New Report Depicts Threats of Climate Warming to Rocky Mountain Forests

Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk

Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk

Many stands of magnificent Rocky Mountain forests are in great peril, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, with many having already been substantially damaged by the triple threat of beetle kill, wildfire and heat and drought.

Each of those components of destruction is on the upswing, driven by human-caused global warming, the scientists say. Their report documents the latest evidence.

In one sense, this isn’t all new information. The National Climate Assessment published earlier this year included similar material, particularly in its study of the American Southwest, in which Colorado is included, the nation’s hottest and driest region.

But the new report hones in on the damaging impact of warming on forest ecosystems within a different geographic designation, the six Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The prognosis in both reports is equally grim.

Iconic trees species including aspens, whitebark pines and pinon pines could disappear from much of their historical range if warming progresses unabated, the UCS report states. For example, more than 75 percent of the historical range for aspens in the Rockies is projected to become unsuitable for them in less than 50 years, given continued “medium-high” levels of heat-trapping emissions.

But much damage has already been done.

From 2000 to 2012, bark beetles killed trees on 46 million acres – an area just slightly smaller than Colorado,” the report states. “The U.S. Forest Service estimates that as many as 100,000 beetle-killed trees now fall to the ground every day in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado alone.”

The number of large wildfires has spiked in recent years, with four times as many fires burning nearly seven times as much total area. Wildfire seasons are stretching 2-3 months longer.

“Robust science offers strong evidence of what likely lies ahead for Rocky Mountain forests,” the report states, and that is much more of the same – more beetle kill, more frequent large, intense fires, more stress from heat and dryness.

Which almost matches language from the National Climate Assessment: “Increased warming, drought, and insect outbreaks, all caused by or linked to climate change, have increased wildfires and impacts to people and ecosystems in the Southwest. Fire models project more wildfire and increased risks to communities across extensive areas.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists report recommends steps that can be taken to mitigate impacts, and each is worth advancing.

The trees on a ridge above Colorado Springs' Cedar Heights neighborhood go up in flames on Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2012.

Michael Kodas / Special to Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

The trees on a ridge above Colorado Springs\’ Cedar Heights neighborhood go up in flames on Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2012.

But the bottom line is contained in this sentence: “The future of Rocky Mountain forests ultimately depend on how much and how quickly we can curb heat-trapping emissions.”

Congress has been incapable of reaching any consensus on warming, much less any comprehensive plan to deal with its disastrous impacts. And even if it could come to some plan, the U.S. alone can’t stop global warming. But it would be a serious start, and one that could ultimately force other industrial nations to take heed.

As the National Climate Assessment states, the impacts of warming are not coming in the distant future. They are already here.

And as all the “robust” scientific evidence demonstrates, there’s much more than Rocky Mountain forests at stake, as much as we love them.

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