Clearing out the haze on climate change

FORT COLLINS – CSU’s North Central Climate Science Center wants to give farmers, ranchers and land managers better information to help them decide how to respond to climate change.

The climate science center was selected last year as one of nine U.S. Department of Interior regional climate science centers. In all, there are six climate science regions and 37 centers nationwide.

CSU leads the group of climate science centers in the North Central region, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Colorado institutions include the University of Colorado and Colorado School of Mines.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in October announced funding of more than $10 million to the regional climate science centers. The CSU center will receive $2 million over five years, half of which goes to research and the other half funding salaries.

At the CSU climate science center in the Natural and Environmental Sciences Building, a team of almost a dozen employees is dedicated to analyzing climate change’s effect on the region. That research includes subjects ranging from the pine beetle infestation to habitat and behaviorial changes in endangered species.

University and federal scientists from labs such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Center for Atmospheric Research will offer their research to land managers and work directly with them to address problems created by climate change.

Along the Front Range, “We have some of the best climate modeling work that’s being done anywhere in the world,” said Jeffrey Morisette, director of the climate science center.

Projections hold that the Earth will see increased warmth and drier conditions, Morisette said. That means land managers as well as farmers and ranchers will need to adapt to having less water.

One important finding that the center’s climate scientists have made: Stream flows have increased during the past 50 years in the northeastern portion of the center’s region, but have declined in the western part, Morisette said.

Scientists also are looking at whether the number of forest fires will rise in the future with drier conditions, he said.

Climatologists typically have worked separately from ecologists and natural resources managers, but scientists are rethinking that relationship, he said.

“We need to have climate embedded in and a part of what you do in terms of your land management and your understanding of the ecological targets you’re trying to manage,” he said. “I think the greatest thing we can do is get climate embedded in the thinking of land managers.”

Land managers could use climate change information as they plan restoration projects by, say, planting fewer trees and more drought-tolerant plants in certain areas knowing that there will be less precipitation.

“We can provide information relative to what sort of climate signals we’re seeing, what sort of trends are emerging in the short term and what some of the long-term implications are,” said CSU Professor Dennis Ojima, principal investigator for the climate science center.

As part of those efforts, the center has been participating in the National Climate Assessment. The study, conducted by more than 240 scientists nationwide, will be presented to Congress later this year.

The center wrote one of the study’s chapters finding that the availability of water remains a concern in the North Central region, Ojima said.

“What emerged from our analysis of the Great Plains is that we really need to come up with a more holistic strategy of how we manage collectively these resources of energy, land and water,” he said.

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