MTPR

Climate Panel Forecasts Big Changes In Montana

Jun 6, 2017

A panel of Montana scientists laid out their findings on climate change in the state yesterday at the University of Montana (A video of the event is available at Clean Air Montana's Facebook page). That included addressing President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement last week.

"This is what happened about an hour ago, basically an open letter to the rest of the world saying we don’t particularly care what President Trump announced last week, we’re still in," said Steve Running, a University of Montana professor and Nobel Laureate who has spent his career studying climate. He was pointing to big screen displaying a letter released yesterday that was signed by more than 1,000 mayors, governors, corporate and academic leaders pledging their commitment to the Paris Accords.

"I’ve never seen anything like this in my life," Running said.  "I’ve never seen in one week flat, an open denunciation of a presidential declaration on any topic."

Running was the first of five Montana academics talking about the state of climate change science in Montana, at a forum hosted by Clean Air Montana, a statewide coalition fighting climate change.

Alisa Wade is a conservation scientist and spatial ecologist at UM.

"With hotter temperatures, you’re going to see increased increased drought, or increased aridity in certain situations," Wade said, "and so when it does occur , it will very, very likely be more severe."

Wade spoke primarily about the effects a warmer, drier climate would have on the state’s forests.

"The trees are going to die, there’s going to be increased mortality and there is really no benefit there. A lot of that is that hot temperatures kill trees," she said. 

Wade told the audience that while tree species may shift their ranges to counter hotter temperatures, Montana will see an overall loss of forested areas.

While the state temperatures are projected to increase, precipitation will become more variable.

That could mean serious trouble for Montana’s agricultural sector.

Tim Siepel from the MSU College of Agriculture recently surveyed hundreds of farmers from around the state to get a better picture of how agricultural communities are thinking about climate change.

"Between 89 and 95 percent of Montana agricultural stakeholders acknowledge climate change, 83 percent of Montana agricultural stakeholders think it’s a serious problem," Siepel said. 

But while he pointed out that most farmers could agree on the threat of climate change, their understanding of its cause tended to split down political lines.

"What do we do? Where do we go from here?" Siepel asked. "We need to de-politicize the causes of climate change."

Nick Silverman, is a hydrologist with the UM College of Forestry and Conservation.

"What can we expect Missoula Montana to look like? he asked. "It’s kind of like a Denver, Eastern Colorado-Southwest Nebraska sort of thing that you can imagine. Which, if you’re a tourist, you might say, 'oh wow, I might move to Montana because they’re going to have a pretty nice Colorado-like climate.'"

But, Silverman said the same warmer and drier weather that might draw tourists wouldn’t necessarily bode well for farmers, who would face less precipitation in the summer months.

Scott Mills is a UM Professor of Wildlife Biology.

"I have a great deal of confidence if asked the question, 'what will happen to wildlife under climate change?'" Mills said. "I’m 100 percent certain species will move, adapt, or die. That’s it."

Mills said decreasing snowpack will make survival more difficult for certain species, though he said wildlife adaptations are often underestimated.

About 125 people came to the forum, including Margaret Gorski. She said President Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Accords had something to do with that.

"Obviously that generated probably some interest in coming here finding out what we can do here locally and at the state level, irrespective of what is happening at the national level," Gorski said.  

"I think what I heard today is that everybody pretty much can’t disagree with the data, it’s very clear that the climate is changing, but the real question is, how should we respond and what can we do about it here in Montana?" she said.

The panelists said the best course of action is to get involved in climate science and communicate it. They said Montanans should start thinking in new ways about climate change, ways that might help bridge the ideological gap and foster future cooperative solutions.