We present evidence that land use practices in the plains of Colorado influence regional climate and vegetation in adjacent natural areas in the Rocky Mountains in predictable ways. Mesoscale climate model simulations using the Colorado State University Regional Atmospheric Modelling System (RAMS) projected that modifications to natural vegetation in the plains, primarily due to agriculture and urbanization, could produce lower summer temperatures in the mountains. We corroborate the RAMS simulations with three independent sets of data: (i) climate records from 16 weather stations, which showed significant trends of decreasing July temperatures in recent decades; (ii) the distribution of seedlings of five dominant conifer species in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which suggested that cooler, wetter conditions occurred over roughly the same time period; and (iii) increased stream flow, normalized for changes in precipitation, during the summer months in four river basins, which also indicates cooler summer temperatures and lower transpiration at landscape scales. Combined, the mesoscale atmospheric/land-surface model, short-term trends in regional temperatures, forest distribution changes, and hydrology data indicate that the effects of land use practices on regional climate may overshadow larger-scale temperature changes commonly associated with observed increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
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