Unfortunately the scene I've just described is hardly unusual. It is oftentimes depressing these days to be a mountaineer, frequenting fragile environs where the impacts of human activity are most apparent, knowing that it wasn't always like this.
You don't need to be an expert to know that Earth's environment is changing rapidly. Some days are worse than others. During the winter, the thick brown greasy air generated by numerous coal-fired electric utilities lingers in the valleys, forming a nasty streak across the horizon until the air warms, dissipating the concentration and spreading it into the upper atmosphere. Then spring and summer arrive, bringing with them a haze of smoke, dust and, unfortunately, lots more.
Colorado is being smothered under a brown cloud, and our own selfish behavior has caused the problem. Having spent the last two decades roaming the western half of North America to ski, climb, surf and explore the world (and doing my fair share of damage to the environment in route), I now see irrefutable (although often anecdotal) evidence of the danger our conspicuously consumptive culture's detrimental effects have upon the very thing that sustains us: the earth!
Although our local governments' efforts have, to a degree, offset local air pollution sources for some time, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality regarding air pollution from far away sources is finding its way into our lungs, the local watershed and every ecosystem's flora and fauna, while we greedily go about our business as usual overly consumptive lifestyles that are ultimately the only source of air pollution.
Overall, particulate matter in mountain areas comes mostly from geologic sources, but here in Colorado, where dynamic weather patterns bring air masses in from every direction, our air is mixed into a toxic cocktail of hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ash, soot, lead, carbon monoxide, ground ozone and other unhealthy compounds. The prolonged and deepening drought throughout Asia is contributing to the desertification of vast areas of land everywhere, spawning ever larger dust storms that rove around the globe, thickening the lens of pollution that is slowly cooking planet Earth.
Such metropolitan areas as Los Angeles and Las Vegas, often directly upwind of the Southern Rockies, send us smog drifting over the Colorado Plateau where it meets the nasty expulsions of the many coal-fired power plants scattered about the intermountain West.
The relatively rural character of San Miguel County helps to prevent the development of any stationary pollution source other than the current oil and gas drilling projects so San Miguel County's largest stationary source of air pollution comes from a coal-fired power plant in the county's West End, according to the county's environmental department. The facility, located in an attainment area for nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, was issued a permit in April 2005, so data is not yet available about whether or not the plant is in compliance or about to what degree its emissions affect regional air quality.
The non-diversified fuel mix that we rely on to power chairlifts, drive to the post office and even heat our homes is at the center of the Telluride region's most serious public health and environmental problems. Currently, just 1 percent of our region's power needs are generated by wind, solar and biomass resources (or any other alternative energies).
U.S. space agency climate expert James Hansen, one of the first scientists to warn of global warming in the 1980s, says the world is nearing a point in time where the damage to the ozone can never be reversed. "We're getting very close to a tipping point in the climate system," he maintains. "If we don't get out of our business-as-usual scenarios and begin to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we are going to get big climate change." Natural buffers will only last so long and eventually the toxins that we are responsible for creating will reach humans through the food chain, air and water.
Science suggests that global warming is attributable to human activities, and here in our sensitive and vulnerable high-altitude ecosystems, its damaging effects are readily apparent. The coal-fired power plants that proliferate in the southern Rockies generate excess nitrogen, for example, that adversely affects high-altitude ecosystems. Poor land management allowing rampant development and unchecked grazing practices now and in the past has reduced the amount of natural vegetation throughout the West, thus increasing the rate of desertification, which in turn adds to the amount of dust haze in the atmosphere. Large amounts of the dust we kick up falls to earth contained in snowflakes, making conditions just right for albedo to occur dirty snow melts faster.
We must acknowledge the interconnectedness of the universe, or we will perish in our own filth. Plant and animal species are being forced higher while localized extirpation of pikas, marmots, ptarmigan, and other tundra dwellers is occurring. No ecosystem will escape these ravaging changes. According to the Mountain Studies Institute, in Silverton, here in Colorado we are on the tipping point of major shifts in both terrestrial and aquatic alpine ecosystems. There will be an increase of insect infestations and a greater expansion of invasive species' ranges (can anyone say "beetle kill" or "tent caterpillar?"). Winter's duration and its snowfall is shrinking already. Marmots are emerging from hibernation 23 days earlier, on average, than 20 years ago, coinciding with an increase in average May temperatures of almost 2 degrees. Recorded data from a station near Aspen at an elevation of 10,600 feet shows that there are now 20 more frost-free days per year than 20 years ago and that precipitation has decreased by 17 percent.
Clean air, healthy land and potable water are crucial to any region's tourist economy. But here, current trends suggest that in a best-case scenario, skiing as an economic generator will decrease significantly as we move into shorter winters and decreased snowfall. Spring and summer water sports will also suffer when runoffs become less consistent, affecting streams, rivers and reservoirs for the worse. In the worst-case scenario, skiing will be a thing of the past by the year 2100, in Colorado. On the bright side you won't have to bother moving to a warmer climate to retire your sorry ass, because there will be one here.
By 2020, the interior West is expected to need an additional 28K megawatts capacity (enough electricity to power five cities the size of the Denver metro area) to satisfy growing customer demand driven by overpopulation and unsustainable desires. Continued gas and oil development throughout the Four Corners states Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico will increase pollution, as well as fuel an expanding population. One project that is clearing the required hurdles right now is the proposed Desert Rock Power Station; its plans call for a 1500MW facility to be located near Shiprock, N.M., on Navajo Nation lands, thanks to a sweetheart deal that waives millions of dollars in taxes and fees due to state, county and local governments.
The proposed facility is one of nearly a dozen new coal-fired generator stations we could see built over the next 20 years here in the mountainous West. If the current national energy plan is adopted, these generating stations will have major impacts upon the air quality here in Telluride and throughout the surrounding Four Corners region, as well. Such events and many localized events, as well are creating the perfect storm for the promotion of global warming.
According to Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, this current warming trend is different from those that occurred earlier in the history of the Earth. "We know enough now to be able to say that the current warming that we've seen in the last decades of the 20th century is primarily due to human causes," he contends.
If only we as individuals could learn to care and respect our planet, we might become better stewards of our environment. When will we all agree that something so simple as, say, leaving the lights on indicates a simple, stupid and lazy disrespect for the earth and its inhabitants?
"There is clearly a well-organized and well-funded effort to undermine the science and cause confusion in the minds of the public," says Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado. The world is changing for the warmer and smoggier.
But whether one believes global warming theories or not, the winds will blow and the monsoons will flush our filth from the sky and into the earth's other ecosystems, putting it, once again, out of sight and out of mind.
Meanwhile, the battle between economy and quality of life continues. Consumption for the sake of consumption is leading humanity down very rough road of destruction. The manufacture, distribution, and use of products we use to live these unjustified lifestyles as well as management of the resulting waste all result in greenhouse gas emissions. Conservation and compassion must replace consumption and competition. Waste prevention and recycling reduce greenhouse gases associated with these activities by reducing methane emissions, saving energy, and increasing forest carbon sequestration. In short, saving our planet and ourselves from ourselves.