Aspen aims to forecast future climate |

Aspen aims to forecast future climate

Janet Urquhart
Special to the Daily/Paul ConradAspen is studying how climate change, particularly warm weather, will affect the ski resort, the area's economy and its wildlife.

ASPEN – Aspen has launched an ambitious study of climate change and its potential future impacts on the ski resort’s snowpack, ecology and economy.A team of primarily Boulder-based experts has already begun work on the three-pronged study, to be finished next spring. A roomful of community representatives – most with either an obvious stake in the impacts of global warming or an environmental bent – gathered Friday in Aspen for a briefing on the study and a chance to add their two cents’ worth as the research gets under way.The “stakeholders” included representatives of the Aspen Skiing Co., as well as a backcountry outfitter, whitewater rafting guide, a local rancher and government officials from the Roaring Fork Valley.The study will attempt to predict Aspen’s climactic, ecological and socioeconomic fortunes in the near term – the year 2030 – and beyond, under various scenarios.

The Aspen Global Change Institute has assembled the team on the city’s behalf as part of Aspen’s Canary Initiative – a program to reduce Aspen’s contribution to global warming and to lead by example.Much of the city’s roughly $120,000 budget for the study will be spent on computer modeling – plugging key data into programs that can identify trends and extrapolate future patterns. What does it mean, for example, that Aspen’s average number of frost-free days per year has increased by three weeks over the course of the last century?In the case of analyzing the local snowpack, for example, the study will attempt to estimate the length of future ski seasons, the accumulation and melting of the snowpack, its average depth and the quality of the snow, said Brian Lazar of Stratus Consulting Inc. in Boulder.Anecdotally, the spring runoff generally seems to be getting shorter and more intense, he said.”It’s not that the snow depth is changing all that much – it’s the timing,” he said. “It’s coming later and melting sooner.”

Jonathan Lowsky, former Pitkin County wildlife biologist and now a consultant, will attempt to apply the study’s climactic predictions to local plant and animal communities.A pair of consultants with the Center of the American West and Department of Geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder are part of a trio assessing how any climactic changes the study forecasts affect snowmaking, skier days and, ultimately, skier spending. They will also analyze potential economic impacts in other seasons, and on the second-home market in Aspen.Will Aspen remain a hot second-home market and summer vacation destination so long as it remains cooler than Texas, for example? The socioeconomic piece will be a challenging one in which to draw conclusions, conceded Bill Travis of the Center of the American West and CU-Boulder.”Our crystal ball is a little hazy about what Aspen would be like without climate change in 2030,” he said.

Lowsky and others on the team will delve into aspects that may hit closer to home for locals than snowpack data or snow-line elevations. Wildfires and damaging insect infestations, for example, could be consequences of a warmer local climate. Changes in habitat, as plant communities move higher in elevation with warmer temperatures, could impact wildlife, leaving the animals at the highest elevations with nowhere to go if their habitat disappears, Lowsky theorized.”If we tell people the ptarmigan and pikas may disappear – animals they love to see when they’re out hiking – that may have a more emotional response for people than the numbers will,” he said.Whatever the outcome of the study and Aspen’s attempts to counteract global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the local level, the resort can’t hope to have a noticeable impact on a global climactic phenomenon, argued architect Harry Teague. Rather, he hopes the resort can produce a strategy that many places can emulate. Right now, he said, Aspen boasts a lifestyle that produces plenty of carbon dioxide – the predominant greenhouse gas blamed by scientists for holding heat in the atmosphere.

“I see our major problem as how do we deal with outdoor swimming pools, private jets, large vehicles, heating large homes that have nobody in them. We have that here,” Teague said. “It isn’t just about skiing – making snow next year. It’s a much bigger problem.”A final report to the city is expected at the end of March.Vail, Colorado

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