This page lists climate change vulnerability assessments and studies that mention aquatic systems in Colorado. This list does not necessarily include larger, more regionally based studies and assessments that also have relevance to this state. See Vulnerability of aquatic species and their habitats: Annotated bibliography for additional information on this project and literature lists for other geographic areas.
This vulnerability assessment focuses on terrestrial ecosystems in Colorado including playas, riparian woodlands and shrublands, and non-riparian wetlands. They consider the current range of climate conditions for each ecosystem within its distribution and estimate exposure and sensitivity based on the degree of departure from those conditions by 2050. Adaptive capacity was estimated through a scoring process based on a modified version of the system used by the Manomet Centure for Conservation Science (MCCS 2010). Playas were considered highly vulnerable to climate change due to spring and summer temperatures increases, their isolated nature, and human activities like agriculture. Riparian woodlands and shrublands scored differently based on their location. Ecosystems in western Colorado were considered moderately vulnerable to climate change, whereas those in eastern or mountainous portions of the state had low vulnerability. Future spring precipitation, drought days, and mean summer temperature are expected to exceed tolerances for these habitats. Drought and invasive species were identified as likely issues. Wetlands including marshes, seeps, springs, and wet meadows also differed depending on their geographic locations. Eastern ecosystems were more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are likely to experience a greater degree of change in future climate conditions, especially drought days.
In a similar assessment, Decker and Rondeau (2014) apply the process outlined in Decker and Fink (2014) to terrestrial habitats within the San Juan and Tres Rios areas of southwestern Colorado. Three wetland types were included in the analysis: riparian, wetland and fen habitats. Low elevation riparian/wetland habitats scored as highly vulnerable and high elevation riparian/wetland habitats as moderately vulnerable. Lower elevation habitats were typically under greater stress due to streamflow modifications and were more vulnerable to droughts than habitats at higher elevations.
Christensen and Lettenmaier (2007) conducted a quantitative analysis to estimate the implications of future climate change on runoff for the Colorado River Basin. This publication provides a comprehensive modeling effort for the Colorado River Basin and is the first to identify specific outcomes as a result of climate change. They predict increased winter precipitation and decreased summer precipitation and substantial declines in runoff. The authors found evapotranspiration had greatest influence on runoff estimates and runoff declines were reflected in reservoir performance, which led to lost reservoir storage and declines in hydropower.
Woodbury et al. (2012) analyzed the sensitivity of streamflow to climate changes within three Colorado watersheds. They compared observed changes and extrapolated responses to future conditions to compile a dataset that would allow users to gauge the impacts of climate change under multiple scenarios on water availability. They find streamflow estimates vary across scenarios in unique ways. They do not find evidence for elevation based differences in response in contrast to predictions made by others (e.g., Meyer et al., 1999; Weinhold 2012).
This assessment combined climate projections, current status assessments, VIC models and value resource layers to identify most vulnerable watersheds within the Gunnison National Forest, CO. Howe (2012) includes a number of measures: runoff variables, erosion/sedimentation, exposure to precipitation/temp changes, stressors (roads, recreation, water draw) and values (presence of cold water fish, water bodies). Watersheds within the Uncompahgre National Forest are expected to experience the greatest exposure, followed by Grand Mesa, then San Juan and West Elk. Watersheds within the Upper Taylor and Cochetopa National Forests experience less extreme changes. Results represented the culmination of water use values with sensitivities and stressors. Ultimately, the San Juans had the highest overall vulnerability followed by Upper Taylor, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, West Elk and Cochetopa.
This assessment identified important attributes for watersheds in the White River National Forest, Colorado, to predicting resiliency. Overall, lower elevation subwatersheds had highest vulnerability to changing climate because they are the most dependent snowpack and snowmelt characteristics. Natural and anthropogenic factors were not important factors within this area.
The Gunnison Basin Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment measures the relative impact of climate changes on habitats (including seven freshwater) and species. They use a mid-century mark (2040-2069) and assessed habitats and species based on whether they would be sensitive to climate related stressors like temperature increases, extreme events, reduced baseflows, and snowmelt changes. They also considered indirect or non-climate stressors relating to disease, human disturbances and current status. Among the freshwater habitats assessed, montane groundwater-dependent wetlands were given a “highly vulnerable” score. Mid-size streams, rivers and reservoirs and associated wetlands received “moderately to highly vulnerable” scores and small high-elevation streams, high-elevation, groundwater-dependent wetlands and high-elevation lakes were given “low to moderate vulnerability”. The current condition of wetland habitat was an important predictor of vulnerability because many changes resulting from warming conditions are likely to exacerbate ongoing challenges. Higher elevation sites were expected to remain cold enough to avoid drastic impacts. Species assessments were based on NatureServe’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI, Young et al., 2011). Fifty plant species were assessed, the majority of which (43 of 50) were scored as extremely vulnerable to climate change. Of those,18 were associated with ground water dependent wetlands, one species with subalpine riparian habitats and one with montane riparian habitats. The primary drivers of plant species vulnerability were poor dispersal capability, restriction or reliance on cool microhabitats, narrow or restricted range and dependence on ice and snow. Among animals, amphibians (two species), fish (one species) and insects (one species) obtained the highest vulnerability scores. Amphibian and fish scores were driven in large part by their restricted habitats and limited capacity to disperse to new habitats. The insect was associated with alpine zones, which are likely to recede in the future.
Gordon and Ojima (2015) present a review of the key vulnerabilities of Colorado’s economy and resources under climate change. They measure the capacity of Colorado’s economy, resources, and populations to cope with negative impacts of climate change. Within the ecosystems sector they identify vulnerabilities for forests, alpine ecosystems, grasslands, and aquatic wildlife species. Within the Water (utility) sector, entities with inadequate storage such as small municipal utilities, those with junior rights, with aging water supply infrastructure, and municipalities that supplement surface waters with groundwater withdrawal are likely to be most vulnerable to hydrological consequences of climate change. In addition, water treatment facilities in fire prone areas or with older technology are at risk, and endangered fish programs and recreation activities might be negatively affected.
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Roberts, J. J., Fausch, K. D., Peterson, D. P., and Hooten, M. B. 2013. Fragmentation and thermal risks from climate change interact to affect persistence of native trout in the Colorado River basin. Global Change Biology 195: 1383-1398.
Underwood, Z. E., Myrick, C.A., and Rogers, K.B. 2012. Effect of acclimation temperature on the upper thermal tolerance of Colorado River cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarkii pleuriticus: Thermal limits of a North American salmonid. Journal of Fish Biology 80(7): 2420-2433.
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Gao, Y., Vano, J. A., Zhu, C., and Lettenmaier, D. P. 2011. Evaluating climate change over the Colorado River basin using regional climate models. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. Volume 116, Issue D13.
Kalra, A., and Ahmad, S. 2011. Evaluating changes and estimating seasonal precipitation for the Colorado River Basin using a stochastic nonparametric disaggregation technique. Water Resources Research 47: 1-26.
Kalra, A., and Ahmad, S. 2012. Estimating annual precipitation for the Colorado River Basin using oceanic-atmospheric oscillations. Water Resources Research, 48.
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Belnap, J., and Campbell, D. H. 2011. Upper Colorado River Basin climate effects network. U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet 2010-3092. 2p. Source: GEOREF
Cayan, D.R., Das, T., Pierce, D.W., Barnett, T.P., Tyree, M., and Gershunov, A. 2009. Future dryness in the southwest US and the hydrology of the early 21st century drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 21271–21276. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0912391107
Christensen, N.S., Wood, A.W., Voisin, N., Lettenmaier, D.P., and Palmer, R.N. 2004. The effects of climate change on the hydrology and water resources of the Colorado River Basin. Climatic Change 62: 337-363.
Crosbie, R.S., Scanlon, B.R., Mpelasoka, F.S., Reedy, R.C., Gates, J.. and Zhang, L. 2013. Potential climate change effects on groundwater recharge in the High Plains Aquifer, USA. Water Resources Research 49: 3936–3951. doi:10.1002/wrcr.20292
Das, T., Pierce, D.W., Cayan, D.R., Vano, J.A., and Lettenmaier, D.P. 2011. The importance of warm season warming to western U.S. streamflow changes. Geophysical Research Letters 38: 1-5.
Deems, J. S., Painter, T. H., Barsugli, J. J., Belnap, J., and Udall, B. 2013. Combined impacts of current and future dust deposition and regional warming on Colorado River Basin snow dynamics and hydrology. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 17: 4401-4413.
Ficklin, D.L., Stewart, I.T., and Maurer, E. P. 2013. Climate change impacts on streamflow and subbasin-scale hydrology in the Upper Colorado River Basin. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71297.
Gray, S.T., Lukas, J.J., and Woodhouse, C. A. 2011. Millennial-length records of streamflow from three major upper Colorado River tributaries. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 474: 702-712.
Guardiola-Claramonte, M., Troch, P.A., Breshears, D.D., Huxman, T.E., Switanek, M.B., and Durcik, M. 2011. Decreased streamflow in semi-arid basins following drought-induced tree die-off: A counter-intuitive and indirect climate impact on hydrology. Journal of Hydrology 4063-4: 225-233
Harding, B.L., Wood, A. W., and Prairie, J. R. 2012. The implications of climate change scenario selection for future streamflow projection in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 1611: 3989-4007.
Harpold, A., Brooks, P., Rajagopal, S., Heidbuchel, I., Jardine, A., and Stielstra, C. 2012. Changes in snowpack accumulation and ablation in the intermountain west. Water Resources Research 48(11).
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Lundquist, J. D. and Flint, A. L. 2006. Onset of snowmelt and streamflow in 2004 in the western United States: How shading may affect spring streamflow in a warmer world. Journal of Hydrometeorology 7: 1199–1217.
McCabe, G.J. and Fountain, A.G. 2013. Glacier variability in the conterminous United States during the twentieth century. Climatic Change 116: 565–577. DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0502-9.
Miller, W.P., and Piechota, T.C. 2011. Trends in Western U.S. snowpack and related upper Colorado River Basin streamflow. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 476: 1197-1210.
Miller, W.P., De Rosa, G. M., Gangopadhyay, S., and Valdés, J. B. 2013. Predicting regime shifts in flow of the Gunnison River under changing climate conditions. Water Resources Research 495: 2966-2974.
Miller, W.P., Piechota, T. C., Gangopadhyay, S., and Pruitt, T. 2011. Development of streamflow projections under changing climate conditions over Colorado River basin headwaters. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 157: 2145-2164.
Mote, P.W. 2006. Climate-driven variability and trends in mountain snowpack in western North America. Journal of Climate 19: 6209-6220.
Murphy, K., and Ellis, A. 2014. An assessment of the stationarity of climate and stream flow in watersheds of the Colorado River Basin. Journal of Hydrology 509: 454-473.
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Painter, T.H., Skiles, S.M., Deems, J.S., Bryant, A.C., and Landry, C.C. 2012. Dust radiative forcing in snow of the Upper Colorado River Basin: 1. A 6 year record of energy balance, radiation, and dust concentrations. Water Resources Research 48: DOI: 10.1029/2012WR011985.
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Salzmann, N., and Mearns, L.O. 2012. Assessing the performance of multiple regional climate model simulations for seasonal mountain snow in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Journal of Hydrometeorology 132: 539-556.
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