From melting glaciers in the northwestern corner of the state to drought-stricken fields in the southeastern corner, and fires and floods seemingly everywhere in between, Montanans are facing rapidly evolving environmental conditions that present a host of urgent new challenges. In fact, Montana's climate is changing faster than almost any other state.
Amid the chaos and climbing costs, a rising tide of political arguments is threatening to drown out the important work being done in climate science. Good, factual information is more important than ever. It is vital that the state get a firm grasp on the climate changes it is experiencing so that we can best position our limited public and private resources to mitigate harmful impacts and better prepare for whatever the future brings.
Fortunately, Missoula in particular is a center for environmental research and expertise, and just this fall, the Montana University System's Institute on Ecosystems released the first-ever statewide climate assessment. The study set an important baseline; it is critical that Montana build on this information by supporting further climate assessments.
That's not to underestimate the obstacles such an ongoing effort would face. Montana is currently struggling to overcome a state government budget crisis and does not have extra funding, let alone the clear political will, to call for such a study. On the national scale, a federal administration that appears at best indifferent and at worst hostile to climate science leaves Montana pretty much on its own.
The Montana Climate Assessment (montanaclimate.org) was released in September following two years of study funded through a federal grant from the National Science Foundation. It and studies done in other states were a direct result of the National Climate Assessment that came out in 2015 that pointed to the need to do state-level studies.
It proved a valuable examination of the distinct factors affecting Montana, a large state with multiple climate zones and challenges unique to those zones.
The climate assessment examined the impacts of climate change on the state's water resources, forests and agriculture. It crunched available data and found that average temperatures are increasing, the fire season is expanding and drought conditions are growing more extreme.
Montana has been warming at a rate nearly double that of the rest of the United States. Between 1950 and 2015, Montana's average temperature increased by between 2 to 3 degrees. As the number of extreme heat days increases, the duration and intensity of western Montana's forest fires will also increase — along with the costs of firefighting, flood prevention and property damage.
The assessment's writers talked to farmers about selecting new drought-resistant crops and planting earlier or later in the season. They discussed the elevating importance of smart forest management. And they identified areas of additional focus, including climate-related impacts on outdoor recreation and tourism, wildlife, public health and energy development in Montana.
The next study should begin as soon as possible to expand on the foundation provided by this first statewide assessment, and concentrate even more on developing a toolbox of actions that can be taken to help the Montanans better handle the climate changes coming our way.
Check out the assessment online. As we continue to deal with the fallout from climate-driven weather changes, keep in mind that the best place on which to base decisions would be good, solid information.