Scientist gives climate change projections for Montana, Big Sky

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Rising temperatures and all the associated impacts are knocking on Montana’s back door, according to Montana State University professor of earth sciences Cathy Whitlock.

A fellow in the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, Whitlock is the lead author of the Montana Climate Assessment, an online document released last fall that provides research and projections for the changing climate in Montana, with a special focus on water, agriculture and forests.

Whitlock specializes in paleoclimate research, meaning that she looks at climate change as it happens over thousands of years by studying the fossils and sediments preserved in lakes. She also relies on the information from ecological and climate models to help explain why certain conditions occurred in the past.

For the Montana Climate Assessment, 20 of the best climate models were used to project climate conditions in the future based on different levels of greenhouse gas emission. The results are striking. According to Whitlock, the models suggest that temperatures will be 4-6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by mid-century, and possibly as much as 9.8 degrees warmer by the end of the century.

EBS recently spoke with Whitlock in order to get her perspective on how climate change will impact the state, and Big Sky specifically.

Explore Big Sky: What have you found most surprising in your research on the Montana climate?

Cathy Whitlock: I think the thing that surprises everyone is just how fast the climate is changing. We’ve seen periods in the past when it’s been warmer than it is today, but we’ve not seen a rate of warming as fast as is happening right now. We can already see the effects in Montana, across the country and around the world. We’re warming at an alarming rate.

EBS: What projections do you have for the Big Sky area?

C.W.: The biggest issue for Montana’s future is that it is going to continue to warm in the coming decades, and rising temperatures will alter other aspects of our climate. Big Sky will likely get the same amount of precipitation as now, or maybe slightly more, but snowpack probably won’t last as long in the future, and we’ll have a higher probability of flooding in spring, and drought in late summer.

The shoulder seasons for winter recreation are going to be very unpredictable. There will likely be more rain-on-snow events in which we start the day with snow but it turns to rain as the temperatures rise. This means less-stable snow conditions and more avalanches. Overall, the ski season will be shorter.

During future summers, we’ll have more days at or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The projections in the Montana Climate Assessment are for 11 to 33 more days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century. That’s going to warm our streams and increase the likelihood of fish diseases that require angling restrictions. It’s going to affect not only the ski industry, but also summer tourism and recreation. And, we’re certainly going to see more fires as a result of warm temperatures and dry fuels.

EBS: What can we, as residents of the Greater Yellowstone, do to reduce the negative effects of climate change?

C.W.: Always in climate change discussions there are two components. One is mitigation. We all need to reduce our carbon footprint through greater energy efficiencies and smart conservation measures. We also need to support new energy technologies that inherently use less fossil fuel.

The other component is adaptation. Adaptation refers to the actions that we take to protect ourselves, and our state, in the face of changing climate. That’s where I think Montanans have a real opportunity to ask questions and find innovative, practical solutions for dealing with warmer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and less available water.

Are we thinking about the impacts of climate change when we build new infrastructure? Do we consider future snowpack projections when we put in a new ski run? Do we factor in projected changes in streamflow when we build a bridge? Do we judge the likelihood of more fires or less water when planning a housing development?

We need to incorporate the likely consequences of climate change into all our decision-making. I think there are real opportunities for creative thinking, ingenious technologies and new conservation strategies, especially from young people who want to make a difference.

I think every community should have climate change conversations to better prepare for the future. Community planning should consider the adequacy of water supplies, preparations for more fires, and practical responses to extreme events. We also should identify those populations that will be the most vulnerable and be sure they have adequate access to services.

EBS: Knowing what you know about climate, are there particular things you’ve changed in your personal life or everyday routine?

C.W.: I’m very frugal with how I use water, and we now have solar power at our house and steadfastly reuse and recycle—all the sorts of things one should do. I think probably my biggest carbon footprint is the amount of air travel required for my research, and I’m trying to reduce that.

EBS: The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment was the first in a planned series. What will you work on next?

C.W.: We want the Montana Climate Assessment to be sustained, because there are important topics that we would like to tackle beyond our initial focus on water, agriculture and forests. We’re asking people around the state what they think are critical topics for the next assessment.

A topic of great interest is how climate impacts our health. During the fires last summer, for example, the heavy and persistent smoke created respiratory problems for people in western Montana. Furthermore, heat waves themselves are a threat, especially for the elderly, young and poor populations in our state. Other topics that come up are the impacts of climate change on fish and wildlife, and tourism and recreation, so those are also worth considering.

I guess I’ve come to realize that climate change is really not a stand-alone issue; it affects all aspects of Montana’s economy and social well-being, and it’s time for some serious discussion and planning.

The Montana Climate Assessment was a collaboration between the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, the Montana Climate Office, Montana Water Center and Montana State University Extension with support from state and federal agencies, tribal colleges and nonprofit organizations. To view the Montana Climate Assessment, visit montanaclimate.org.