Comment Letters Mailed to BLM

Many thanks to all who attended the comment letter-writing event in February regarding oil and gas parcel leasing near the Continental Divide in our watershed! We mailed to the BLM, by certified mail, over 28 comment letters, all composed during a two hour event held at the El Rito Library. We had a chance to show off our new Rio Chama Watershed map as well as a powerful map from the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance showing the stark contrast between leasing in our watershed and the overwhelming number of oil and gas leasing right next door in the sacrifice zone to our west, otherwise known as San Juan Basin.

Many thanks to Lynette Gillette for the use of the library and to Carolyn Riege for hosting.

LANL Climate Modeler Gazes into Rio Chama Future

I’m excited to present an interview I recently did with a climate modeler from Los Alamos National Lab. Jeremy Fyke took some time with me via email and responded to questions about a climate modeling project he is working on with the Chama Peak Land Alliance (CPLA). The CPLA is a diverse group of conservation-minded landowners committed to embracing and practicing responsible land, water and wildlife stewardship in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  Much of the Rio Chama Watershed fits within their map area. We are lucky to benefit from this unique collaboration!

Barbara Turner: To begin with, people here in the Rio Chama Watershed might be curious how your climate-modeling project for our region fits into LANL’s overall mission.

LANL is roughly half nuclear weapons lab and half  “open science” or non-classified research into a huge variety of stuff, from the physics of the universe to nanotechnology, supercomputing, biology, energy and electric grid modernization and….climate! Indeed, LANL has a fairly robust ‘climate science’ focus, be it developing instruments to monitor the atmosphere, doing groundwater flow simulations, projecting groundwater and surface water resources, and simulating ice sheets (which is where I’m mostly focused).

Typically, being a national lab, all work has to tie back somehow to ‘national security’. Regarding climate science, the case can be made that, for example, sea level changes will affect the security of residents in Miami and that would be considered a threat to national security. I think it’s actually a pretty robust argument for doing climate science at national labs (we’ll see what Rick Perry thinks, though).

I began this work for two main reasons. As a climate modeler I increasingly recognize a gap between a generation of scientific understanding of climate change (which is clear and concerning), and application of the science towards real societal decisions.  The effort with the Chama Peak Land Alliance is one of a few efforts I have involved myself in, to try and learn how to build bridges between climate science, and society. Secondly, I have some good friends with property in the Brazos who are members of the Chama Peak Land Alliance. They introduced me to the CPLA, and we had the exciting idea together that I should do some analysis for them.  Finally, while this has mostly been volunteer work on my part aside from my usual work (which is mostly to do with simulating large glaciers in climate models), LANL recently provided some financial support via a LANL community outreach program.

BT: According to the New York Times, new data shows that “most Americans believe global warming is happening, but fewer are sure the changes will harm them personally.” Given your modeling, what climate changes will have the most direct effect on the people living in the Rio Chama Watershed?

I worked with Emily Olson at the CPLA to try and understand the main activities in the CPLA, and then understand how they could be affected by climate change (in a process of working ‘from the ground to the science’, instead of the other way around).  In our initial thinking, we identified a few important variables that will likely impact CPLA folks the most: frost free days (impacts agriculture), precipitation as snow (impacts water supply and river flow), and climatic moisture deficit (affects how much people have to irrigate, and also impacts forest resiliency to wildfires).  This work is very much in progress, and in particular, requires some more understanding of basic CPLA vulnerabilities (free range grazing, recreation, road maintenance, etc.), which I, as the scientist, can then try and design climate impact assessments for.

BT: There is a large methane cloud over the Four Corners. NASA has determined that these methane emissions are primarily to do with the production and transport of natural gas from coal beds in the region. Given the proximity to the Rio Chama Watershed, did that methane cloud factor into your modeling for our region? 

No not directly. The analysis I did comes initially from global climate model output, which are simulations that are ‘forced’ with global concentrations of (primarily) CO2 and CH4.  I’m not sure if the global CH4 datasets used by these models included this source of methane (it was discovered fairly recently).  And, in any case, quite honestly, the temperature change over the Rio Chama is influenced just as much by Siberian methane emissions (for example) as by local emissions, given that as far as the greenhouse effect is concerned, CO2 and CH4 are very well-mixed gases (so, imagine pouring dye in a boiling pot of water: pretty soon, it’s totally mixed in and has the same ‘impact’ everywhere).  The Four Corners emissions are absolutely worrying contributions to the total emissions (and likely reflect other unknown emission sources elsewhere).   But their effect on the Rio Chama comes via their effect on the global climate, not a direct local effect.

BT: What specific visual landscape changes do you forecast by the year 2050 for the Rio Chama Watershed as a result of your climate change modeling? Will we see dramatic changes in the flora and fauna?

With the caveat that I’m not an ecologist, I would say: absolutely!  For example, I did a visual Google Earth search of landscapes consistent with temperature changes I simulated over my friend’s place up by Tierra Amarillo, and came away with the conclusion that their currently aspen/pine forest landscape will transition to a Pinon landscape.  Given the relief in the Rio Chama region, it’s actually pretty easy methodology to make a guess as to what a given location will look like, given the plots I generated (you can link to Jeremy’s presentation here).  First, figure out how the, e.g., frost- free period will change for a point of interest (say, the Chama Monastery).  Record the 2050 value of the frost- free period (imagine it goes from 200 to 250 days per year due to warming).  Finally, go back to the recent historical plots, and find an ‘analogy’ region that has this higher level of frost free days, in the present day (say, Espanola).  It’s a pretty good guess that your point of interest (e.g. the Monastery) will end up looking like that ‘analogy’ region, by 2050.  A general rule of thumb here: if you want to figure out what a given location will look like: look down-river/down-slope for examples!  This kind of analysis is tougher to do in the flatlands.

BT: Would the Rio Chama Watershed see a dramatic decline in snowpack? I live along the El Rito creek and we seem to be having an unprecedented early runoff.

I would certainly expect so.  Let me know if the RACC wants a point-specific analysis case study and I can try and do this.

BT: Is your climate model based on current geopolitical climate policy? Has any modeling been done to reflect the current administration in our country and the policy reversals from the Obama administration that we are starting to see regarding climate change?

Because climate change is driven by global emissions, it’s not just Obama/Trump administration choices that matter, but the combined net decision of all world governments and societies (although the USA is particularly influential because per capita US emissions are among the highest in the world).  Because of the global nature of the problem, climate models are driven by net global carbon emissions, and the main uncertainty in the climate response over the 21st century is, indeed, what these global emissions do.  To ‘capture’ that uncertainty for the CPLA, I ran two scenarios: one in which net global emissions are curtailed strongly by a combined global decision to start limiting carbon use in coming decades.  And another that followed a much more pessimistic ‘business as usual’ scenario, in which economically available fossil fuels are used without restriction by societies.  The difference between these two gives a sense of the ‘range of possible futures’ for the CPLA region.  On a related note: in the last 3 years, global emission increases have slowed dramatically (though have not begun to decrease).  This is largely due to a global decline in coal use, primarily for basic economic reasons.

BT: How will climate change affect the Rio Chama Watershed’s ability to maintain a healthy riparian ecosystem? 

If efforts to conserve a healthy riparian ecosystem take a status-quo ‘no-climate-change’ stance, then it will be very difficult.  I believe that the term ‘healthy’ needs to account for the presence of unavoidable and accelerating climatic change, such that, for example, it may be better for the riparian zone to transition out ‘traditional’ plants and transition in new species that play a similar role, but in a warmer climate (for guidance, perhaps look at what’s going on down-river, species-wise!).  In this way it may be possible to ‘guide’ the Rio Chama and other places into the future, instead of letting it try to adapt by itself to what will be unprecedented change, as far as ecosystem evolution is concerned.  I imagine this approach presents very difficult ethical decisions, because conservation has traditionally meant ‘keeping things the same’.  But in the face of unavoidable change, it may be worth discussing.  Analogies exist in the forest industry, where foresters are replanting with new warm-weather trees, instead of the status-quo species.

BT: Finally, given what you know about climate change and how it will potentially affect our region, do you see any solutions that would mitigate what’s coming down the pike?

There are two approaches here. The first is to mitigate (minimize) the change, and the second is to adapt to change that is unavoidable.  Regarding the first: climate change is a ‘tragedy of the commons’, in that each time an individual starts their vehicle or flies on an airplane (or any number of things that we all do) they contribute to the combined effect of 8 billion other people, doing the same thing.  Thus, the ultimate solution to climate change really comes from individual decisions (perhaps guided by policy, perhaps by economics, perhaps by morality) to transition to non-carbon-based energy sources.  It’s actually pretty basic in principle: try hard to drive less in fossil-fuel-powered cars, fly less in fossil-fuel-powered planes, use less fossil-fuel-generated electricity, and eat less commercial red meat (cows are non-trivial CH4 emitters).  Given advances in renewable energy, electric/hybrid vehicles, and fantastic non-cow food (local venison and chicken is tasty!) it is increasingly economically possible for individuals to ‘divest’ from fossil fuels.  Regarding the second approach, I would argue that it is exactly work like what I’ve started in close collaboration with CPLA stakeholders that will reduce the impact of unavoidable climate change. There are increasing efforts worldwide to do this type of highly applied climate adaptation work at the scale of individual communities, economies, and ecosystems.

Many thanks to Jeremy Fyke, LANL and the Chama Peak Land Alliance for sharing this research with Rio Arriba Concerned Citizens and Rio Chama Watershed residents. I learned a lot from the interview and appreciate how open Jeremy was with his time and knowledge.

El Rito College Campus May Join the New Energy Economy!

Rick Bailey, the new and enthusiastic president of Northern Community College, has recently been meeting with Luis Reyes, CEO of our local energy cooperative Kit Carson Electric, to discuss the possibility of installing a one-megawatt solar array just south of the El Rito Campus. KCEC has agreed to consider the El Rito campus as the site of one of 35 arrays they plan on installing throughout their service territory in the next 5 years.

Energy costs for running the El Rito campus has been an ongoing issue and could have been the demise of the campus if not for Rick Bailey’s willingness to consider a cheaper (and cleaner!) alternative in the way of solar power. The cost of running the campus on solar power will only get cheaper over time and will be a win for the community’s energy’s costs as well as the college’s. Thank you Rick Bailey for leading El Rito into the new (and cheaper) energy economy!