The Consequences of Climate Change in Colorado


Photo by Luis Olmos on Unsplash

Aidan Roessler, Features Editor

When you think of climate change, what do you picture? Many might say they envision colossal flooding and intense storms that affect the livelihood of people in coastal areas, but never Colorado. While this is certainly a reality of climate change, Colorado is not immune to the world-altering effects of climate change. In fact, climate change has the potential to radically alter the future of Durango and Colorado as a whole, as it has massive effects on the thing that has seemingly defined the climate of Durango and Colorado at large: snow.  

Climate change has a significant impact on the snow in Colorado which has far-reaching effects that go beyond just the mountains. 

According to the EPA, since the 1950s, the April snowpack in Colorado has decreased anywhere from 20% to 60% at most monitoring sites in Colorado. The deteriorating snowpack in the mountains due to less precipitation and changing temperatures as a result of climate change means that ski seasons will be shorter, as the consistent snowpack that is required for stable conditions will not be as prevalent. Additionally, according to the Climate Impact Lab, a team of climate scientists, economists, students, and more, the amount of days in which the temperature drops below freezing in Telluride is predicted to drop by 45-54 percent by 2080-2090. This means that if the rest of southwest Colorado follows the same trend, there will be fewer days in which snow will fall, and more days where snow has the potential to melt, particularly in the spring, which will significantly reduce the length of the ski season. 

Additionally, climate change makes outdoor recreation in the mountains more dangerous overall. 

“The risk and hazard of Avalanches are greater … in part as a consequence of climate change,” says Dr. Heidi Steltzer, Coordinator for the Environmental Science Degree Program and Professor of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College.

As Dr. Steltzer explains, when there are greater periods of time between snow storms and then a few storms release massive amounts of snow (conditions that we have recently been experiencing) the snowpack is very unstable, which leads to a greater risk of avalanches.  

While Colorado’s ski seasons will not be as severely impacted by climate change as other parts of the nation, according to Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts, Inc., skiing generates around $4.8 billion for Colorado’s economy, so even if the ski season is reduced only by just a few weeks, or becomes more dangerous, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars could be lost. 

However, as Dr. Steltzer explains, the future of snow in Colorado is not all doom and gloom because unlike ice, which will take millennia to return to pre-Industrial Revolution levels, normal snow levels can be restored in much less time.

“The thing that I love about … thinking about the future of snow is that it’s a much simpler thing to fix than ice … It’s a space in which we could expect in decades to see improvement as a result of our actions,” says Steltzer. 

While a more dangerous and shorter ski season may have an immediate and noticeable effect on Colorado’s economy, climate change also has a deeper effect on water availability in Colorado, which has a wide range of impacts. 

“With less snow we will have less water supply for the things people depend on water for,” says Dr. Steltzer.

This decrease in water that comes with climate change means that less water will be available for irrigation which is a major source of water for agriculture, energy production through hydroelectric dams, and aquatic recreation including boating and fishing.

The true extent of the decrease in the amount of water available in the snowpack is shown in data from the paper “Implications of observed changes in high mountain snow water

storage, snowmelt timing and melt window” by Elias Et. al, which is represented in the graphs below. 

Snow Water Equivalent Trends

The graphs represent the maximum snow water equivalent from 1980 to 2018 at multiple monitoring sites around the Upper Rio Grande Basin, a watershed close to our own here in Durango, and clearly many show a statistically significant decrease in maximum snow water equivalent. What this means is in a short amount of time, the amount of water that we get from the mountains each winter has decreased significantly. 

Ultimately, while we may not think that climate change has as big of an impact on our lives in Colorado, it affects our snow, and as a result, our water which means that we must treat it with great urgency to maintain not only our economy but our way of life. However, as Dr. Steltzer explains, we can all work towards mitigating the effects of climate change here in Colorado and around the world.

“We can be creative of what we ask of businesses, where we spend our money, and what we ask of governments so that we shift the balance [of CO2 emissions] from the direction it is headed in,” said Steltzer.