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April 19th, 2012

Front Range environment is changing fast, LTER studies find

Six papers published this month in the journal BioScience report on ecological changes at 26 research sites, including INSTAAR's Niwot Ridge site, adjacent to the Mountain Research Station west of Boulder. They indicate that ecosystems dependent on seasonal snow and ice are the most sensitive to changes in climate.

Former CU-Boulder postdoctoral researchers Amy Miller (blue coat) and Katie Suding (black coat) are shown here with other members of a research team conducting a study involving nitrogen deposition on the tundra of the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research site west of Boulder. Photo: William Bowman, INSTAAR.

The new reports use data gathered at NSF-funded Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites in around the globe. CU-Boulder’s Niwot Ridge site encompasses several thousand acres of subalpine forest, tundra, talus slopes, glacial lakes and wetlands stretching up to the Continental Divide.

LTER scientists in association with NSF have come up with a new evaluation system of the research sites that brings in the “human dimension,” said INSTAAR fellow and geography professor Mark Williams, the principal investigator on CU’s Niwot Ridge LTER site. “In the past we tried to look at pristine ecosystems, but those are essentially gone,” said Williams. “So we’ve come up with an approach that integrates human activities with our ecological research.”

According to the study authors, big changes are occurring in temperate areas beyond the poles, where warming temperatures have triggered declines in polar bear and penguin populations.

Key measurements at the Niwot Ridge site—which has climate records going back more than 60 years thanks to pioneering work by CU biology Professor John Marr in the 1950s—include temperature and precipitation logs from two stations, one at 12,700 feet in elevation and a second at 10,000 feet. Although the climate at the higher meteorological station, the highest long-term climate station in the United States, has been getting slightly wetter and cooler in recent decades, the station at 10,000 feet in a subalpine forest is getting significantly warmer and drier.

In the past we tried to look at pristine ecosystems, but those are essentially gone. So we’ve come up with an approach that integrates human activities with our ecological research. --Mark Williams

Williams said warming at 10,000 feet and lower may be enhancing surface water evaporation and transport that moves westward and higher in the mountains, with the water vapor being converted to snow that falls atop the Continental Divide. Snow cover increases reflectivity of incoming sunlight, further cooling the alpine area and overriding the overall warming signal in the West, which is believed to be a 2 or 3 degree Fahrenheit rise over the past decade due to rising greenhouse gases.

“These two Niwot Ridge stations are less than five miles away from each other—you can see one from the other—but there are totally different trends occurring,” he said. In many places in the mountainous West, a small increase in temperature can cause the climate to cross a threshold that triggers earlier and more intense snow melting, said Williams.

With snowpack roughly half of normal in 2012 and snow melting in the high country more than three months earlier than last year, the outlook is not good for montane and subalpine forests in Colorado and other parts of the West, he said.

Low snowpack and early melt have a huge impact on the Colorado economy, said Williams. Despite near record snowfall in 2010-11, warming temperatures have caused less snow and shorter winters in recent years and affected the ski industry, one of Colorado’s largest economic drivers.

As for the future of flora and fauna in subalpine and alpine regions like Niwot Ridge, there will be “winners and losers” as the climate warms, said Williams. Microbes, plants and animals, like pikas, that depend on snow and ice will decrease if they are unable to move higher. But shallower snow could cause big game like deer and elk to move higher in altitude to browse, according to the authors.

A big concern in temperate mountains like Colorado is the heath and welfare of coniferous trees as the climate changes, said Williams. “Trees in Colorado’s mountains are under a tremendous amount of stress due to drought and pine beetle outbreaks. And the fire danger, at least now, is through the roof,” he said.

“If some of these forested areas disappear, I think the chances of them coming back are pretty low,” Williams said. “The climate they grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. As we lose trees to drought, beetles and wildfires, we are likely to see an invasion of grasses and shrubs in areas where we have never seen them, causing a complete restructuring of our forest community.”

As snowline moves up due to warming temperatures, so will parts of alpine tundra in the West, Williams said. “The tundra may be able to function reasonably well for several decades—it will be awhile before warming climate change pushes the tundra off the tops of mountains.  But that is the direction we are heading.”

Williams co-authored three of the six BioScience studies, including the main LTER overview paper and a paper on ecosystem and human influences on stream flow in response to climate change at LTER sites. INSTAAR fellow Tim Seastedt was a co-author on another of the papers.

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