Colorado is parched.
Every part of the Centennial State is presently under drought or abnormally dry conditions for the first time in nearly a decade, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Experts say the drought conditions, which are forecasted to last into the fall, significantly raise the risk of wildfires and crop losses across the state and are part of a broader trend of intensifying dryness across the Southwest that is being exacerbated by climate change.
“It’s one of those things where it may not be the main driver, but it’s definitely contributing to it,” Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, said about the impact of global warming.
As climate change causes average temperatures to rise, this can upset the delicate balance of Earth’s water cycle by accelerating evaporation and altering atmospheric conditions and precipitation. Fuchs said more research is needed, but analyses of recent drought events and temperatures changes have shown that global warming “continues to stress the region as a whole.”
In Colorado, the consequences are most keenly felt in the agricultural and water management sectors, according to Peter Goble, a climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.
“Hotter temperatures make drier years hurt more, and that’s piling on top of the fact that there’s increasing demand on systems like the Colorado River,” he said. “Those factors are a dangerous one-two punch over the long term.”
Currently, 26.6 percent of Colorado is characterized as being under “extreme drought,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, which operates out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This classification is characterized by the potential for major crop and pasture losses and widespread water restrictions.
More than 32 percent of the state is under “severe drought” conditions, 27 percent under “moderate drought” conditions and 14.1 percent characterized as being “abnormally dry,” according to the NDMC’s drought monitor map, which was last updated on Aug. 6. Fuchs and his colleagues are expected to release updated figures on the state of drought in Colorado and for the rest of the country on Thursday.
Goble said a lack of precipitation from mid-April into early June combined with summer temperatures that have been hotter than the state’s historical averages have contributed to the current drought conditions.
“We also had some pretty brutal, dry winds, which are the perfect storm for drying things out on our farmlands,” he said. “That came at the worst possible time of the year.”
It’s possible that the monsoon season, which runs from June 15 through Sept. 30 in the Southwest, could bring much-needed rain to some parts of Colorado, but Fuchs said statewide forecasts show few signs of relief on the horizon.
“We’re anticipating this area to stay dry through most of the summer and into fall,” he said.
The parched conditions have scientists concerned about the risk of wildfires. Emergency responders are already battling one major blaze in the western part of the state. The so-called Pine Gulch Fire has consumed almost 30,000 acres and is only 7 percent contained as of Monday.
Goble said Colorado has so far been spared some of the more intense wildfires that plagued the state during previous droughts, including in 2012 and 2002. But he added that emergency managers will remain on high alert through the summer.
“We’re certainly not out of the woods yet,” he said.