Morgan Zeliff (INSTAAR and CU geography student) digs a snowpit while Jennifer Morse (LTER employee and CU geography alum) maintains a flux tower on Niwot Ridge on a rare sunny day in January. Snowpits are dug on a weekly basis to collect information about snowpack characteristics such as density, temperature, and snow grain size, and is used for long term hydrologic studies of this alpine environment. Photo: by Danielle Perrot (INSTAAR and Geography grad student)S

Submitted by Hannah Fletcher, Communications Specialist, University of Colorado Boulder

Where does our water come from and how does climate change affect its future availability? In the arid West, mountain snowpack holds the answers to these and other questions.

Mark Williams, professor of geography and fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), is an expert in snow hydrology and mountain ecology. He studies the storage and release of water from snowpack into mountain streams and what percentage of that water ultimately makes its way into homes. As principal investigator of the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research program at CU-Boulder’s Mountain Research Station, Williams and his team also explore the impacts of climate change, groundwater storage and pollution.  The National Science Foundation funds the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research project, located above 10,000 feet in the mountains near Boulder.

This team’s research is highlighted in a new educational video, “Water: A Zero Sum Game”.  In a one-of-a-kind underground and under snow laboratory, the researchers use an array of lysimeters that isolate, collect and measure snowmelt. These data are important for people downstream.

“Snow accumulates in the winter. It’s kind of like a bank where you have this nice capital account,” says Williams, who estimates that between 60 and 90 percent of all usable water in the western United States comes from snowmelt runoff.

Unfortunately, warming temperatures have resulted in less snow and shorter winters in recent years. In fact, the 2012 snowpack at Niwot Ridge was roughly half of normal and snowmelt began one month before average.

“If we switch from snow to rain because it’s warmer, we’re going end up with less usable water because we’re going to lose that banking effect we get from the seasonal snowpack,” Williams says. “And we’re going to lose more water to evapotranspiration.”

This is of particular concern to the southwestern United States as dry places get drier simply because they heat up faster, he says.

“Water: A Zero Sum Game” is the latest in a series of videos hosted at LearnMoreAboutClimate.colorado.edu.  The Learn More About Climate initiative localizes climate change for Coloradans, offering web resources, current research, educational videos, educator tools and more.  The website also features a video titled “A Hotter, Drier Colorado” that focuses on how climate change is affecting Colorado’s water supply.

The Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program was created in 1980 by the National Science Foundation to conduct research on ecological issues that can last decades and span huge geographical areas. The network brings together a multi-disciplinary group of more than 2,000 scientists and graduate students. The 26 LTER sites encompass diverse ecosystems in the continental United States, Alaska, Antarctica, and islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific—including deserts, estuaries, lakes, oceans, coral reefs, prairies, forests, alpine and Arctic tundra, urban areas, and production agriculture.

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4 thoughts on “Warming Climate and Western Water

  1. People need to be better educated about where their water comes from. How are they suppose to conserve something they know nothing about? I feel if people were better educated on topics related to hydrology, weather, and mountain systems they would be more alert about conserving their resources. Water in the west holds a scary future.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. The future may be scary but there is hope if well educated people make well informed decisions.
    Who is your ideal audience for increased water education?
    Through Water 2012 we’ve been encouraging people to learn more about water in Colorado. More than 44,000 people have seen the traveling library and museum displays; the Speakers Bureau has given talks to about 3,000 people; different newspapers across the state have featured weekly columns about water; the Colorado Foundation for Water Education published an entire water 101 Headwaters magazine and printed more than 15,000 copies to distribute statewide. In total the Water 2012 initiative has reached between 479,000 and 519,000 people.
    There are more people to reach and more to do but volunteers, speakers, teachers, readers…and writers/bloggers are making a difference and helping Coloradans stay informed.

  3. As a scientist who has also conducted studies similar to Mark Williams and other Niwot Ridge Projects and has done several public outreach talks, I feel the most ideal audiences need to start with those who have the power to change. State, county, city, and neighbor hood representatives need to be fed solution based information to the current and future water crisis. We live in an era where yards full of non-native plants are watered, showers last twenty minuets, and cheap inefficient toilets are often preferred. We are also on the brink of an environmental evolution, and I believe the most powerful step would be policy that encourages yards and gardens filled with native plants that require less maintenance because they are growing within their natural environment. For example buffalo grass is a beautiful native bluegrass that is aesthetically pleasing, drought tolerant and native to most of Colorado. Not only would this save water, but also provides ecological niches for insects, birds and other members of the ecosystem that are often forgotten. By using a variety of plant species neighborhoods become ecosystems rather than “monoculture farms” as I call them. If states encourage counties, who encourage cities, who encourage homeowner associations to practice these types of efforts, than together the west can improve the Earth’s way of life.

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