It's getting hot in here
Climate change is a global problem, but it’s happening here in Northern Nevada, too
Climate change is often talked about on a large, global scale, but it affects each of us individually, too. Here in Northern Nevada, it could mean extended droughts, blazing temperatures, rampant wildfires and homeless wildlife.
Kelly Redmond is the regional climatologist for the western states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and monitors climate in this region for a number of reasons.
“What we care about is what’s happening in our backyard,” Redmond said. “You probably don’t make your decisions today based on what’s happening in Tibet or Bolivia, although those places may, in the long run, be affecting you.”
It’s also important to note that climate is constantly changing regardless of the larger issue of global climate change, so what climatologists like Redmond and others look at are larger trends within these time periods.
The main culprit behind climate change and the overall warming of the global temperature is carbon dioxide. There are other gases that contribute, like methane, but carbon dioxide makes up about two thirds of the greenhouse gases that absorb radiation and heat the atmosphere.
“What’s causing climate change is emission of gases into the atmosphere, predominantly CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels, from around the world,” said director Maureen McCarthy of Nevada’s Academy for the Environment. “The rate of warming in the atmosphere has been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution for 150 years.”
Human contributions to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere come from many different places—like our cars and energy production. In order to slow the rate of climate change, we need to start decreasing these emissions—an easy concept to understand, but a not-so-easy thing to do.Air
The overall average annual temperature for the western United States has risen since around the beginning of the 20th century and rose more steeply from the mid 1970s on. Between the mid ’70s and mid ’90s the annual average rose about two degrees.
“And since then, it’s kind of leveled off,” Redmond said. “It hasn’t risen very much over the past 15 years or so. It’s gone up and down, and it continues to go up and down from year to year with that general rise. We went through a series of about four years where it cooled back off about halfway back to what it was before, but then 2012 came along. It was really, really warm, and 2013 was a little bit on the less warm side. And so far this year, we’ve been kinda on the warm side again because we had a warm and sort of rainless winter.”
One thing to note is that these are the average temperatures in this area, making the data helpful to identify long-term trends but not necessarily the best picture of all changes.
Every season acts differently than others, but the average can’t show that. Winter temperatures haven’t risen very much in the last 60 to 70 years here, but the other seasons have behaved differently.
“Spring temperatures have come up starting about the mid ’80s,” Redmond said. “And summer temperatures weren’t doing very much until about the year 2000, and they’ve come up quite a lot in the summer months. And then in the autumn, they started out a little bit on the warmer side and cooled off a little bit and then warmed up again in recent years.”
This warming is also expected to create more heat waves—hotter days and hotter nights overall. A strange thing about temperatures in Northern Nevada, and Reno specifically, is that there has been more change in nighttime temperatures than there has been in daytime temperatures. Both have risen, but nighttime temperatures have risen more than those in the daytime. Redmond said that they’re not quite sure why.
Reno’s nighttime temperatures generally cool down from the day. Before recent years, the city very rarely had minimum temperatures as high as 60 degrees at night.
“Well, I noticed just in the last few days the overnight low at Reno was 60,” Redmond said. “We’re still in early June. We’re not in the hottest part of summer yet. Reno first saw a 70 degree minimum a few years ago, and I think the highest reading it’s had overnight was where the coolest time of [night] was 77. This was in recent years. This is like things you might expect in Las Vegas.”
Redmond says that he and other climatologists prefer to observe the effects of climate change in more rural areas than Reno to get an idea of what’s happening in Northern Nevada as a whole. The population growth in Reno is most likely behind some local warming, so other less urban, more “podunk” areas are preferable for observations.Earth
Temperature affects just about everything on our planet, which is why the overall rise in temperature resulting from climate change is such a big deal.
There has been an increase in the amount of insects in recent years because many bugs are more active at higher temperatures. Mosquitoes that may carry disease and invasive species that hurt or destroy native vegetation, thrive more in our region as temperatures rise, too.
“Northern Nevada is sort of in a tenuous position because we’re very much in the desert,” McCarthy said. “Small changes in precipitation, small changes in the availability of water supplies, drier, hotter summers causing fires, and allowing invasive species to survive when they didn’t used to be able to will have a big impact on life in Northern Nevada.”
Redmond agrees that there will be many different effects on the way we live beyond the weather.
“It affects diseases, it affects animals and plants, and the way that they grow and their competitive advantage of one species over another,” Redmond said. “It has some consequences for human health, too.”
Higher temperatures may cause crop loss as well. Redmond believes that humans will be able to adapt to climate change more quickly and effectively than other residents of our planet.
“The antelope and the sagebrush and all those things that we think of in Northern Nevada, they don’t have the luxury that we do or the capability to adapt really,” Redmond said. “They can only adapt really by changing where they grow, by maybe moving further north. And how does a sagebrush get further north? And animals are a little bit more portable, so to speak, so they can move, but they have to move with their habitat and food supply.”
Ultimately, climate change can have massive effects on the ecosystems that we and other living things depend on for survival because animals and plants evolved to live in certain climes. With those changing, they’ll either have to find a way to adapt, move to an area with that climate or die.Water
Effects on our water supply from climate change are the primary concern of researchers. And we’ve begun to see some of these effects in recent years with the current drought and less snowfall than the area is accustomed to. Both of these are expected to continue and worsen with current climate change projections.
Although we haven’t seen much change in the average annual precipitation in the region, there is still reason to worry. The overall effects of climate change are more difficult to observe in precipitation.
“It’s really, really hard to detect that because precipitation varies a lot more than temperature does,” Redmond said. “It’s just bouncing up and down all the time, so we’re looking for relatively small changes in precipitation. And in order to see those we have to have a fairly long record before the trend starts to appear on the noisy signal that we’re given.”
Again, averages can make it hard to see climate change.
“If the average amount of precipitation doesn’t change much, that doesn’t tell you a lot about what will happen in Northern Nevada because in Northern Nevada, we’re very concerned that we have a constant supply of water in the dry season,” McCarthy said. “Our dry seasons are getting longer and drier, but our snow pack is getting smaller and running off faster.”
The most troublesome part of the temperature rise is the effect on snowfall. We depend on our precipitation to come in the form of snow during the winter so that it melts later on in the year, giving us water at those times. But recently that precipitation is coming in the form of rain instead of snow.
“The whole agricultural system of western United States, including Northern Nevada, is all built on taking precipitation in the form of snow and moving it in streams and rivers where you need it in the growing season, in the spring and the summer,” McCarthy said. “So when we get precipitation in the form of rain in the wintertime, it is not available as runoff in the spring. … And our whole way of life from urban centers to agriculture is all based on having a gradual runoff of water supplies from melting snowpack in the spring that used to run until July or August, and now it’s disappearing in May and June.”
And then the heat and dryness exacerbates the water supply situation further by causing the demand for water to increase because of faster evaporation.
The higher temperatures are also expected to allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture, which would affect extremes in the weather and precipitation.
“There’s some thought that maybe increased moisture in the air would promote more extreme or bigger thunderstorms or day-by-day storms because if the atmosphere has more moisture in it, it can rain more out,” Redmond said.
Extreme weather patterns can be seen now and are expected to continue if nothing is done to curb our greenhouse gas emissions drastically.
“The drought periods are likely to get longer over the next probably 20 to 40 years,” McCarthy said. “You’re likely to see, as we’re already seeing now, more of our winter storms coming with very large amounts of precipitation over very short periods of time, so not a gradual drop of snow but more large storms that dump a lot of precipitation and those are getting warmer. So you saw this winter, we had rain in the mountains in February at 8,000 feet.”
The extreme changes in precipitation types and availability during the dry season will mean that our current water regulation policies—created about 150 years ago—will not be effective for the future. They were created when the climate was much more predictable and less extreme.Fire
The overall warming and drying of the region will also raise the likelihood of wildfires.
“When it’s warmer, fire loves that,” Redmond said. “When it’s drier, fire loves that. If it happens to be a little bit windier, fire loves that. This might change the situation from being relatively good for fire to being extremely good for fire.”
The acreage of areas burned in the Western United States over approximately the last 15 years has gone up dramatically, and seven western states have had the biggest single fire in their histories in that time period.
“Why are they all concentrated now instead of uniformly dispersed throughout the last hundred years or so?” Redmond said. “Is that just some big accident or something systematic going on? And a couple of those states have set an all-time record for a fire size and then later gone on, just in that little brief time, to even exceed that fire. Extreme fire behavior is something that’s been really noticeable of late.”
Redmond also said that firefighters in the region say that fires are behaving differently than in the past and are more extreme now than ever.
“It burns completely into the ground and kills everything below the ground in some number of cases, and also they’re much bigger,” Redmond said.Forever changes
Humans may be able to adapt to some changes in climate more easily than plants and animals, but there are some environmental changes that even we cannot withstand, like life without fresh water.
“People are pretty adaptable,” Redmond said. “We can build better air conditioners. We can escape from heat and so forth. We’re pretty clever, but the rest of the world isn’t that way. But we can’t ultimately escape from the lack of water.”
Climate changes will affect quality of life and the economy in general, but businesses like ski resorts will be especially affected.
“The snow level on their slopes might go down, it might introduce a year every now and then where they don’t have a very good snow season, which if they don’t have snowmaking equipment, then they lose that business over the winter,” Redmond said. “Some ski areas are situated that they could get through one bad year, but so many bad years—like two or more—might knock them under. So there’s some interesting recreational things as well. Skiing is obviously one of them, but anything that depends on the natural resources in our area would be affected.”
If climate change continues at the pace projected by current emissions, it will be extremely difficult for human beings to endure and close to impossible for the natural world.
There are certain things that are too late to fix. The melting of the Antarctic ice and the corresponding ocean level rise may be one of these, according to Thomas P. Wagner in a New York Times article, “Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt.”
“This is really happening,” Wagner said. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
This ocean level rise won’t have much, if any, effect directly on Northern Nevada because we’re not on the coast and we’re at a relatively high elevation. But the ongoing Antarctic ice melt demonstrates that we’ve already committed a certain amount of climate change because of our actions.
“Carbon dioxide, once it goes into the atmosphere, it is really hard to come out under natural processes,” Redmond said. “It’s sort of more or less there for … several hundred years to a few thousand years. You can’t put this genie back in the bottle. In terms of getting carbon dioxide out of the air, plants are good at that, but we’d need a lot more plants.”
Redmond said humans need to slow the ongoing rate of climate change.
“It gives us less time, it gives us less wiggle room,” Redmond said. “As we try to figure out what to do, it’s always better to have more time than less time. … If we just go on unabated, we start cutting out some of the options we might have in our little tool kit. If we have to respond quickly, the disturbances it causes in economic terms, in cultural things, in business, or just in the natural world, they’re harder to deal with and people might be hurt more than if it would happen more slowly. … An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in this case.”
Changing the sources of our energy production to emit less CO2 is a huge part of slowing the rate of climate change on a global scale and, in turn, in Northern Nevada.
“And it’s not just the United States,” McCarthy said. “We need to be leaders in the world to make sure that we have a viable energy future that doesn’t continue to cause the problem.”
But in Northern Nevada, water supplies, and planning for conservation, and changes are the biggest things to worry about in the near future. McCarthy believes there needs to be more dialogue between the urban community, agricultural producers and water managers so that water can be managed and changes will be gradual.
“We need an approach to resiliency,” McCarthy said. “We need to understand that we may have much bigger changes in our water supply. We may have to adjust to having a much more robust, dangerous fire season.”
Because this is a human created problem, the solution will have to be—and can be—a human one, too.
“If we can make this happen, we can make it un-happen,” Redmond said. “It’s no accident that there’s seven and a half billion of us living on the planet now. So I think just trying to incorporate a better sense of the connection is really where it starts. It’s fostering in your own being and living, a sense of connection to the rest of the world.”