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Mountain News: Aspen leaves late to change, does this break new ground?

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VAIL, Colo.— It's a queer autumn so far in Colorado's high country. The aspen leaves that nearly everywhere have started their dazzle by mid-September almost uniformly retain the deeper green of summer chlorophyll.

"It's kind of shocking to me," said Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt, who has observed the fall turning in Crested Butte since 1978.

Schmidt tells visitors to expect peak colours in Crested Butte between Sept. 20 and 26. On Monday, he reported by telephone, yellow was almost entirely absent.

The colour shift normally occurs a week or two earlier in Summit County than in Vail, where I lived from 1985 to 1998. In a Facebook post on Sunday, I joked that we went to the edge of the Earth in search of yellowing aspen. My joke was an allusion to the Grand Mesa, where a road goes to a point called Lands End. There, at an elevation of 3,200 metres, you can look down almost 1,800 m to the valley below.

There we did see a lone yellowing aspen tree.

Acquaintances responded to my Facebook post with observations of columbine in full bloom in early September, one at 4,000 m near Telluride and another at 3,700 m near Vail.

Aspen do not turn uniformly. From my experience, they began turning 10 days to two weeks earlier in the Winter Park area than in Vail, which is much warmer. But at Vail, in my memory, the colour shift was well underway by mid-September, peaking late in the month. For me, peak means there's still some green. I like my bananas that way, too. Early in Vail this week, the aspen forests were like bananas still on the boat.

Climate is rife with the noise of weather, with sometimes wide swings from year to year. "Average" never perfunctorily falls on a date or number. That said, we know the edges of summer have been expanding in Colorado and elsewhere. In Gunnison, retired geology professor Bruce Bartelson has been curating local temperature records. Growing season has expanded in Gunnison to 80 days lately, up from 67 days before. Most notable have been the rising night-time minimum temperatures.

In Aspen, Jim Kravitz was cautious. He's the director of the naturalist programs at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. "I'm not going to speak boldly and say we've broken new ground," he said when I called him about what he's seeing.

Kravitz does not have deep records of aspen changing in their namesake town. He has been taking photographs in the last eight years for comparison. He has also spoken with those who have been in Aspen a long time. They tell him that the late colour change is unusual but not unique.

Many things influence when and how aspen leaves change, he pointed out, including both temperatures and moisture but also genetic variability and light. Spring hung on late this year, and then late summer was exceptionally dry.

What ensures the transformation are clear, bright days, and cold nights. They could come soon, producing change to produce the peak colours by the last weekend in September. "I'm thinking it will happen quick," he said.

A tale of two Economies, one better than the other

KETCHUM, Colo.—Again comes a report of two economies in a mountain resort valley, this time from the Ketchum-Sun Valley area.

"We have two types of residents," said David Patrie, outreach director for Sun Valley Economic Development, in a recent public briefing.

"We have those who derive income from outside the county. They could be trust-funders, or they could work remotely for Google. Our economy works pretty well for those folks. Then we've got people who depend on Blaine County to make a living. It's not working as well for them."

The big, overview numbers look healthy. It's in the weeds where the problem becomes apparent, and precisely so in the real estate market.

"Juiced by outside money, home prices rose much faster than local wealth," the Idaho Mountain Express explained. "The strain is showing in the labour market. Companies can't find workers at wages they can pay, and workers can't find a place to live—let alone one they can afford."

About 16 per cent of people in Blaine County are uninsured. That's higher than the state and national averages, said the Express, and higher than in the counties where Aspen, Jackson Hole, Park City, Steamboat Springs, and Breckenridge are located.

Latest discovery in Burgess shales

LAKE LOUISE, Alta.—After all these years of giving, the Burgess shales of the Rocky Mountains continue to produce new and interesting fossils. The latest, reported the Rocky Mountain Outlook, is a species described as a pair of large, egg-shaped eyes and a multi-tool head with long walking legs.

The scorpion-like creature also has several pairs of limbs that could sense, grasp, crush, cut, and chew.

This find occurred in the Marble Canyon excavation site on the British Columbia side of the Continental Divide, but relatively near Banff. The shales are famous for the exceptional preservation of the soft parts of fossils from 508 million years ago.