Oct 23, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Photo by Anil Jergens
The effects of climate change are becoming painfully apparent in Colorado. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state is facing drought conditions: 97% of the state is listed under “Severe Drought” (D2) or higher, with 42.5% of Colorado in “Extreme Drought” (D3) conditions. The state’s reservoirs are filled to 49% of capacity, 84% of their average levels, according to the National Water and Climate Center.
The drought has been accompanied by abnormally warm temperatures, as this past August was the hottest on record in Colorado. Taken together, these conditions have fueled a wildfire season unlike anything Colorado has experienced in modern times. The Cameron Peak Fire, currently 62% contained, is now the largest wildfire in recorded state history, consuming 203,604 acres. The Pine Gulch Fire, started on July 31 of this year and only recently contained, was the previous record holder, covering 139,007 acres. Notably, every single one of Colorado’s 20 largest fires have occurred in the past 20 years.
In response to the extreme drought conditions, on Sept. 28 Colorado Governor Jared Polis sent a letter to Sonny Perdue, the head of the Food and Drug Administration (and a climate change skeptic), asking for emergency relief, stating that “farmers and ranchers in Colorado are suffering deep financial losses due to persistent drought conditions, extreme weather events, and compounding disasters.” Polis cited declining soil health, rangelands, and groundwater reserves while urging Perdue to remove crop-eligibility barriers for emergency support and to expedite owed aid payments to Colorado farmers and ranchers.
Unfortunately, the drought and wildfire emergencies that Colorado currently faces may soon become the new normal. As noted in a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, climate change has already warmed Colorado one to two degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, making droughts, heat waves, and wildfires more common. These trends are expected to continue with increased warming, as soils become dryer, snowpack and river flows decline, precipitation becomes more variable, and vulnerable ecosystems collapse. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, Colorado is expected to see temperature increases between 2.5 and five degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, compared to the 1971 to 2000 average.
Amid a heated election season, Colorado’s environmental issues loom large. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, up for reelection, has consistently fought against climate legislation, repeatedly voting against increased regulations on carbon and methane emissions. In a 2017 interview, Gardner refused to acknowledge that humans are causing climate change, calling it “a loaded political debate” and proclaiming his faith that the free market will resolve any issues that human emissions cause.
While climate-induced changes to Colorado’s environment have already begun to affect our daily lives, air quality, homes, and economy, the challenges we face now pale in comparison to our outlook in even the near future, as the state continues to rapidly warm. It is abundantly clear that this season’s devastating drought and wildfires ought to be seen not just as an immediate threat, but as a warning for the future.