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Study Cites Climate Threats to Mountaintops. Drinking Water

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017   

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – As Congress moves to take the brakes off clean-water and climate-pollution protections, a new study published in the journal Nature shows water from the Rocky Mountains - and mountains around the globe - are threatened by climate change.

Nathan Sanders, an ecologist at the University of Vermont and the report's co-author, says nearly half the world's drinking water is filtered through mountain forests, plants and soils. He says biodiversity increasingly is at risk as the planet gets warmer.

"Over the entire Rocky Mountain region, many people live at the bases of mountains," he said. "And much of the water generated in those mountains, you know, flows throughout the western U.S."

Sanders' team gathered data in the Rocky Mountains, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan and Patagonia. He says the results showed changes in temperature impacts biodiversity primarily through changes in soil nutrient levels, and warns the effects on mountains' ability to provide people with clean water could be profound.

Scientists used mountain elevation as a stand-in for temperature change over decades - the lifetime for many trees - a timeline that isn't easy to recreate in a greenhouse. Sanders says the results show a warming planet is likely to have large, long-term and probably irreversible effects on natural ecosystems.

"We rely on the plants and animals and microbes and soils that live in those mountains," he explained. "And so we have to do everything in our power to protect that biodiversity to ensure that mountain ecosystems provide the services that so much of humanity relies on."

In addition to reversing rules to protect water downstream of coal production, last week the U.S. House of Representatives also took steps to overturn the BLM's recent rule limiting methane waste on public lands. Methane, the key component of natural gas, is more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.


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