Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken. The High Park Fire gave him the courage to talk about climate change. Photo: The Coloradoan

By Bobby Magill
23 May 2013

(The Coloradoan) – Nolan Doesken used to have a hard time talking about climate change.

The topic has become so politically combustible that some scientists and researchers find it difficult to speak of or write about.

But, after the High Park Fire swept the foothills in 2012, Doesken decided to talk more openly about the reasons behind Colorado’s changing weather when talking to the agriculture community.

Doesken, Colorado’s state climatologist based at Colorado State University, said Tuesday that he never really feared talking about climate change, but it gave him pause.

Part of Doesken’s job is to deliver the news to Colorado’s worried farmers, ranchers and water managers — among the biggest skeptics of climate change — about how the weather conditions they’re experiencing today fit in with history and what that means for water planning and crop planting now and in the future.

“We love Nolan — he’s one of the best people out there in terms of making weather understandable to the average person,” said Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District spokesman Brian Werner. “He’s the guy I generally trust.”

Before the 2012 drought, Doesken rarely included many of his thoughts on human-caused climate change in his drought and water reports to Colorado’s agriculture and water communities.

“Some folks in my position have experienced certain amounts of persecution for speaking out boldly one way or the other,” Doesken said. “I have feared that at times in the past. I don’t fear it now.”

The future, Doesken often says, is full of uncertainty — variability in the weather will trend to the more extremes, with drier dry years and wetter wet years, sometimes back-to-back.

“What has come out of my mouth has never been driven by a fear of what somebody was going to say or do as a result,” he said. “It’s mostly been me thinking my way through a challenging subject, which is a polarizing topic that I want to communicate as clearly and understandably as possible without an agenda.”

The High Park Fire began to change how he talks about climate change, a story he told to a national audience for last weekend’s “This American Life” episode, which aired on radio stations across the country.

The High Park Fire happened during a summer that was so dry, combustible and out of sorts with the last 125 years of recordkeeping in Fort Collins that it made all the evidence about anthropogenic — human-caused — climate change snap into clear focus.

Last summer, Doesken faced the challenge of explaining to the public what was behind an extraordinarily dry year that immediately followed an extraordinarily wet year.

“We didn’t have a good precedent going from so water rich to so water poor,” Doesken said Tuesday. “2012 gave us an example that we lived and experienced and, to varying degrees, suffered through — a year that could well be a common kind of year several decades from now.”

Climatologists’ computer models suggested that, statistically, humans’ carbon emissions fueling climate change would eventually bring about an extreme drought year like 2012, Doesken said.

When 2012 and its withered crops and unprecedented wildfires arrived, it made those climate models all the more real, all the more tangible, he said.

The High Park Fire burned hundreds of homes and contributed to the death of a local teen working on an irrigation ditch that was being used because the Poudre River was too full of ash to use to water crops.

The human toll of the fire and its aftermath hit Doesken — and all of Larimer County — hard.

“Last year was the time I felt like what I could say (about climate change) might be understood,” he said.

This is what Doesken tells farmers today:

If climate models showing humans’ carbon emissions are warming the planet are even close to correct, the 2012 drought was a perfect local example of the kinds of weather extremes that are likely to become commonplace just a few decades from now, he said.

2012, he said, will be a typical year in the future, and farmers will have to deal with wide variability in conditions — an extremely wet year followed by an extremely dry year or two, for example.

“The life of a farmer is made most difficult by extreme variability,” he said. “Climate is so variable, it’s hard to see change. That’s also the face of climate change.” [more]

Colorado's state climatologist says the High Park Fire granted him the permission, courage to talk about climate change. via The Oil Drum



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