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Volume 9, No. 23, June 10, 2010

The new Windy City?
Turbulent weather blows into the Southwest

by Malia Durbano

If you watch water coming to a boil on the stove, little bubbles will rise to the surface around the edges as if nothing is really happening. Turn up the heat just a little, and the bubbles get bigger and move faster, with more agitation and intensity.

According to many scientists, our atmospheric system is in such a “hydrologic cycle” with water, vapor and energy responding to the increase in heat from the Earth just like a pot of water on the stove. And this boiling point has made for increasingly windy years around the Four Corners.

The heat radiated from the Earth used to slip out into space. But with greenhouse gasses trapping this energy in the lower atmosphere, weather conditions have intensified, and gusty conditions locally are one symptom
of changing climactic times.

Climate models indicate that global warming could be responsible for our colder temperatures and blustery days,” said Chris Fox, former Environmental Sciences professor at the University of Maryland. Fox has been studying weather for more than 20 years and spent last summer in the Durango area.

High winds push on Old Glory in downtown Durango recently. The local increase in gusty weather can be directly attributed to global warming, according to climatologists.
/Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Fox predicted five years ago that the “next big factor we’d be dealing with would be the wind after observing changes and “connecting the dots.”

“In Colorado, we get our wind from the west,” he explained. “Canada gets its wind from the east. Where the wind belts rub against each other – it causes friction. As friction occurs, it creates waves in the atmosphere. Waves create frontal systems. These frontal systems are most noticeable during the change of seasons, which is also when we get our biggest storms, particularly in spring and fall.”
Fox concluded that climate change is tipping the balance toward a battle of heat and cold. “Storms, created when frontal systems collide, are the atmosphere’s way of dealing with differences in temperature,” he said. “The atmosphere is attempting to balance the energy and equalize the temperature with the air going from high pressure to low pressure.”

Fox added that cold air is now coming further south than it used to and warm air is going further north than usual. “Wind is air trying to equalize pressure,” he said. The scientist then used the analogy of a runner eating a big bowl of pasta. “If he then downs a Red Bull, there is more energy in the system to fuel his run,” he said.

This pasta analogy goes beyond the college classroom and has a practical and local effect as well. It can be applied to the recent wind and dust storms that have wreaked havoc on Durango locals and tourists alike.

Bayfield motorcyclist Jeff Gilmore had his windshield sandblasted as he headed into Flagstaff recently. “Semis were lined up on the side of the road,” he said. “Foot high sand drifts progressed across I-89 from Page to Flagstaff.” Although he pulled down his full-face helmet and shut all the vents, Gilmore was still pounded. “Sand stuck to my chapstick and the fine grit got in my mouth,” he said.

Carlotta Haber and her daughter were sent 100 miles out of their way while driving from Durango to Sedona a few weeks ago. Just before Holbrook, Ariz., on I-40 West, a sign read, “Highway closed 43 miles ahead due to dust storm.”

“I couldn’t see the car in front of me and big tumbleweeds were rolling at the car,” she said.

These anecdotes are directly in line with scientific findings. In fact, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder has formulated global climate models forecasting that “all weather will get more extreme.” Storms are stronger than 20 years ago, according to NCAR, as the research center is predicting more precipitation per storm event, despite its forecast for fewer overall storms.

Tim Foresman, former director of the United Nations Environmental program, explained, “These conditions are exactly what caused this past winter’s heavy snows in the East and the recent flooding in Tennessee. One was an extraordinary winter precipitation event and the other was a spring precipitation event.”

While these conditions may feel like an anomaly, research indicates that they are the logical result of changing conditions. National Climatic Data Center statistics reveal that in the last 30 years, the temperature has risen an average of 2 degrees in the United States. Since 1975, the average temperature in Colorado has increased by 2.28 degrees. The only two states whose temperatures have risen more are Utah, with a 2.43 degree increase, and Arizon,a with 2.79 degrees. A NASA report corroborates these findings. The report states that the last 12 months have been the warmest in at least 1,000 years.

Foresman added, “The meteorological forecasts are based on prior weather patterns and may not be accurate without considering changes under way due to a warming climate. Forecasts are based on seasonal models from the immediate past and may not be a good indicator of the future due to changing climatic conditions.” His expertise has been extremely valuable to his sister-in-law, who just purchased property and is building a home in Durango. Counseling her on what to expect in the near future due to the changing patterns, she modified her construction plans.

Foresman has also utilized NASA & NOVA satellites to measure the temperature of the oceans. Since 73 percent of the planet is covered in water, an increase of even a few degrees has a serious impact. “Water has been simmering for 10,000 to 50,000 years,” he said. “Turn up the heat and the water boils faster. The atmosphere is doing the same thing. Larger highs and lows with more disjunction. These are patterns we haven’t experienced since the beginning of recorded history.”

Having recently experienced a blizzard in May in Santa Fe, Foresman stated the obvious. “The systems are all out of whack,” he said. “We’re going to be in for some interesting times. We can put our heads in the sand, or we can prepare.”

In closing, Foresman remarked that the windiest days could be ahead for the Four Corners and Southwest and offered local residents a piece of advice. “If you have shutters on your windows, I suggest you make sure they’re functional and not decorative,” he said. “The winds aren’t going to go away until you turn the heat down.”

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