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    Global warming debate aside, West is heating up

    Tuesday, May 4, 2004 Posted: 5:27 PM EDT (2127 GMT)

    FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (AP) -- Just outside this mountain town, where the acres of ponderosa pine turn into a Christmas green blur, Tom Whitham eyes the weary, struggling forest.

    Death is everywhere. Their limbs bare and bark brittle, the trees quickly turn this forest into an aching reminder of the devastation of drought and a massive bark beetle infestation.

    Whitham pulls his pickup truck over and gestures to the dead trees -- 75 percent in this area alone.

    Forget talk of global warming and speculation of what it might do in 50 years, or 100. Here and across the West, climate change already is happening. Temperatures are warmer, ocean levels are rising, the snowpack is dwindling and melting earlier, flowers bloom earlier, mountain glaciers are disappearing and a six-year drought is killing trees by the millions.

    Most scientists agree humans are to blame for at least part of that warming trend, but to what degree?

    "That's the $64,000 question," said Whitham, a regents' professor of biology at Northern Arizona University. "If we aren't causing it, we're certainly contributing to it. Humans can take a drought and make it even worse."