Researchers Issue Dire Forecast for State Forests

October 16, 2013

While Congress dithers over budgets and battles over climate policy, scientists and others are urging state and local governments to take action as climate change affects water, agriculture, forests and businesses like ski resorts dependent on snow.

Rising temperatures are killing forests globally, and research by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists finds it is highly likely that the Southwest, including New Mexico, will lose the vast majority of its forests by 2050. That means no golden aspens in the fall or pine trees in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The Pacific Northwest would follow closely behind, with forests dying off a few decades later.

The dire projection came from Cathy Wilson, a climate researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who was part of a panel of experts that recently addressed a packed room at Santa Fe Community College. The panelists talked about the local impacts of climate change and how communities can take action to mitigate and adapt to what is coming.

Wilson, who presented work by colleagues Park Williams and Nate McDowell, appeared alongside a renewable energy director from Denmark.

The discussion came in the wake of a recent report by an international team of climate scientists, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report declared that warming of the atmosphere, ocean and land is an unequivocal fact. Other highlights of that report include:

-In the northern hemisphere, 1983-2012 likely was the warmest 30-year period of the past 1,400 years.

-Each of the past three decades successively has been warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

-More trees are dying because climate change in the Southwest has led to higher temperatures and longer droughts. When there’s less moisture, trees slowly die of thirst or beetle invasions.

“We are certainly on the business-as-usual trajectory,” Wilson said. “So things are most likely going to get much warmer.”

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and greenhouse gas emissions have increased to levels unprecedented in the last 800,000 years, researchers found.

Trees take in and hold carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases climate scientists say helps cause climate change. As the trees die, carbon dioxide levels rise because the gases aren’t being captured. “The forests are performing a significant environmental service for us,” Wilson said.

Researchers say human influence is the dominating cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

In Denmark, one island took up the challenge to power itself with renewable energy. Samsoe succeeded in one decade, according to Soren Hermansen, an islander and head of the Samsoe renewable energy project. Hermansen spoke at the climate forum in Santa Fe about how the 4,000 pragmatic islanders pulled it off.

For heat, the islanders rely on biomass-fueled and solar-heating “cooperatives.” Biomass and solar panels warm fluid-filled tubes. The heat is delivered via pipes to homes and businesses. The cooperatives are made up of a few dozen families who own “district” heating systems.

Electricity is fully supplied by wind turbines, both on shore and offshore. They produce enough energy for the islanders and the thousands of yearly tourists. The islanders own shares in the wind turbines that serve them. Large companies own other wind turbines, and that electricity is exported, bringing revenue to the island’s small government.

At $78 million, the transition to renewable energy wasn’t cheap. But the benefits were many, Hermansen said.

Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system, researchers said.

Reinventing infrastructure for the island created jobs for local craftsmen. Maintaining the systems employs others. The project’s success has gained international attention from other countries and the media. Denmark has decided to produce all of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050.

The take-away lessons for other communities, Hermansen said, include collaborating on big projects and looking for solutions. He said limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

Hermansen, named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine in 2008, doesn’t think the adage “think globally, act locally” is quite right. He thinks “think locally, act locally” expresses the personal responsibility all communities have in light of climate change.

“We need a reliable policy, brave politicians, long-term planning frameworks and targets, reasonable budgets, bankable projects, local individual action plans,” he said, “and more local heroes.”

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