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Climate: Western states eye continued drought

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Reservoir storage is well below average across the West.

Reservoir storage near record low in some states

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Without a surplus moisture this winter, drought conditions are likely to linger, and potentially even worsen, across parts of the West in 2013, according to the Western Governors’ Association, which last week released its new Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook.

Publication of the latest edition of the outlook came shortly after Dec. 12-13 National Drought Forum in Washington, D.C. The overall outlook is for drought to persist across most of the northern Great Basin south to New Mexico and Arizona and east into the high plains.

“Drought impacts next year could be far more severe, especially given that the reservoir storage in many basins has been depleted,” said Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who spoke at the event.

The cold season is typically the driest part of the year in most mid‐continental  locations, so even with average seasonal precipitation, there will likely be little relief from the drought, according to the National Drought Monitor. The exceptions are Montana and California, where some relief is expected, based on early season precipitation.

New Mexico has been hardest hit, with reservoir  storage at just 18 percent of capacity, but storage is below average in all western state except Montana and Washington.

  • The national drought conference identified some of the mitigation strategies for addressing the ongoing drought, including:
  • Regular, real‐time coordination and information sharing on the status, impacts, and prospects for drought throughout 2013
  • Identification of priority basins or projects that are severely affected by drought, in order to focus mitigatioon strategies for 2013
  • Coordination with USDA on federal disaster declarations and drought relief programs
    Working with the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge critical reservoirs and enhance storage capacity in the West.
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Link between global warming and wildfires becoming more clear

The Eagle Creek Fire in Montana burns late in the 2012 wildfire season. Photo courtesy Inciweb/Air Attack.

Report outlines surge in fires since 1970s, as spring and summer temps increase and the snow melts earlier

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Nearly all western states have seen a huge surge in wildfires during the past 10 years, as warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt make old forests more susceptible to large-scale blazes, according to a report issued by Climate Central.

The report also cites changed land-use practices and insect infestations as additional factors, and decades-long intensive fire suppression has also resulted in more widespread areas of fire-prone forests.

But the preponderance of evidence suggests that global warming will increase the likelihood of large fires into the future, with fire seasons up to 75 days longer than just 40 years ago — about the time the greenhouse-gas heating cycle kicked into high gear. Continue reading

Wildfire activity surges past 10-year average

Fire risk expected to continue in northern Rockies

Monthly outlook

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Wildfire activity across the U.S. has surged past the 10-year rolling average in the past few weeks, with major fires still burning in the northern Rockies, as well as the potential for big fires in the far West, as California hits the peak of the dry season.

Nationally, wildfires have now burned across about 7.6 million acres, more than last year’s total of 6.9 million acres, when massive fires scorched Texas and part of the Southwest.

This year’s total is the highest since 2006 (7.6 million acres) and nearly 2 million acres more than the 10-year rolling average of 5.9 million acres. Continue reading

Draft report outlines greater sage-grouse conservation goals

Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.

States, BLM trying to stave off an endangered species listing

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A new draft report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may help provide a road map for greater sage-grouse conservation by identifying high-risk populations of the birds, outlining specific measures needed to avoid or mitigate impacts and setting population conservation goals.

The draft report is part of a multi-state planning aimed at protecting sage grouse and enabling economic growth, including oil and gas development, across the interior West.

The USFWS is working toward a court-ordered deadline for making a decision whether list greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered. As part of that process, the Bureau of Land Management is updating land management plans across huge swaths of the West. At the same time, western states are also involved in trying to develop sage grouse conservation plans, hoping to forestall an endangered species listing. Continue reading

Morning photo: Wild west

Wide open spaces …

Sunset in Palisade, Colorado.

Photos by Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — I pulled together today’s photo essay as I was preparing for the popular Twitter #Expchat, a weekly forum for sharing travel information. I was struck by one thing: In all the thousands of tweets relating to travel in the West, not a single one mentioned shopping, nor did anyone say they wanted to visit Colorado and the West to look at gas drilling rigs. That’s not really a surprise. It’s the region’s wide open and protected spaces that are the real draw, and lawmakers, policy makers and other involved in developing management policies for these lands should take heed. Continue reading

Environment: Some U.S. ozone spikes traced to Asia

Wind-blown pollution high in the atmosphere can settle to ground level and contribute to air quality violations in the western U.S.

This USDA map shows seasonal mean of ambient ozone concentrations between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. over the continental United States from 1 July to 31 September 2005. Areas shown in brown, orange and red can experience significant crop yield loss and damage to ecosystem function from ambient ozone.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Springtime air pollution from Asia, carried across the Pacific Ocean by strong west winds, sometimes raises ozone levels in western states to levels that exceed air quality standards, according to NOAA-led study.

The pollution is carried high in the atmosphere, but high-resolution models and observations showed how some of the imported pollution can descend to the surface, where it affects ground-level ozone, a regulated pollutant.

At high concentrations, ground-level ozone can cause severe respiratory effects in some people, and it damages crops, trees, and other vegetation.

“We showed that Asian pollution directly contributes to surface ozone pollution episodes in parts of the western United States,” said Meiyun Lin, Ph.D., lead author of the new study. In several areas, about half of the springtime pollution episodes that exceeded federal limits would probably not have occurred without the contribution of Asian pollution, Lin said.

Still, Asian pollution contributed to no more than 20 percent of the ground-level ozone, according to the new study. Other sources of the pollutant include local fossil fuel use, wildfires, and imported pollution from other regions of the globe.

Lin is a researcher with NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and the Cooperative Institute for Climate Science at Princeton University in New Jersey. The new paper is published online in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres.

The research team drew upon data collected by balloon-borne instruments, aircraft, ground instruments, and satellites during an intensive study of air quality and climate in California in 2010. The scientists said the instrumentation and models could enable forecasters to predict incoming pollution several days in advance, vital information for public health officials charged with issuing pollution warnings.

The researchers found that NOAA GFDL’s high-resolution chemistry-climate model, AM3, could accurately reproduce the real-world pattern of ozone levels observed in California. And the model could differentiate the effects of local emissions – from vehicles, power plants and other factors – from Asian emissions.

During episodes of high surface ozone in parts of California and the Southwest, Asian emissions added 8 to 15 parts per billion of ozone to air, comprising up to 20 percent of the total. The Environmental Protection Agency’s health-based standard limits ozone to 75 parts per billion (averaged over 8 hours). Roughly half of the pollution episodes that exceeded that health-based standard would not have occurred – the study reported – without the addition of Asian pollution.

 

West: Regional water outlook still uncertain

Water in the desert. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. BUREAU OF RECLAMATION.

 

Colorado River Basin snowpack at about 77 percent of average as of early February

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Low season flows into Lake Powell have been near normal in recent weeks, with the Colorado River delivering about 356,000 acre feet (99 percent of average) during January, leaving the reservoir about 63 feet below full pool.

With the overall snowpack in the Upper Colorado Basin at about 77 percent of average and the long-term weather outlook uncertain, water managers aren’t sure how the runoff season will go.

For now, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s water supply forecast for April through July is predicting an inflow of about 5 million acre feet, which is about 71 percent of average — but that outlook comes with a caveat: “At this time of year however, there is a high level of uncertainty in hydrologic forecasts and the annual release volume from Glen Canyon Dam in WY2012 will ultimately be based on the actual inflows that occur during 2012 rather than this Water Supply forecast,” the USBR wrote in the monthly update. Continue reading

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