesting and very well attended. Here is a brief summary of the highlights.

Presenter: Dr. Daniel Fagre, Ecologist/Global Change Research Coordinator, USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

Dr. Fagre started by presenting some very sobering statistics. For example, in 1910 there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park, today there are only 27; Red Eagle glacier has lost 50% of its mass in the past 5 years; Sperry Glacier had 60% more snow than last year, yet melted down 20% faster.

Dr. Fagre discussed how glaciers and mountain snowpack are important for our cities. Across the world, 50% of our fresh water is provided by mountains. In the western United States the range is closer to 70-90%. What we are seeing in some cases is greater snow fall, but faster run off, leaving less water throughout the year. In those years with less snow fall, the run off is even quicker. This presents a large threat to our cities.

The doctor then presented a number of ecosystem ramifications of this warming. Much of the focus of global warming has been on the high temperature, but most of the issues arise in a higher low temperature and shorter winter. The warmer winter temperatures are allowing the snow to partially melt and refreeze, creating a impenetrable barrier for mountain goats and other animals to break through to the food below. This is causing many animals to starve. Higher stream temperatures are killing off small aquatic insects, an important food for trout. Trees are invading high alpine meadows, further limiting the food sources for the animals that live in that area. Dr. Fagre showed a photo of Hidden Lake from this early 1900's and one from today. It was amazing how much of the alpine meadow has become forested.

During the question and answer period, someone asked if this is not a natural warming. Dr. Fagre indicated that people are accelerating and intensifying what might have been a natural warming process. The warming has been slower than expected as the oceans have been absorbing the CO2. Unfortunately the oceans are slowing their absorption as we are accelerating our CO2 output. There is a self correcting mechanism, but it has disastrous consequences for life. The build up of CO2 will warm the planet until the ocean currents stop, at which point the next ice age will begin.

When asked if he had ever been censored by the government, Dr. Fagre said no.

When asked about the uncertainty of global warming, Dr. Fagre pointed to a recent study of 1000 scientific articles. They were 99.9% consistent that global warming is real and so is the human impact on it. Media articles were only 50% consistent.

Dr. Fagre had three suggestions for us: 1) limit the damage (reduce, eliminate, reverse), 2)Take CO2 out of the system (increase vegetation, sequester CO2), 3) Build resiliency.

It was a fascinating presentation. Unfortunately it was way too short.

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