Where Colorado Meets the Arctic: Science and Global Climate Change

By Dr.W. Tad Pfeffer, Glaciologist, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado at Boulder & Jefferson Science Fellow, USAID

When you’re a glaciologist in Colorado, a pair skis can help get you where you need to go, whether it’s out to the field for research, or just to the office. (Photo of Dr. Pfeffer by Ethan Welty, weltyphotography.com)

Nearly always, when I tell someone that I work in the Arctic studying glaciers, climate, and sea level rise, I get a laugh and the same response: “living in Colorado, you can’t be too worried about sea level rise!” Colorado seems to many people to already have its share of wide-open, cold, snowy spaces without borrowing any more from the Arctic. However, there are some very important threads linking these two places. As a glaciologist who has spent more than 30 years studying the mechanics of how glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, and elsewhere move and change in response to climate, my own connections to the Arctic are perhaps slightly stronger than those of most Coloradans, but nevertheless, the Arctic is really closer to Colorado than many people might think.

Arguably the strongest connection between the Arctic and Colorado — and this is equally true for all of our states— are the links of the increasingly global economy that tie all our fortunes together. Healthy economies require a healthy climate, as any rancher in eastern Colorado will tell you, and our climate — in Colorado and globally — is already experiencing some dramatic and hard-to-predict changes.

As the Arctic warms (and it is warming…a lot) and as the thin veneer of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean shrinks ever further and faster (and it is shrinking…fast), the various channels that move atmospheric and oceanic heat around the northern hemisphere light up, with heat streaming into the Arctic. As atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to accumulate, the heat available to move into the Arctic and the energy to move it is pushing the entire climate system into new states that we don’t understand very well yet. The effects hit the USA — from the desert southwest, to Colorado, to New England — and go right back up to the Arctic.

Professor Pfeffer’s knowledge of glaciers and the Arctic climate system led to him playing a key role in the production of the Emmy® award-winning documentary Chasing Ice. (Photo: James Balog/Chasing Ice)

The “polar jet”, which is a “wall” of high-altitude wind that acts as a dam separating cold air to the north from warm air to the south (think of winter-time Minnesota vs. Iowa, or Edmonton vs. Sun Valley), has been behaving strangely in recent years. These days, it isn’t working quite as it should to keep warm air to the south and cold air to the north. As Arctic sea ice shrinks to record-breaking autumn minimums, the heat absorbed by the dark waters of the ice-free Arctic ocean sets records of its own of solar energy absorbed. All of these climatic changes act like sticks thrust into the spokes of the delicately balanced wheel driving the flow of heat in the northern hemisphere

Graphic courtesy of Colorado Solar.

The consequences of all these changes are very hard to predict, but we can be sure of one thing: climate conditions will continue to change. And one other thing we can be sure of: we (that’s all of us) don’t do change very well.

These changes are affecting not just the global economy, but our economy in Colorado as well, especially our weather-dependent industries like ranching or tourism, which brings skiers from around the country and world to Colorado’s slopes every winter.

Leave aside for a moment whether an altered future climate is “bad” for us or not, what is the effect simply of change? What happens to the Colorado beef industry if the eastern plains experience several years of drought maybe followed by several years of floods? The average may not change, but can a rancher make decisions to keep the business operating with that kind of uncertainty? You know the answer the that.

According to a 2015 report, Ranching, a mainstay of Colorado’s $24 billion agricultural industry, could be vulnerable to climate change (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture).

According to the 2015 Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study, “rising temperatures, heat waves, and droughts can reduce crop yield and slow cattle weight gain. Colorado farmers and ranchers are already accustomed to large natural swings in weather and climate, but may find it especially challenging to deal with expected changes in water resources.”

Altogether, the effects don’t look good for a future Coloradan who would like to depend on getting a hamburger made from Colorado beef with California lettuce on it for a reasonable price.

A lot has been said about preventing harmful future climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. That’s still an important goal, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that a large part of the tasks we face in the future involve adapting to climate changes at the same time as we work to reverse them. But whether we’re concerned about adaptation or reversal, one crucial need is understanding. How does this terrifically complex climate machine work? What happens when we stick spokes in its wheels, and how do we pull them back out?

And this brings us to another strong Colorado-Arctic connection: science and scientists. In Colorado, some of the our country’s best scientists and academics are working on Arctic and climate change issues.

Students and professors characterize snow properties — such as density — inside a snow pit. Snow density is used to estimate the amount of water stored in a mountain’s snowpack. (Photo: Danielle Perrot, courtesy of https://instaar.colorado.edu)

Colorado is a terrific place to study climate, not because I can measure sea level (or sea ice) at my door, but because of the presence of climate scientists working at Colorado’s many public and private colleges and universities, as well as state and federal Labs. Colorado has a long history of world-class environmental and climate research, brought about by a combination of coincidence, luck, and leadership going back at least to World War II.

Elliott Larsen surveying at Alaska’s Columbia Glacier (photo W.T. Pfeffer)

The University of Colorado at Boulder (where I work) is one of the world’s top institutions in geosciences research thanks to its long involvement in Arctic and Alpine research (my Institute, goes by that name, in fact) in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); its engineering expertise in satellite remote sensing, including collaboration with the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST); and climate research, through its links with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) laboratories.

Walter Orr Roberts takes photos in the 1940s of the solar corona with a 5-inch coronagraph the NCAR High Altitude Observatory’s first observatory in Climax, Colorado. (Photo: UCAR)

These institutions and their collaborations — and the valuable science that has come from these — make a great story for us to tell, both as Coloradans, and as Americans. For those might want to learn a bit more about this particular part of the Colorado-Arctic story, I’ll leave you with two clues: Walter Orr Roberts and Colorado’s High Altitude Observatory.

Speaking about environmental puzzles and problems that have their roots in the Arctic, it turns out that Colorado is also a good place to study sea level rise. True enough, when I’m home in Colorado, I don’t check outside my door every morning to see if ocean waves are lapping at my front steps, but, as a geophysicist with more than 30 years’ experience studying the Arctic — most of them in Colorado — I do spend a large part of everyday thinking about the region.

The Arctic is truly critical place in the context of the earth’s climate. You must have heard this by now: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” That’s a play on the old chestnut about what happens in Vegas, and it’s been adopted as a slogan by science agencies and science outreach people as a way of emphasizing the global climate connections between the Arctic and the rest of the world. It’s a good slogan: it’s catchy, and what’s more, it’s true, including for us Coloradans.

(Photo: Ethan Welty, weltyphotography.com)

About the author:

A resident of Colorado for more than 25 years, Dr. W. Tad Pfeffer is a glaciologist, geophysicist, and photographer at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a Fellow of the University’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering. He is presently living and working in Washington, DC as a Jefferson Science Fellow, a program of the U.S. Department of State and the National Academies of Science that engages the scientific community in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. In his current assignment at the U.S. Agency for International Development, his primary responsibilities include analyses and assessment of water resources and water/energy issues in the southern Caucasus. He also works with the U.S. State Department’s Arctic team on environmental Arctic issues. Dr. Pfeffer was also part of the team responsible for the Emmy Award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice, in which National Geographic photographer James Balog deploys revolutionary time-lapse cameras across the brutal Arctic to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers. You can contact Dr. Pfeffer at tad.pfeffer@colorado.edu.

Next week’s featured U.S. state: VIRGINIA