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The Canaries

The rich can buy state-of-the-art climate science, just as they can buy state-of-the-art health care. And upstream from Colorado Springs, the resort town of Aspen, CO, kicked off its very own climate-change impact study two years ago. City leaders called it the Canary Initiative–because in their view, mountain areas could be the climate-change equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. They sought out the advice of leading lights in climate science and devoted a modest $145,000 to a pair of local studies. The announcement of the studies’ findings last year bore the somber headline “Aspen Climate Study Finds Serious Risk to the Future of Skiing.”

At first blush, the emphasis on skiing may provoke eye rolling. But as Aspen goes, so goes any other mountain area. Aspen’s leaders have come to grips with the fact that by the end of the century, there may be too little snow not only for skiing but for replenishing water supplies, sustaining fishing, and fighting fires, which would themselves be more frequent in water-starved forests. “When I first heard about this, I thought it was surprising,” says Mearns, who participated in the Canary Initiative. “Little Aspen is going to do this full assessment? But as it went through, I realized this does make sense, because ultimately, mitigation on local scales can help.” Aspen may need to put ski lifts higher up the mountain and, eventually, plan for life after skiing.

If Aspen is, in its planning for climate change, an extreme exception at the local level, California is the exception at the state level; the California Energy Commission does more than any equivalent state agency to promote energy-efficiency technologies and renewable electricity sources like solar and wind. As a result, California’s carbon dioxide emissions from power generation are, per capita, the lowest in the nation. But in the past three years, the energy commission’s R&D effort has expanded to include studies of climate adaptation. A small portion of its annual climate budget, about $4 million, now goes toward regional computer modeling aimed at clarifying the implications of climate change for agriculture, forests, coastal management, and water supplies. “We want to know at higher resolution how the California snowpack and its water availability will be affected and, in turn, how agriculture and urban water-supply strategies may have to respond,” says Martha Krebs, the commission’s deputy director for R&D. “We need to know how sea-level rise and salt-water intrusion may affect coastal communities and what that will mean for city planning and development policy.”

Krebs anticipates that detailed regional models will, among other things, steer forest-management plans in new directions. California is considering the possibility that its forests could serve as “sinks” for carbon dioxide. One proposal is to reforest previously forested areas. But a hotter climate could stress existing plant species, and harsher droughts could leave these new forests more vulnerable to fire. The hope is that understanding the effects of climate change on California’s complex topography and climatic zones will help foresters develop the right management strategies, including choosing specific trees that can survive harsh conditions.

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Credit: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Tagged: Energy

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