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Environment, Global Affairs

New study indicates dramatic reduction in Rocky Mountain snowpack

Rocky Mountains

A report released this past week from the U.S. Geological Survey found that over an 800 year period, the past 30 years indicate a dramatic break from the typical snowpack patterns in the Rocky Mountains. The report stated that “over the past millennium, late-20th-century snowpack reductions are almost unprecedented in magnitude across the northern Rocky Mountains,” as reported in the New York Times.

By sampling tree-ring data that give an idea of the size of the snowpack covering the Rocky Mountains for the past 800 years, sceintists from the United States and Canada were able to see a noticeable break in the pattern of snow cover in the past 30 years. Where snow volume used to fluctuate north and south across the continental divide, the past three decades have seen a remarkable reduction in snow volume on both sides of the divide.

Here is the New York Times describes the differences in snowpack volume across the continental divide:

It works like this. Draw a hypothetical line in your mind from Denver to Salt Lake City to Sacramento. If there is heavy snow to the north of this line, chances are there will be a drought to the south of it. And vice versa…This year’s experience fits in with that trend, but in terms of the recent past, it’s an anomaly.

In real nuts and bolts terms, what is the significance of these findings? The Christian Science Monitor gives you one indication in their article “The New Water Wars?” in which they spell out the impact that such a reduction in snowpack size could have on the Colorado, Columbia, and Missouri rivers that start high in the Rockies, and rely on a sizable snowpack to keep their rivers flowing to the ocean. And what about the 70 million Americans in the West and South West who rely on these waterways for their drinking water?

The Monitor doesn’t speculate, likely because water scarcity in the West is as American as Apple Pie, and seems to have been classified as one of those problems that a) can be put off indefinitely, or b) can be solved through greater technological ingenuity. After all, we can desalinate saltwater for drinking without much trouble, right? So we’re fine…

Colorado River - Rings on the canyon walls reveal previous water levels.

Part of the problem is that humans are phenomenal at finding short-term solutions to short-term problems, but are critically weaker at tackling long-term issues, such as the impacts that climate change can have on something as fundamentally necessary for life as clean water. Couple that with a decision to build cities in areas of the American South West where few human beings should ever have settled due to inadequate water supply, and once again the South West should brace itself for tensions over waters availability in the future.

As the U.S.G.S. study finds, the water (which is already in short supply in the Colorado, Columbia, and Missouri systems) from the Rockies to feed important watersheds is becoming scarcer and scarcer.

What are they prepared to do about it? What are we all prepared to do about it?

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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