Sometimes scientists have lousy timing. Take, for example, the folks from the U.S. Geological Survey, Montana State University, and the University of Wyoming who just released a study on how human-caused climate change is threatening the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by cranking up average temperatures, reducing snowfall, and tinkering with the timing of spring runoffs. The evidence suggests things are only going to get worse.
They could have told us all of this in February, when we’re freezing our butts off and looking for some respite. Instead, they put out the news just as a wave of record-shattering heat waves scorch the Western U.S. as if to say: You think this is bad? Well, just you wait.
The Greater Yellowstone researchers found:
The region is experiencing the highest average temperatures of the last 20,000 years, at least. It’s likely as warm now as it has been in 800,000 years.
The mean annual temperature has increased by 2.3 F degrees since 1950 and could jump by another 5-10 degrees by 2100.
That has lengthened the growing season by about two weeks.
Annual precipitation has remained steady, but the timing of snow- and rain-fall has shifted and average snowfall has declined.
Peak streamflow levels are holding steady, but come an average of eight days earlier; average streamflows have declined by 3 percent to 11 percent since 1950.
All of these trends will continue into the future so long as humans continue to warm the planet.
That means that the blistering heat-event the West is now experiencing could become more intense and more frequent as time goes on.
Speaking of heat-events, it got ugly in the Southwest on June 17 and 18 and, just as that heat subsided a bit, the Northwest got slammed this weekend by the kind of temperatures typically seen only in places like Phoenix. Now California is about to get hit a second time.
The good news: A few drought-ravaged places got some rain this past week and forecasts are calling for serious moisture—and flash floods—for parched New Mexico in coming days. A few of the highlights and lowlights and, well, hotlights from around the West:
ARIZONA: Twenty-four of the first 26 days of June were 100 F degrees or hotter in Phoenix, with the mercury topping out at 118 on June 18. The overnight lows failed to fall below 90 degrees on several days in a row. As the temperatures soared, so did heat-related emergency room visits. Large fires burned around the state, prompting the closure of the Coconino National Forest in the north, and in a single week two hikers died in Grand Canyon National Park: a 52-year-old woman on a solo backpacking trip and a 60-year-old man hiking the South Kaibab Trail. Also, state wildlife officials are on a path to set a record for the amount of water—3 million gallons—hauled into the backcountry for thirsty wild animals this year.
COLORADO: Grand Junction experienced five consecutive days above 100 F degrees in June and an even longer dry period. Then, parts of Western Colorado got a little relief from isolated thunderstorms. While the heat has spared no one, the rains were distributed unequally: Durango and Cortez received a few drops of wet stuff, while Montrose and surrounding areas were deluged hard enough to damage crops, wreck roads, and muck up ditches. Mud and debris flows twice forced the closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon this past weekend. When it rains it pours, I suppose.⚠UPDATE: I-70 Glenwood Canyon is closed overnight from Exit 87 to Exit 133. CDOT crews will continue clearing mudflow debris overnight and will reassess the debris & closure in the morning. All updates will post cotrip.org.Photo courtesy Fire Dept.
Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) @ColoradoDOT🚫I-70 CLOSED🚫 between Exit 133 (Dotsero) and Exit 87 (West Rifle) due to another mudslide in the area. There is no estimated time of reopening. Motorists are asked to take the northern detour route. Check https://t.co/bjBVfjLWOG for updated closure and condition information. https://t.co/jMX3bGNZeV
NEW MEXICO: The Rio Grande in Albuquerque is running at less than half the median flow, prompting the city’s water utility to stop pulling liquid from the river, switching the municipal supply entirely to groundwater. At the same time, a flash flood watch is in effect for southern parts of the state thanks to a moisture-laden storm system coming from the Pacific. The moisture is already providing welcome relief, but most of the state remains in some stage of drought. Meanwhile, the Rainbow Gathering is expected to bring thousands of people to the Carson National Forest near Taos in coming weeks. What could go wrong?
THE NORTHWEST: As I write this all-time high temperature records are being shattered across the Pacific Northwest as a heat wave of unprecedented intensity settles over the region. Portland hit a high of 108 one day—breaking the 55-year-old record of 107. “Hold my beer,” said the human-warmed climate, and shot the mercury up to a brain-cooking 112 the next day. Since fewer people have air-conditioners in this part of the world, the grid wasn’t strained quite as much as in, say, California, but far more people were put in danger, especially the unhoused whose tents and other un-insulated shelters become virtual ovens. Cooling shelters were set up across cities and COVID-19-related capacity limits were dropped in air-conditioned venues to allow more people to get out of the heat. The pavement in parts of Washington buckled due to the heat, and trains and streetcars had a tough time of it, too.In case you're wondering why we're canceling service for the day, here's what the heat is doing to our power cables.
Don’t forget about the fish. Biologists are concerned about the health of salmon in Northwest rivers, not because of lack of water, but because of its temperature. As the planet warms the cool-water refuges the salmon seek out become rarer and, ultimately, extinct.