Weather watchers wondering about winter |

Weather watchers wondering about winter

Chad Abraham

ASPEN – With March beginning and spring is nearly upon us, the question is, where was winter?There was thunder and lightning in Rockies Mountains on New Year’s Eve, it rained in January in Aspen, and the winter has seemingly been filled with plenty of mild days. And at least one person was seen this weekend running around Denver in pants and only a T-shirt – at night.So is it just a much warmer than usual winter? Or are these harbingers of something more ominous – human-triggered climate change? These are the issues that have sparked perhaps the most controversy between environmentalists and scientists.Stephen Saunders is president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, a nonprofit environmental group in Denver. He has studied government charts that detail the Western Slope’s temperature patterns since 1895. So what has he found?”The West is warming,” Saunders said. “The clear scientific consensus worldwide is that the Earth’s climate is warming, and that most of the cause for that in the last 50 years or so is what people are doing in terms of putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”Gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and fluorocarbons, which are used in coolers and some industrial activities, “act like a blanket that keeps heat from escaping through the atmosphere,” Saunders said.What is not disputed by anyone is that the West is still gripped by drought that is threatening water supplies in several states. But what is causing the multiyear drought is not easily explained, said Brian Avery, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “There’s a lot of unknowns out there. One different year does not necessarily mean the climate of the whole planet is changing,” he said. “In fact the conditions in January were very explainable.”Avery said a weather cycle called the “Madden-Julian oscillation” in the Pacific Ocean was likely behind the mountain rain in January. Scientists are just now beginning to understand the weather system, which usually sends moist, warm air into North America for a month or two. It is also being looked at as one possible catalyst for changes to global weather.The Madden-Julian oscillation “is fairly rare, but it happens,” Avery said. “It sets up a scenario where we get a very different weather pattern in the Southwest.”Saunders said regardless of why it rained, this winter was warmer. And that doesn’t bode well for ski slopes.”The temperature increases are greatest at nighttime at higher elevations in the winter and early spring,” he said. “So the places and the times where normally we’d be having the greatest escape of heat … are where we’re having the greatest effect from the greenhouse gases. That includes Aspen and that includes winter and the ski season.”But Avery said when studying climate it’s significant to retain perspective.”An important thing for people to remember is that we have about 120 years worth of data on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old,” he said. “It’s an incredibly tiny slice to say what’s average and what’s not average.”Vail, Colorado

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