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Colorado: Coal still king in Summit County energy mix

The Four Corners coal power plant. Photo courtesy EcoFlight.org. Click to track Ecoflight state by state.

70 percent of the power for the local area derived from dirty fossil fuels

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Despite small-scale hyperlocal efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the local area still relies on coal to a much larger degree than the national average, according to an online EPA clean energy tracker.

The calculations, based on data from 2009, show that, for Frisco’s 80443 zip code, coal accounts for 67.8 percent of the energy used in the area. The national average is 44.5 percent. Continue reading

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New CU study shows that nitrogen compounds from cars, power plants and agriculture threaten alpine ecosystems

Part of Colorado’s alpine landscape may face irreversible changes from nitrogen pollution. Photo by Bob Berwyn.

Acidification of soil is nearly irreversible

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Nitrogen compounds from power plants, auto emissions and agriculture is starting to change the alpine vegetation in Rocky Mountain National Park in “subtle but important” ways, according to a University of Colorado Boulder study conducted at the school’s Mountain Research Station.

In other regions of the world, higher amounts of nitrogen pollutants correlate with decreased biodiversity, acidified soils and dead stream organisms like trout, said research station director Professor William Bowman.

“There is evidence that indicates once these changes occur, they can be difficult if not impossible to reverse. It is best to recognize these early stages before the more harmful later stages happen.” Continue reading

Nitrogen pollution building in remote wilderness lakes

Even remote wilderness lakes are being affected by increasing nitrogen depositions.

Global nitrogen cycle showing effects of human activities

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Even some of the most remote mountain lakes in the northern hemisphere have been affected by the long reach of human pollution, according to researchers who found traces of nitrogen compounds in more than 75 percent of the lakes they surveyed in Europe and the Rocky Mountains of North America.

“When it comes to nitrogen associated with humans, most studies have focused on local and regional effects of pollution and have missed the planetary scale changes,” said Gordon Holtgrieve, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “Our study is the first large-scale synthesis to demonstrate that biologically-active nitrogen associated with human society is being transported in the atmosphere to the most remote ecosystems on the planet.” Continue reading

Whales crucial to sustainable ocean fisheries

A breaching humpback whale. PHOTO COURTESY OF WHIT WELLES.

SUMMIT COUNTY — Recovering whale populations could help boost the productivity of coastal fisheries, where the feces of the giant sea mammals adds critical nutrients to the ecosystem.

In the Gulf of Maine, for example, the whale poop adds up to about 23,000 metric tons of nitrogen annually — more than the input of all the rivers combined, according biologists Joe Roman and James McCarthy who recently published a paper describing how whales bring nutrient from the deep waters where they feed back to the surface.

It is well known that microbes, plankton, and fish recycle nutrients in ocean waters, but whales and other marine mammals have largely been ignored in this cycle. The new study shows that whales historically played a central role in the productivity of ocean ecosystems — and continue to do so despite diminished populations. Continue reading

Nitrogen — the new carbon?

Jill Baron (Colorado State University and USGS) and Jim Elser (Arizona State University) take readings at Green Lake to measure nitrogen depositions.

Scientists to gather in Boulder next week to develop a nitrogen assessment and management strategy


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By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — With evidence showing that nitrogen is increasingly affecting lakes in the Colorado high country, a group of top scientists from around the country will meet in Boulder next week to address management of the critical, life-giving element.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the May 18 conference will try to answer the question of how to take advantage of nitrogen fertilizer’s benefits without polluting the environment and damaging human health. The goal is to give policymakers consensus-based science on the consequences of increased nitrogen pollution.

While carbon dioxide gets all the global warming attention, nitrogen has also been implicated in a wide range of environmental impacts, moving easily through the atmosphere, from water to air and back to plants. Nitrogen contributes to human health problems, ozone layer depletion, smog, acidification of soils and water supplies, climate change, water pollution and coastal dead zones.

A map showing nitrogen depositions across the U.S. Click on the map to see the animated version.

Concern about nitrogen pollution is increasing. Last September, disruption of the nitrogen cycle topped the list of global tipping points in this Nature study. Other scientists have ranked nitrogen pollution as one of the top threats to global biodiversity. The Christian Science Monitor reported on nitrogen here.

“A single new atom of reactive nitrogen can bounce its way around these widespread environments, like a felon on a crime spree,” said University of Colorado ecology and evolutionary biology Professor Alan Townsend, one of the event co-organizers. “The assessment can tell us where and how to reduce its release, and learn where the hotspots are.”

Some of those hotspots are in high alpine ecosystems of northern Colorado’s mountains, where researcher Jill Baron has been monitoring nitrogen levels in lakes for years. In some cases, the increased nitrogen is feeding blooms of algae, to the detriment of overall aquatic health. Continue reading

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