U.S. West Vulnerable to Warming

WASHINGTON, DC, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - The American West is on the front line of global warming and faces severe impacts if rising temperatures continue at expected rates, the National Wildlife Federation warned in a new report. Changes to the climate largely driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases are dramatically altering the western landscape, the report said, leaving the region more vulnerable to severe drought and wildfires.

"It is critically important for people to make the connection between the nation's growing addiction to fossil fuels and the devastating consequences it is having for people and wildlife alike," said lead author Patty Glick, a global warming specialist with the National Wildlife Federation. "The latest science is painting a bleak picture."


The iconic landscapes of the West could change dramatically if warming continues. (Photo courtesy NPSC)

The report "Fueling the Fire" calls for national limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases and greater support for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

The 11 states of the Western U.S. are already painfully familiar with both drought and wildfire. The current drought facing the region is the worst in 500 years and has dramatically reduced available water resources. Winter snowpack, which typically accounts for 75 percent of the region's water, has fallen by more than third in the northern Rocky Mountains and more than 50 percent in parts of the Cascade Mountains.

"The temperature in the West is clearly rising under the influence of human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, and that is already playing a role in shifting the snow melt driven hydrology," said Philip Mote, a scientist with the University of Washington's climate impacts group.

The report said mountains in the Pacific Northwest could lose nearly 90 percent of average snowpack by 2090, the mountains of the Central Rockies could lose 75 percent and parts of the Southern Rockies and the Sierra Nevada range could lose virtually all their snowpack.

Furthermore, the current wildfire season is already considered one of the most extensive and expensive in history - more than 9.6 million acres have burned across the West this year. A recent study in the journal "Science" found the fire season in the West has increased by 78 days since 1970.

All these trends are projected to continue and accelerate if the temperatures continue to rise, the report said.

"There is indeed a connection between the buildup of greenhouse gases and the hydrologic changes that we are observing," said Mote. "These have consequences not just for anything that has a reliance on summer stream flow - fish, wildlife and agriculture - but it also shifts the balance of the timing of peak soil moisture and advances the summer drying that sets in."

Warmer average winter temperatures and less frost are also expected to increase the rate, intensity and extent of invasive species, pest and disease outbreaks throughout the region.


More wildfires are one distinct possibility from increased warming in the West. (Photo courtesy USDA)

Warming will also degrade habitat for native land-based and aquatic species, according to the report. It projects big sagebrush habitats throughout the western U.S. could decline by 59 percent before the end of this century, which would have devastating consequences for sage grouse, mule deer, pronghorn and other species that depend on them.

Despite the dire predictions in the report, Glickman said there is still time to act.

"There are solutions," she said. "We have a real opportunity to change course and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, stop global warming, and build a brighter economic future around clean energy sources. But the timing is critical and we desperately need our elected officials to lead the way by enacting a meaningful federal global warming policy. Delaying action will only make the impacts of global warming worse."