Rainfall, Temperatures and Soil Quality Could be Factors of Climate Change in Colorado

The trend of warmer temperatures will most likely continue, resulting in new dynamics for livestock producers and crop growers in Colorado, experts at the 2007 Colorado Agricultural Outlook Forum said today.

While it remains uncertain how much Colorado’s agricultural-related industries will be affected by increasing global temperatures, there are still many unknown factors in predicting how much average temperatures in Colorado will rise through the next 100 years. Higher temperatures could result in more intense weather patterns, such as more periods of three consecutive days or more of high temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, more stress on crops caused by intense heat and changes in Colorado snowmelt run-off cycles.

This year’s Colorado Agricultural Outlook Forum, entitled "From Colorado to the Clouds: Agriculture and a Changing Global Climate," was hosted by Colorado State University and the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The highest average temperatures on record have been recorded in the past five years, and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has mirrored increases in global population, said Dennis Ojima, interim director of and senior research scientist at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab.

"One of the challenges we face in Colorado agriculture is the fluctuation of temperatures," Ojima said. "But this will be compounded by consistently increasing temperatures."

Such effects range from disruption typical activity of insects which pollinate crop plants, water quality and availability and the expansion of non-native species such as noxious weeds, Ojima said.

Pollution generated in the Denver metro area has the potential to reduce the amount of rainfall west of Denver and into the Central Rocky Mountains by up to 30 percent, said Bill Cotton, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Colorado State. The effect of this reduction in precipitation on the Colorado River basin is currently unknown. Pollution interferes with rainfall by reducing the size of water particles making it harder for droplets to form, Cotton said.

Cotton noted there are several factors that are involved in global warming trends, such as increased water vapor, natural events such as volcano eruptions and fluctuations in the strength of sunlight.

Agriculture is a significant producer of greenhouse gasses, said Keith Paustain, a professor in Colorado State’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. However, some emissions can be reduced through cropping strategies such as no-till farming, which helps with by retaining carbon in soil.

"Agriculture can be greenhouse gas neutral," Paustain said, noting that between 5 and 14 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States can be eliminated with the assistance of the agricultural industry. In Colorado, that would be the equivalent of 3 to 5 carbon metric megatons each year.