In the last two years, Colorado residents have experienced the warmest winters in decades. Some scientists say it's because the effects of global warming are finally rearing their ugly heads, while others say it's still too soon to tell.
Dr. Randy Borys is an atmospheric scientist and the director of Storm Peak Laboratory inSteamboat.He said there is finally enough evidence that air pollution is sending the world into a serious warming trend. A combination of weather patterns, ice melt and air pollution levels has led the scientist to believe the earth is warming.
"I think we're beginning to see what's been predicted for quite a while," Borys said. "Deep ocean water has warmed over the last decade or two, Arctic sea ice pack is thinner than ever recorded, glaciers are retreating and Antarctic ice shelves are breaking off."
But Dr. Roger Pielke Sr., a professor of atmospheric science and the state climatologist for Colorado, disagrees with Borys on the global warming issue.
"We haven't had an average warming of the troposphere (lower atmosphere) since 1979," Pielke said. "The evidence about this is still ambiguous. I think there's been too much focus on how man is modifying the atmosphere."
That's not how Borys sees things.He said he believes the ice pack and glaciers are changing because of an increase in greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere.
"There's a strong link between carbon dioxide and global warming. We're finding more carbon dioxide and methane in the air," he said. "Our levels are getting off the scale and we don't know where we're headed."
Carbon dioxide is released into the air primarily by fossil fuel burning. Cars and industry are the main sources for the pollution. Methane is released by the use of natural gas and is also attributed to the decay of organic material.
"Flatulence in cattle and insects are sources for air pollution -- even termites release methane gas into the atmosphere," he said. "It seems absurd but think about all the cattle that are raised right now. Cattle themselves are a large source of methane."
Both gases are naturally found in the earth's atmosphere but, at heightened levels, the gases are the major causes of the greenhouse effect, some scientists believe.
The earth's atmosphere naturally traps gases and keeps the surface about 60 degrees warmer than it otherwise would be. Life as we know it exists because of this process, but with the increase in air pollution, more gases are trapped. Some scientists believe the atmosphere, in its polluted state, is effectively working as a blanket, helping in the slow warming of the earth's surface.
"Twenty billion tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere each year due to human pollution," said Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency C.O.R.E. in Aspen. "And it stays there for a century. The average American family releases 50,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Half of that is from cars and half is from energy used by homes."
Since 1800, the beginning of the industrial revolution, there has been a 30 percent increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- higher levels recorded today than in 200,000 years, Udall said.
"We're on course with pollution that by the end of this century those carbon dioxide levels will be higher than they've been in 50 million years," he said. "Energy consumption trends have me freaked out. We're proposing to change the chemical composition of our life support system, the atmosphere, in the coming years."
With the current rate of air pollution, Borys believes we're headed for a warming trend.
"The primary source of this problem is fossil fuel burn. To stop this thing would be very difficult but what we need to do is get a handle on how fast the warming will occur," Borys said. "Very sudden changes in climate can occur in a decade or two, this isn't going to take a 1,000 years."
Pielke, the state climatologist, said that in the past there have been periods of warming, like drought in the 1970s, but that the climate has naturally corrected itself.
"We've had relatively good weather in the last 20 years," he said. "Sure, there will be periods of dry spells, but you can't explain it with global warming. The climate of the earth is much more complicated than that."
Pielke agrees that air pollution is a problem in Colorado and around the world, but doesn't necessarily attribute global warming to it.
"We will be seeing more state-of-the-art pollution controls on all major industry in Colorado and, in addition, things like controls on wood burning stoves help with the problem," he said. "Air pollution is a big problem and we need to work on devices that are more energy efficient for cars and industry."
Borys is convinced we'll continue to see the effects of a warmer climate and he said it will most likely influence the northern regions of the earth more drastically than areas like Colorado.But, he said, the entire world will feel the impacts of the climate shift.
"Changes will be great in the northern areas. The tundra will warm up and permafrost will melt," he said. "There will be larger changes in the earth's ecosystems. Organic matter will decay and give off more methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating the problem. We'll probably see more tropical diseases because the habitat of insects will expand and insects such as mosquitoes carry disease."
As for the ski season in Colorado, the bad news is it's likely to shorten, Borys said.The good news, however, is we're likely to see more snow.
"The atmosphere may be able to hold more moisture and we'll get more precipitation," Borys said. "Although the season may be shortened by a couple weeks on either end, the middle of the winter could be snowier."
Although Borys believes that global warming is happening, he said it doesn't have any connection to the earth's demise, despite what some cult leaders have touted on the evening news.
"It's change, that's what it is," he said. "There's too much evidence now to dispute it, but it's just something we're going to have to live with."
Udall said that instead of debating whether global warming exists, scientists should be considering what we're going to do about it.
The earth's climate has warmed 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century and Udall said we're in for an even greater warming trend in the next 100 years.
"Some scientists believe we'll see a 5 to 10 degree warming for Colorado by the end of the coming century," he said. "What that means is, take Colorado and move it about 500 miles to the south and that would be the equivalent of a 5 degree change. If the change is closer to 10 degrees it would be like Steamboat versus Albuquerque. There are dramatic implications here for farmers, ranchers, reservoirs, the ski industry -- the list goes on."
In comparison, Udall used the example of the earth's surface when it was approximately 10 degrees cooler, thousands of years ago.
"Most of northern America was under 1,000 feet of ice," he said. "A few degrees in temperature makes for enormous weather and climate changes."
Despite what Udall and Borys claim is overwhelming evidence of global warming, Pielke doesn't buy the dire predictions.
"No one has the skill to predict what the weather will be like next winter or any winter to come in Colorado.," he said. "We need to move ahead and fluctuate with our systems. Climate is never stable."
-- To reach Bryna Larsen call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org