For at least half of the year, the Rocky Mountains are shrouded in snow that feeds a multitude of glaciers. Snow and ice eventually melt into rivers that have eroded deep valleys that contain rich aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Because the Rocky Mountains are the major divide on the continent, rainfall and melt water from glaciers and snowfields feed major river systems that run to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans. The Rockies truly are the water tower for much of North America, and part of the Alpine backbone of North and South America. For purposes of this chapter, we limit our discussion to the Rocky Mountains of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and the U.S. states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado.
Similar to other mountain systems, the altitude of the Rocky Mountains condenses the weather, climate and ecosystems of thousands of kilometres of latitude into very short vertical distances. In one good day, a strong hiker can journey by foot from the mid-latitude climates of the great plains of North America to an arctic climate near the top of Rocky Mountain peaks. The steep climatic gradients of mountain terrain create some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, but it is those rapid changes in microclimate and ecology that make mountains sensitive to climate change. The energy budget in mountains varies dramatically not only with elevation but with slope and aspect. A modest change in the slope of the terrain over short distances may radically change the solar radiation available in that location. Shaded or north facing slopes have very different microclimates than the same elevations in a sunlit location, or for a hill slope facing south. The complexities associated with the mountain terrain of the Rockies compound complexities of weather and climate to create diverse, amazing ecosystems.
This chapter addresses the impacts of climate change on Rocky Mountain ecosystems in light of their complexities and sensitivities. The chapter emphasizes how climate change affects aquatic resources of the Rockies because they are impacted so directly by the changing snow and ice regimes. The chapter also suggests some approaches for coping with these impacts. Climate change is real and ever present, and the role of each of us in changing the climate is also real and present. The Rocky Mountains are a vast and complex region that is valuable both for resources and ecosystems, but the Rockies cannot provide the valuable resources we need, unless we protect and conserve mountain ecosystems. Hopefully this discussion of the major changes ongoing in the Rocky Mountains due to climate change will add to the collective societal will to minimize this change in the future.