Hot Times - Global Warming in the West

 

Note: this editor's note introduces this issue's feature story, "Global Warming's Unlikely Harbingers."

The weather always gets the last laugh. It’s the rowdy guest at weddings, the unwelcome visitor at planting time, the cruel joker on the fire crew. It defeats our most dedicated efforts to plan ahead, rudely announcing that the climate is in charge. In the West, where humans habitually push the limits of the environment, droughts, heat waves and cold snaps remind us of society’s precarious perch.

But the weather isn’t what it used to be. These days, an entirely new set of factors complicates its fickle nature. Mean global temperatures rose substantially over the past century; in the Western Hemisphere, the warming was greater than in any other century of the millennium. Levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere also shot upward. The degree of human influence on global temperatures is still a matter of some debate, but virtually all scientists agree that rising temperatures are real — and at least partly our doing.

Researchers are busy documenting the concrete effects of higher temperatures. Glaciers have retreated in Glacier National Park, the Sierra Nevada, and elsewhere in the world. Scientists estimate that pikas — the tiny rabbit relatives that live in high-mountain rock piles — have disappeared from nearly 30 percent of the Great Basin habitats they occupied early in the last century. There’s new and convincing evidence that our snowpack is decreasing in volume and melting earlier in the spring than ever recorded. For a region dependent on snowmelt for its water supply, this last trend may be the most sobering of all: If you think Western water politics are already too nasty and complicated, hang on tight.

Temperature is the best-documented shift in our climate, but other types of disturbances are in the offing. It’s likely that human activities are not only heating up the planet, but also changing precipitation patterns and increasing the chances of extreme weather such as floods and drought.

As these global problems land in our backyards, High Country News is watching them closely. In this issue, we look at how rising temperatures are boosting forest beetle outbreaks throughout the region, and we get the scoop on federal policy from observer Jon Margolis. Future articles will tackle other facets of our changing climate. In the vast and varied West, the weather has always been a surprisingly interesting topic of conversation; now, the talk promises to be more interesting — and more crucial — than ever.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • SENIOR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking a Senior Environmental Planner to lead the Nature in the City team. This interdisciplinary position is housed in...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is seeking a dynamic community engagement assistant. The individual will work to identify and empower members, supporters, volunteers, and others...
  • VOICES OF WISDOM 2019 SOUTHWEST
    May 25 & 26 At the bank of the Colorado River, at Riverbend Park in Palisade, Colorado, the Sacred Fire Community in the Grand Valley...
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.