Warming Sign? Another Early Spring for Rocky Mountains

April 9, 2007

Spring is coming early to the western slope of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, providing continuing signs of a warming world, according to a conservation biologist.

"I'm anticipating there'll be some flowering again in April this year, which is something that never used to happen," said David Inouye, a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.

This will be Inouye's 37th season at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic, outside the resort town of Crested Butte (see Colorado map).

Dozens of scientists make the annual trek to a meadow at RMBL about 9,500 feet (2,900 meters) above sea level to study everything from wildflowers to marmots (see a picture of a marmot).

Many of the studies indicate a warming planet.

In addition to the early flowers, robins return earlier from their wintering grounds, and marmots, chipmunks, and ground squirrels emerge earlier from hibernation than they once did, the scientists say.

Low Snowpack

It is also another year of light snowpack on the western slope, despite heavy snowfall elsewhere in Colorado, Inouye said.

Last winter's blizzards mostly struck the eastern part of the state, but RMBL is west of the Continental Divide and had a relatively dry winter, he explained.

The low snowpack is consistent with a trend that began in 1998, when a long-term climate pattern known as the North Pacific Oscillation spurred a dry phase in the region.

Since then, six of the last nine years have yielded a lower than average snowpack at the study site, according to Inouye.

The dry phase, he added, coincides with a long-term global trend toward warmer air temperatures. This has allowed some elements of the ecosystem at RMBL to respond in synch.

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