Mike's Blog Archive: December 2009

A great spectacle in Colorado during the cold season is the Avalanche! Although our hockey team is terrific, the type of avalanche that I am referring to is found not at the Pepsi Center, but in our high country. Snowslides are very common and very dangerous phenomena in the Rocky Mountain region. Although millions of skiers flock to the ski resorts each winter, the number of fatalities is higher in the backcountry - even though the number of skiers and snowboarders is far less in the "out of bounds" areas than inside the boundaries of the ski resorts.

Here is some information about how avalanches occur, what to watch out for and the precautions to take to avoid becoming a statistic.

One of the most awesome winter sights in Colorado is an avalanche. Strong storms may pile two to three feet of snow on the peaks in just a matter of a day or two. This snow surface may be very unstable for a variety of reasons. The sheer weight of the fresh snow may cause numerous slides in the first few hours after a major storm. This is especially true on slopes greater than thirty degrees. However, strong winds that usually accompany a snowstorm can pack the snow into drifts and cornices that can suddenly break free and race downhill. As the snow slide thunders down, it gathers momentum and volume and can become hundreds of feet wide. Look carefully at mountain forest patterns and you will see the effects of snow slides - they can instantly clear thousands of trees from the side of a mountain. In fact, Loveland Ski Area unexpectedly got a brand-new expert run a couple of years ago as a slide roared right into the parking lot. It took out a few cars, but also cleared the trees for a new run.

Colorado experiences an average of 20,000 avalanches per year, a small percentage of which affect the state's human population. About 60 people are caught each year in avalanches, with approximately six deaths. Economic losses can be substantial. Direct property damage averages about $100,000 per year, although indirect losses can be as high as $3 to 5 million. (For example, a big snowstorm on a weekend could cause an avalanche that might close a highway, preventing 10,000 skiers from reaching ski resorts and resulting in a weekend revenue loss of as much as $500,000.)

Colorado's high country, known the world over for its awe-inspiring majesty, is also honored as the Unofficial Avalanche Capitol of the U.S. Over 20,000 avalanches occur in Colorado each year. These snow slides range from the barely significant (when small amounts of snow travel at 30 mph) to the huge and deadly, when entire chunks of a mountainside roar downward at speeds up to 100 mph. While other western mountain ranges also experience snow slides each season, the Colorado Rockies are especially avalanche prone because the snow pack tends to be shallower and colder. Frequent temperature changes from mild during the day to very cold at night tend to alter the structure of the snow into tiny triangular ice crystals called "sugared snow". This grainy snow acts almost like tiny ball bearings and makes even an older snow surface very unstable. Avalanche conditions can develop even without a major snowstorm. In fact, frequent small storms, followed by a period of mild days and very cold nights can create some of the most unstable, avalanche prone conditions.

Colorado mountainsides are quite likely to meet all four of the main criteria necessary for snow slides...

1) A slope of 25 to 50 degrees

2) A slab of snow

3) An unstable, weak layer of "sugared snow" under the slab

4) A trigger - an additional load of new snow, or an animal, a person, or explosion that disrupts the tenuous balance in the terrain.

The best way to avoid an avalanche is to simply avoid avalanche terrain. If you must travel in the backcountry. where most avalanches happen, keep in mind these nine tips compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center...

1) STAY ALERT TO CONDITIONS -- Before leaving home, check weather and avalanche reports

2) BE PATIENT -- Wait and watch the terrain from protected areas.

3) EQUIP YOURSELF -- Carry a slope meter, beacons, shovels, and collapsible probes. There is also some new technology coming out such as the "Avalung" - a device that is designed to keep buried skiers or snowshoers alive longer by exhaling carbon dioxide away through a filter. Digital beacons are also available to help searchers quickly locate someone buried in an avalanche. This type of equipment can be purchased at outdoor recreation outfitters. Be careful, however, to not let the technology give you a false sense of security, getting buried in an avalanche can still be a death sentence even with all of the modern gear!

4) CHOOSE YOUR COMPANIONS WISELY -- Travel with skilled people experienced in the backcounty, and stay in sight of each other at all times.

5) READ THE TERRAIN -- The safest routes are broad valleys, ridge tops, or windward sides of ridges. Avoid narrow valleys, cornices, and lee slopes.

6) NOTE THE SLOPE -- Lower-angle slopes are safer than steeper slopes. Gentle slopes may be overrun by avalanches releasing on steep slopes above.

7) STEP LIGHTLY -- Cross, climb, or descend suspect slopes one person at a time. Cross each slope as high as possible.

8) LOOK FOR PROTECTION -- Keep to the edges of open slopes and gullies. Use ridges, rock outcrops, and dense timber as a possible refuge.

9) USE YOUR HEAD -- Minimize the time you are exposed to danger. Stop to eat, rest, or camp in avalanche-free zones.

If you have taken all the precautions, but still find yourself caught in an avalanche, here is what to do...

1) Escape to the side and try to grab a tree

2) If possible, ditch heavy packs, poles, and skis. If you are on a snowmobile, get clear of it as quickly as possible.

3) Fight the avalanche by "swimming" through the snow.

4) Form an air pocket around your face with your hands before the snow stops moving and sets.

If you are trying to rescue someone trapped in an avalanche, here are some tips...

1) Begin by searching downslope from the last place you saw the victim.

2) If you have probes with you, begin probing for the victim in the immediate area, and then branch out into likely areas.

3) Do not go for help prematurely. Stay on-site for as long as possible - victims have a better chance of survival if you are able to locate and rescue them quickly.

4) Be ready to treat any victim for suffocation, impact injuries, shock and hypothermia.

Avalanches are one of our biggest threats during the winter season. Every year backcountry skiers are trapped in snow slides, and every year there are fatalities. The snow that an avalanche packs in can have the weight and consistency of wet cement. A skier caught under even a foot of snow may not be able to move at all. This is especially true of the so called "slab" avalanches that occur when old compacted snow breaks off in large chunks or slabs and comes crashing down the mountainside. Skiing in the backcountry can be a beautiful, serene experience, but it can also be a deadly one for those unfamiliar with avalanche structure and avalanche safety. Be sure you know what you are doing before risking your life or the lives of those who may have to rescue you!


The following phone numbers, updated daily during avalanche season by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, will provide you with the most recent information on local weather, snow, and avalanche conditions.

DENVER 303-275-5360


DURANGO 970-247-8187

FORT COLLINS 970-498-5311

SUMMIT COUNTY 970-668-0600

ASPEN AREA 970-920-1664

You can also check the Colorado Avalanche Information Service website at www.caic.state.co.us

Additional information about backcountry skiing and snowshoeing can be found on the website for the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association. The web address is www.huts.org.

Enjoy our winter wonderland in Colorado, but be very careful not to get "avalunched" if you venture into the backcountry!

During the cold season (October through April), the winds aloft at the jet stream level become much stronger over the nation. This is due to the increase in the north-south temperature gradient. For example: in July, it might be 80 degrees in North Dakota and 95 in Texas - a 15 degree contrast from north to south. In January, that contrast may be from zero degrees in the Dakotas, to 80 degrees in Texas - an 80 degree contrast in temperature over the same amount of distance. This greater contrast in air mass temperature also means that there is a greater difference in air density and pressure. The greater the north/south pressure difference, the stronger the winds!

These stronger jet stream winds often help to stir up the many winter storms that affect the state. In addition, under certain conditions, some of the momentum from those strong winds at 25 to 30 thousand feet can come cruising down the slopes and onto the eastern plains. Some very strong surface winds can develop when the winds aloft are blowing at a good clip.

Chinook winds are warm, dry downsloping winds that race off the peaks to the west and down into the metro area and surrounding communities. The air warms as it descends at a rate of about 5.5 degrees for every thousand feet of descent. This warming is caused by compression of the air as it drops into a denser atmosphere at lower elevations. An air mass that is at 10 degrees above zero at the Continental Divide will warm by nearly 45 degrees by the time it falls into the Denver area. As the air warms, the relative humidity drops and the air becomes very dry. This warm, dry and gusty wind can quickly wipe out a snow pile in Denver or Boulder. The term Chinook comes from a Native American word meaning "Snoweater". Chinook winds are most common in mid-winter as the winds aloft are very strong, but surface heating from the sun is minimal. Once spring gets nearer, the higher sun angle warms the Earth more readily and this causes rising columns of air called "thermals". These rising air columns tend to break up the flow pattern of the Chinook winds and make them less of a factor by March and April. Chinook winds are not only warm and dry, they can be quite strong and sometimes cause gusts of over 100 mph in Jefferson County near Rocky Flats and around Boulder. These locations are close enough to the mouths of canyons or the ridges to the west, to get the really powerful gusts as the winds squeeze through the tight landforms to the west.

Another type of strong winter wind is the "Bora". This wind is also a downsloping wind along the Front Range, but it is different from the Chinook. Bora winds are very cold winds as they typically form just after a cold front has passed through the region. The pressure gradient is very tight after the front passes by and the winds can reach speeds of 50-60 mph. Despite the warming caused by the air sinking down from the mountains, the Bora is still a cold wind because the air was so chilly to begin with. In addition, Bora winds come in from the northwest instead of the west, so the mountains are not as tall over southern Wyoming and Larimer County.

Colorado serves as a breeding ground for some of the most powerful storm systems that bomb the rest of the central and eastern United States with heavy snow. Low pressure storm systems frequently develop just to the east or to the "lee" of the Rockies. Strong winds aloft at the jet stream level (about 25,000 to 30,000 feet) squeeze over the mountain peaks and then out over the plains. As the air moves out away from the mountains, the pressure falls, creating a low pressure area. If conditions are right, this low will begin to swirl moisture into the region from the Gulf of Mexico. This moisture spins into clouds, rain and snow, and before long, a storm is born. These storm systems first dump heavy snow over eastern Colorado and then churn toward the northeast. Heavy, wet snow, sleet, freezing rain and even thunderstorms mark the path of these storms as they roll on toward the Great Lakes. The soggy systems that spin out of eastern Colorado can give a false impression to the rest of the nation. Those eastern storms often dump heavy snow on Denver, Colorado Springs, Limon or other cities on the plains, but leave the mountains with a much smaller accumulation. Television weather reports in other cities show the snow in Denver and the folks in those cities think, "Wow, if Denver got a foot of snow, the mountains must have really been hammered!" In fact, eastern storms tend to be blocked off by the mountains of the Front Range, and the ski areas may have only scattered clouds while Denver gets the big snow. This was the case back in October 1984, when the Broncos played the Packers in a blizzard at Mile High Stadium. The national television audience saw all that snow in Denver and inundated the ski resorts with calls for reservations. Being good businesspeople, ski resort personnel didn't mention the fact that at the time, skies were clear in Vail and Aspen!

An old saying about Colorado weather is very helpful when trying to figure out if a storm system will bring heavy snow. Remember - Pacific front, mountains bear the brunt; southeast low, Denver gets the snow. As I mentioned earlier, storm systems on the eastern plains spin their heavy snow over the Front Range and adjacent plains, but may miss the mountains. In contrast, a moist storm front from the Pacific Coast may dump very heavy snow on the mountains, but have very little moisture remaining by the time the storm slips down into Denver. Those Pacific fronts have a rough time staying intact as they first hit the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and then have to cross the Wasatch Range in Utah and finally struggle over the Continental Divide. When the once mighty storm finally tops the last of three or four mountain ranges, moisture is so depleted that Denver doesn't even get a flake of snow! Sometimes these storms regenerate into a major system again once they get farther to the east of Colorado. The leftover circulation of the storm will start to tap into the rich supply of moisture available from the Gulf of Mexico and the storm will once again become a powerful precipitation producer! Our neighbors in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and points farther east get a messy winter storm - but Denver and adjacent cities in the I-25 corridor have just some clouds and gusty north winds on the backside of the storm. These storms are frustrating to forecast as they usually feature headline making weather from the West Coast, with huge waves, heavy rain, wind and mountain snow. The storm takes a couple of days to get here, so there is plenty of build up and anticipation. First our mountains get heavy snow, but then the storm seems to jump right over Denver, before bringing nasty winter weather to extreme eastern Colorado and most of the Midwest. Such a storm scenario makes it seem like Denver has a big clear plastic dome over us!

In the far northern reaches of Canada, the winter months are a long, cold, dark period. Daylight is a commodity that is in precious short supply, and even the faint few hours of sunlight come with the sun at such a low angle, it offers very little heat. Warmth is escaping from the atmosphere over the northern latitudes much faster than it is being replenished. As the snow cover grows over Canada, the ground temperatures fall below freezing and then eventually below zero. The cold air becomes a dense, stable air mass that slowly grows over the thin spruce forests and tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. The sheer weight of the cold, dense air creates a high-pressure area over the region. If you have ever had a flat tire, you know that air flows from the high pressure (inside the tire) toward lower pressure (outside the tire). As the high builds in Canada, the pressure difference becomes large enough to begin to push southward toward the United States. The leading edge of this cold mass of high pressure is one of those blue pointed lines on the weather map - the cold front!

As the front sags southward, the first icy details of the cold wave make the TV news. "Low temperatures in North Dakota and Montana dipped below zero this morning," we say with a grim smile. Ahead of the front, the weather may be warm and sunny with little sign of impending trouble. But watch the skies for signs of wispy cirrus clouds to the north. There won't be many, but even a few may offer a clue. A home barometer may signal a change in the weather as it will gradually fall ahead of the approaching front. Winds may shift from southwesterly to light from the southeast. Do not feel bad if you miss the subtle symptoms of this weather change - the approach of a Canadian cold front is not well marked. The passage of such a front, however, is a different story! As the icy air pours down across Wyoming, the sky to our north will darken and billowy clouds will gather. Chances are good those clouds are not just full of moisture, but also swirling dust from the plains to the north. When the cold front roars down the Front Range, winds will abruptly switch to the north and whip up to 40 miles per hour or more. Clouds will rapidly lower, dust and tumbleweeds will sweep by, and then snow will fall. This type of front may push from the Wyoming border to northern New Mexico in three to four hours. Snow will fall for several hours after the front passes and may pile up to four to six inches in a hurry. After that the skies clear and the center of the cold high pressure area settles in for a couple of days. It is not uncommon for such a system to drop our temperatures from the 50s and low 60s ahead of the front, to zero or below after the front passes through and the Canadian high builds in.

An interesting fact is that these weather fronts are responsible for the term "blizzard", which is a derivative of the German word for lightning. Early European settlers on the high plains were astounded by the lightning-fast changes in the weather, especially when a powerful cold front roared through.

The true definition of a blizzard has more to do with wind and visibility than with snow - a storm earns blizzard status when winds of thirty-five miles per hour or higher are accompanied by falling or blowing snow that drops visibility to a quarter mile or less. The sky above can be clear, but blowing snow at ground level can produce blizzard conditions. A severe blizzard is bad - winds over fifty miles per hour with visibility near zero due to blowing or falling snow. Certainly our pioneer ancestors saw some very scary winter storms, but even today strong winter storms can bring peril to travelers. The wide-open eastern plains of Colorado offer no resistance to the wind and can allow howling storms to swirl snow into drifts five to ten feet high during the worst blizzards.

The passage of a strong Canadian cold front is a major weather story on the eastern plains, but often not for the mountains. The wall of granite to the west of Denver serves as a pretty good barrier for the cold, dense air. Quite literally, the cold air is just too heavy to climb up and over the mountains. Many times a surge of Arctic air will blanket the eastern plains of the state and put us in the deep freeze, while in the mountains, temperatures stay much milder as the cold front stalls in the foothills west of Denver.

The mountains will be getting another round of moderate to heavy snow this weekend, but the weather will stay dry on the plains. The jetstream will push into Colorado from the west and will bring a good flow of moisture into western Colorado. This type of pattern typically dumps all of the snow over the high country, leaving the eastern plains dry. The moist air is lifted over the mountains and most of the snow is pretty well wrung out of the clouds by the time they get over the Continental Divide. On the eastern flanks of the Rockies, the descending air dries out and warms as it moves down into Denver.

As a result, the high country can expect a foot or more of snow over the next 2 days, while Denver and the eastern plains will just have some high clouds and much milder weather. Temperatures will continue to rise into the 40s for Saturday and even the 50s on Sunday. In the mountains, snow can be expected, with temperatures in the 20s to low 30s. Great skiing conditions are likely at our resorts, so click on our Ski and Snow Report to see the latest.

No return to cold and snow is seen for the eastern third of the state for the next 5-7 days. The jetstream will remain in a milder west to east flow pattern this coming week. This type of pattern also blocks the real chilly air in Canada, so mild days, cool nights and generally dry weather can be expected. The westerly flow will keep periods of snow coming to the mountains though, so we truly get the best of both worlds!

The winter storm system that drops one to three feet of snow over the mountains of Colorado is now pounding the Upper Midwest. Blizzard warnings continue over much of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as this storm swirls across the Western Great Lakes. This storm is a very intense low pressure system, early morning barometer readings in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois have dropped below 29.00 inches of mercury. This makes the storm the pressure equivalent of a category two hurricane!

The deep low pressure system will spin across the Great Lakes today and will create huge waves of 25-30 feet on Lakes Michigan and Superior. Winds will continue to gust to 50-60 mph and temperatures will dive into the single digits over the Midwest. The result will be severe windchills of 50-60 below zero. Snow totals will be in the 12-18 inch range with drifts 5 to 10 feet deep over Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Much of the Upper Midwest will be at a standstill through Thursday.

Behind this huge storm, Colorado will have another very cold day, with highs in the teens. Some snowshowers will continue in the northern and central mountains, with a couple of inches additional accumulation. Tonight will be very cold again, although not as bad as last night. A gradual warming trend will return to the region over the next few days.

More snow and cold is on the way for Colorado as another surge of moisture and icy air will move into the region tonight and Tuesday. The arctic airmass that has held us in it's grip for the past few days will remain in control through mid-week. At the same time, a new push of rain and snow is rolling in from the West Coast and will bring more snow to the area tonight.

Winter Storm Warnings are in effect for most of the mountains through Tuesday. One to three feet of snow will likely fall over the high country - great news for the ski resorts! In Denver, and across the eastern plains, the snow will be lighter, but still amount to 3-6 inches. The temperatures will stay cold, with highs only in the teens, so the snow will be dry and fluffy.

Road conditions will stay slick and slow over much of the state for the next 48 hours. The cold temperatures mean that the mag-chloride mixture that CDOT spreads on the roads does not work as efficiently, so watch out for black ice. Often the lighter snows are the real problems as folks tend to drive too fast and spin out. Remember, four wheel drive does not help very much on ice.

Do not forget your furry and feathered friends during this coldwave. Make sure your pets have enough food and water (keep the dish unfrozen) and have access to warmth. Add a little extra food for energy and maybe throw some bread or seed out for the birds.

The icy airmass will stay through Tuesday, along with the snow. By Wednesday, the snow should come to an end on the plains, but will linger lightly in the high country. Later in the week, the cold air will slip to the east of Colorado and the temperatures will moderate. It looks like we should get back to freezing by Thursday or Friday and maybe into the 40s over the next weekend!

Global warming, the Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change. These topics are frequently in the headlines and seem to be a source of a great deal of controversy, perhaps more now than in recent months. Here are some of my thoughts on the these important issues.

The recent release of private e-mail conversations among climate researchers has created a bit of a firestorm in the media and in the blogosphere. Some claim that the "Global Warming Hoax" has been exposed. Others state that this was a "criminal act" that has little or no bearing on the consensus of climate researchers on the state of the science in terms of anthropogenic climate change.

No doubt that the release of these e-mails has damaged the trust of the public about the "settled nature" of this issue. These e-mails have been thrust onto the scene just ahead of an important conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark and will be a lightning rod of conversation and debate from many differing points of view.

In my opinion, there were about 60 megabytes worth of e-mail exchanges released, but only a small fraction of the private comments truly raise any concern. Scientists often speak casually among themselves in a short-hand of sorts. In this respect, saying something such as "the trick in this problem" does necessarily mean an actually "trick" or slight of hand, but rather a method of calculating something. Granted, it does not sound good, or look good when clipped out of context.

Another comment that has been brought up is one about how, "we cannot show any warming, and it is a travesty that we cannot". In this case, the comment refers to a lack of an adequate monitoring system to show what we fully expect to be there. Once again, it looks bad, but actually has a different meaning.

The point is, cherry picking quotes can often be very misleading and this goes for all sides of this issue. The hope that I have in the release of these e-mails is that our climate researchers will be emboldened to just "put it all out there". Let's have the fully open discourse from all sides and maybe, just maybe, we can get past the political wrangling and truly get down to the business at hand. We will have to make worldwide policy decisions on climate and energy for the generations to come. There is a lot of political and financial risk in this endeavor and this new issue of released e-mails should serve as a example of something to avoid in the future.

It is very important that the climate researchers are as up front as possible with their research, the data and any uncertainty they may have. This is such an important issue, with huge international implications. There must be total transparency in the scientific process as we are depending upon the true experts to help guide policy makers. In that respect, it is vital that the true experts give us the truth.

In light of these recent developments. It is apparent that global warming is not fading as an issue, in fact, things are getting even more serious! Here are some recent highlights. Keep in mind that I am on the side of this issue that agrees that mankind is having a distinct impact on the warming of our world.

Global ice-sheets are melting at an increased rate; Arctic sea-ice is disappearing much faster than recently projected, and future sea-level rise is now expected to be much higher than previously forecast, according to a new global scientific synthesis prepared by some of the world’s top climate scientists.

In a special report called ‘The Copenhagen Diagnosis’, the 26 researchers, most of whom are authors of published IPCC reports, conclude that several important aspects of climate change are occurring at the high end or even beyond the expectations of only a few years ago.

The report also notes that global warming continues to track early IPCC projections based on greenhouse gas increases. Without significant mitigation, the report says global mean warming could reach as high as 7 degrees Celsius by 2100. This may be a high and alarming figure, but many of the projections given in the past 10-15 years have actually been rather conservative in terms of CO2 emissions and the decrease in Arctic ice.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis, which was a year in the making, documents the key findings in climate change science since the publication of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

New evidence is being presented at this conference and can be found on the Copenhagen website at http://www.copenhagendiagnosis.org.

We have been blessed to have such a beautiful, bountiful and life-giving planet. It is our duty, to take the best care of this gift that we have been given.

In the world of truly peer reviewed science, the degree of controversy is not as great as you might believe. Here are a few thoughts about things you may hear or read about global warming. Unfortunately, the recent e-mail issue (some call it Climate-gate) has now called into question the validity of "peer review" - this is very unfortunate in the short term, but may actually serve to make us more diligent about these things in the future.

There are often comments about unusual local weather events such as the snow in Vegas or the cold weather in New England. It is important to understand that short term weather is to climate as one play in a football game is to the entire NFL season. The e-mail comment about how cold it was in Colorado during the baseball playoffs this fall is a prime example. The researcher was lamenting the fact that anytime the weather turns unseasonally chilly, there are alot of comments about "how can there be any global warming?"

Another example of this was the extreme cold and snow that was experienced in the middle of December 2008. Ths cold was due to a southern bulge in the circumpolar vortex, bringing the icy air down from Alaska and Canada into the lower 48 states. By the way, when Colorado was shivering, Fairbanks was enjoying very mild weather for their area. When that vortex drifted back to the north, Fairbanks was very cold and Colorado hit 60 degree temperatures in January 2009.

There is an often quoted issue of 1997 being the warmest year and that global temperatures have cooled since that time. This information is misleading. In 1997, the world climate was influenced by one of the strongest El Nino events ever recorded. This pool of very warm Pacific Ocean water bumped global temperatures higher. At the present time, the Pacific in is the midst of a slight La Nina - cooler sea surface temperatures. These periodic warming and cooling episodes need to be taken into consideration in the the overall global temperature trend.

There is much discussion about the fact that the sun has by far the largest impact on our climate. The sun has certainly not been overlooked by the many experts worldwide that contributed to the most recent IPCC Assessment on climate. The periodic changes in solar output and the orbital changes are taken into account in the climate studies and modeling.

Another comment often heard is that CO2 is just a tiny fraction of the atmosphere. Just because CO2 is a trace gas does not mean that it is not important in the equation. Small amounts do matter - I weigh 200 pounds, but it certainly does not take 200 pounds of arsenic to kill me.

The majority of climate scientists remain in agreement that the overall warming of the planet (about 1.5 degrees Farhenheit since 1900), has been caused in part by mankind. This warming is due to the increase of so called "greenhouse gases" - such as CO2, methane and CFCs (chloro-fluorocarbons). These gases absorb outgoing heat from our planet and "reflect" it back to Earth. When this happens, energy from the Sun is trapped in our atmosphere and warms our climate.

As often noted, the Greenhouse Effect is normal and natural, in fact if not for this effect, the Earth would be about 60 degrees Farenheit colder - a lifeless ice planet. The problem we face is that the delicate balance of temperature may be upset by a change in atmospheric chemistry. In the past 200 years (since the Industrial Revolution) the increased burning of fossil fuels has released vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The concentration of CO2 has risen about 25% in the past two centuries from 280 parts per million to over 385 parts per million.

Human activity releases about seven billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year - adding to the 750 billion metric tons that are already there. Of the 7 billion tons, only about three billion tons stays in the atmosphere; the rest is absorbed by plants and the oceans. This "carbon sink" capacity complicates the issue of global warming, because the oceans have had a vast holding capacity for CO2. The oceans are becoming more acidic, however, and there is concern that this carbon sink capacity may reach a limit.

Some scientists feel that the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be offset by the ability of plants and the oceans to absorb this gas. In fact, some experts believe that the increase in CO2 will be a good thing - improving crop yields and making more parts of the world able to support crops. At the same time, others worry that warming will cause more severe droughts in key agricultural areas. In addition, which plants will benefit most - will it be useful crops, or weeds!

The issue is not a simple one because we must use computer models to predict future climate. These models are very complicated and must be run on a supercomputer. Even with today's technology, we cannot perfectly model something as complex as our atmosphere, so the models are simplified and do have errors. One of the undisputable facts is "we cannot even predict tomorrow's weather with 100% accuracy, how can we expect to predict the weather for the next 100 years! Of course, we are not attempting to forecast day to day weather that far in advance, just trends. There is no way to run an actual atmospheric simulation of the changes to come as we only have this one Earth - there isn't another similar planet nearby to run actual experiments.

My opinion is that we are indeed having a profound impact on the warming our climate, although this effect has been riding along side of a naturally occurring warmer period during the second half of the 20th century. It is vitally important that we study this topic with even greater effort in order to be able to take action for the future. This action may well be to use technology to bring ever increasing efficiencies to our society. Through a more efficient use of our fuels and energy resources, we will be able to limit the amount of greenhouse gases released, while still enabling our complex technological society to function and thrive.

In the unlikely event that we found out in 30 years that humans did not have the power to change the climate, we will be much better off to have taken the steps to use less fuel and conserve our resources. The research and discoveries that we make in the coming decades will enable mankind to whether the changes in climate and the increased demand for global energy reserves. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein is a favorite of mine, "the problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking as at the time they were created".

The whole concept of somehow capping greenhouse gas emissions or even lowering them is growing less likely as the world population and global energy use continues to increase. It is much more likely that the CO2 and other green house gas emissions will continue to increase for decades to come. In that light, we may have to look more toward how do we deal with the changes that will likely result. I have serious doubts that we will be changing the CO2 content in our atmosphere, except to increase it.

Here are some likely results of a warmer climate in the western United States.

In the Rocky Mountains, a warming of the climate will likely mean hotter, drier summers and milder, but still perhaps stormy winters. The amount of snowfall may drop on the plains, aside from infrequent major blizzards, while the mountains may see the snow levels and the tree level rise to higher elevations. The biggest worry that climate scientists have is that the weather will become more extreme - more heatwaves, drought, but also more flash floods and severe local storms. These events have always been with us, but the concern is that they will occur with greater regularity.

There are some critical voices out there, but many of the skeptics of anthropogenic climate change are not primarily trained in atmospheric science. These may be very bright individuals, but they have backgrounds in other disciplines such as physics, geology or economics. Certainly these are well educated people, but it is analogous to asking a climate scientist their opinion on the best place to drill an oil well. This is not to say that these voices should not be heard, they may offer a fresh perspective on the issues and serve to make sure that the data is scrutinized for the utmost accuracy. Different disciplines may also bring other ideas to the table in terms of mitigation of climate change or possible alternatives to fossil fuels. Remember, Einstein started as a postal clerk!

There is still a concern with some individuals that present themselves as experts on climate change. Some do seem to have connections to companies and organizations with a strong interest in casting doubt on a scientific concensus. This is where physical science takes a backseat to political science. This can be dangerous from any side of this issue and is another reason why the climate science community needs to stand up and face critics, rather than trying to silence them by forbidding them to publish their views in various scientific journals. Let the skeptics speak and put anything they have out there for critical review.

There is nothing wrong at all with differing points of view on the subject, but it must be accompanied by quality peer reviewed science. The more that the disparate voices can come together on this issue and at least try to find some common ground, the better for future generations. If we just offer ridicule and commentary without hard evidence, it is really just so much hot air (and we may already have too much of that!).

I have written about this subject in far greater depth in chapter 6 of my current book - THE COLORADO WEATHER ALMANAC. The book is available at all local bookstores or from Amazon.com

There is also a local group of climate scientists, geologists, physicists and interested citizens that partake in a study group. If you are interested, check out http://www.denverclimatestudygroup.com

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