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2000's and beyond

Climate Change and the Modern Era

Larvae. Credit: Emily Jack-Scott

The ecosystems of the Roaring Fork Valley shape everything from our economy to our recreation, but these ecosystems may be changing within the lifetime of today’s generations. Some of these changes are the consequence of natural successions, others may be caused by human development and local populations growth, and some will be a combination of both. Climate change will likely be one of the most powerful drivers of these ecological shifts.

The Difference Between Climate and Weather

The words climate and weather are often used interchangeably, but in reality they describe very different things. Weather describes conditions at a given instant: what you experience when you step outside. It describes conditions in an area over a short term. Climate represents the average of weather conditions over an extended period of time of decades or longer. Climate is determined by factors such as elevation, latitude, and long term patterns of precipitation and wind. When it is extreme, the weather of a season, can cause changes at population level: such as die-offs or population booms. However, just as it represents conditions over a longer period of time than weather, climate also generally has a more lasting impact on the ecosystems of a given location, playing a significant role determining what plants and animals will survive in that area.

AGCI Walter Orr Roberts Public Lecture


Currently a rise in greenhouses gases, especially Carbon dioxide, is warming the average atmospheric temperature of the globe and thereby leading to alterations in climate patterns across the world. This means that in future decades our precipitation and temperature cycles may be different than those experienced in this area just a few decades ago. Large changes in global temperature and Carbon dioxide have occurred before over the history of the planet, but generally those changes occurred on a scale of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. Today, changes of similar magnitude are in the processes of taking place at a scale of just decades to a century.

Image Credit: Climate Change in Colorado: A Synthesis to Support Water Resources Management and Adaptation, Second Edition. August 2014. A Report for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Western Water Assessment, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), University of Colorado Boulder

What does climate change mean for Aspen?

Within the Roaring Fork Valley there are multiple efforts being undertaken to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we are releasing on a local level. City of Aspen has started a program called the Canary Initiative that explores ways that CO2 emissions can be reduced through city actions and offers ideas for carbon reduction on an individual level. Garfield County also has a Clean Energy Initiative, working to help residents become more energy efficient. Local schools are in on the act as well. At Roaring Fork High School a dedicated club is working to promote energy efficiency within the school through infrastructure, such as the installment of solar panels, and by encouraging other students reduce their own energy use on a daily basis.



Studying Change

Being able to recognize change requires two types of information: what current conditions are and what conditions used to be in the past. Collecting data on previous conditions can often be the trickier of the two. In some cases, missing data from previous eras can be reconstructed by proxy: scientists study information that is available to draw conclusions about information that is not directly available. For example, the type of pollen trapped in lakebed sediments and its depth in the sediment can be used to generate hypotheses about what vegetation or an area might have looked like at different points in history. Other types of information can be harder or impossible to reconstruct though.

Actively collecting data over an extended period of time--long term monitoring--can reveal patterns that would otherwise remain unseen. This is the purpose of the iRON, to monitor soil moisture conditions in the Roaring Fork Valley in relation to weather conditions over a long period of time.


Global Connection

Our atmosphere is a dynamic system—and that goes for the carbon dioxide in it as well. Carbon dioxide concentrations change in response to the seasons—increasing when plants die or become dormant in the Northern Hemisphere winter, and decreasing during plant growth and increased respiration in the spring. Human actions on a local level likewise have global repercussions, as air is swirled around the globe by atmospheric circulation. The visualization below from NASA Goddard shows an example of how carbon dioxide concentrations move across the globe in the atmosphere over the course of a year.

Brain Bug

One way of considering total global carbon emissions is by considering carbon use in relation to the economy and population of the planet using an equation called the Kaya Identity. The Kaya Identity multiplies the population of the Earth by the GDP (average yearly income per person) times energy intensity (the amount of energy in relation to each dollar earned) times carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emitted in production of each watt of energy).
Carbon Dioxide Emissions = population* per capita GDP * energy intensity * carbon intensity
If you were in charge of reducing global carbon emissions, which component(s) of the Kaya Identity would you focus on and how would achieve your change? For example, carbon intensity could be lowered either by using renewable energy sources to generate energy, or energy intensity could be reduced by designing more efficient factories so that less energy is required to produce the same product.