Microclimates, macro problem

  • Jodi Peterson


Ideas for coping with climate change are becoming ever more creative. This summer, a group of Peruvian villagers began painting their local mountain peaks white. The glaciers that once covered the peaks have melted, taking with them the villagers' water supply. In response, Peruvian inventor Eduardo Gold came up with a plan to slop a mixture of lime, egg white and water over roughly 170 acres. The whitewash will reflect sunlight much as snow does, creating areas with a cooler microclimate. With any luck, future snowfall will then stick around instead of melting, and will eventually help rebuild the glaciers.

Gold's idea was one of 26 winners (out of more than 1,700 submissions) in the 2009 "100 Ideas to Save the Planet" competition sponsored by the World Bank and partners. He received $200,000 to carry out his plan. Nearly a quarter of Peru's glaciers have disappeared over the last 30 years; Gold's attempt to restore them seems no more unreasonable than U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu's suggestion that we paint rooftops and pavement with light colors to help cool the planet.

Despite human ingenuity, though, some major shifts in climate seem inevitable. Recent research indicates that parts of the West will become significantly hotter and drier. And that's where nature's resilience comes into play. It's often been assumed, for instance, that as the climate warms, alpine-dwelling creatures will move steadily uphill until there's nowhere left for them to go. In this issue, award-winning writer J. Madeleine Nash shows that the reality may be more complicated -- and intriguing. She explains how researchers are discovering that highly varied terrain, like that found in the West's mountains, can provide refuge from warming for alpine plants and animals. The hollows, valleys and north sides of peaks all offer pockets of cooler temperatures, microclimates that may help species adapt (at least for a while; if the planet continues to warm, even these havens may get too hot). Nash's story, "Dancing with Climate Change," expands on ideas we introduced this spring in a short article by Molly Samuel about how some pikas are coping with warmer temperatures by hiding in cool rock piles and becoming more nocturnal.

These stories are part of our long-term commitment at High Country News to cover the rapidly evolving science of global climate change as it affects the West. We first began writing about the topic in the late '90s, and from 2004 to 2006 published the award-winning series "Hot Times" by contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis. Her stories, along with other recent climate-change stories, can all be found at www.hcn.org/hot-times.

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].

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