The Future of Climate in Montana

First-ever climate assessment says state must adapt to warmer, drier seasons

By Tristan Scott
Beacon file photo

Montana is already experiencing the effects of a warming world, and will continue to endure the impacts of climate change in the coming decades, according to the state’s first-ever climate assessment, a two-year study examining past warming trends and outlining projected changes in the future.

The study focuses on three of Montana’s vital sectors — agriculture, forestry and water — with the aim of analyzing climate trends and outlining the potential economic consequences to help inform stakeholders as the state responds and adapts.

Forest fires will be larger, more frequent and more severe in the coming century, according to the study, while the number of days exceeding temperatures of 90 degrees is expected to increase. Decreasing mountain snowpack will lead to lower streamflows and less-reliable irrigation. The growing season will continue to lengthen, which could enable greater crop diversity, but hotter days will raise the water demand for most crops, limiting grain development and increasing heat stress on livestock.

Developing hardier crop strains and breeding livestock that are more resilient to the climbing temperatures will likely be necessary if the agricultural industry is to survive, the authors said.

“The central goal of this effort was to create a product that would be useful to Montanans in planning for and adapting to a changing climate,” said lead author Cathy Whitlock, a professor of earth sciences and fellow of the Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University. “The assessment’s findings foresee a hotter future for Montana, but it is the specific details about what this means that we hope citizens will find useful.”

The Montana Climate Assessment is a product of the Montana University System’s Institute on Ecosystems, in collaboration with the Montana Climate Office, Montana Water Center and Montana State University Extension. The assessment is born of a two-year collaboration between university researchers and students, state and federal researchers, nonprofit organizations, tribal colleges, and citizens across the state. It is the first in a planned series of climate studies.

Whitlock said the study was driven by stakeholder groups and land managers who will be the most affected by climate change, while the authors also worked closely with scientists to synthesize all available data.

“For years, stakeholders across the state have wondered how much Montana’s climate has changed and how much will it change in the future,” said Kelsey Jencso, director of the Montana Climate Office at the University of Montana. “The science to address this question has previously been performed at regional or national levels, and this assessment provides a first look at these trends and their impacts at a local level.”

Representatives from stakeholder groups were on hand to answer questions during the recent unveiling of the study, including members of the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Grain Growers Association, and the Farmer’s Union. They discussed the ways in which the Montana Climate Assessment would serve as a utility for respective stakeholder groups and land managers.

“The Montana Climate Assessment offers the ranching community valuable insight into recent and future climate variability,” said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “This information will allow ranchers to better mitigate against weather-related risk factors, now and into the future.”

Erin Farris-Olsen, executive director of the Montana Watershed Council, said the assessment serves as a critical educational tool as public and private land managers adjust their strategies to respond to increased drought and wildfires.

“The climate assessment will increase local communities’ ability to respond to natural disasters,” Farris-Olsen said. “Just recognizing differences in the timing of precipitation is a critical factor, and it will drive research efforts to create crop varieties that are more adaptable to these changing conditions.”

The assessment underwent rigorous scientific peer review and broad public comment, according to the authors. Additionally, the report clarifies the level of confidence behind key findings, based on the consistency of the evidence among scientific reports. The assessment also identified knowledge gaps and areas for future research.

“We strived to be as user-friendly as possible, and that includes being transparent about the confidence behind each key finding,” said Bruce Maxwell, a professor in the MSU Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences and one of the assessment’s lead authors. “One outcome of this assessment was identifying the need for future research on adaptation strategies in agriculture, forestry and water management.”

Maxwell said the authors took care to present their findings as objectively as possible without wading into the political debate surrounding climate change.

Future climate assessments will focus on impacts to fish and wildlife, tourism and recreation and human health.

The full assessment is available at, along with a schedule of town hall meetings to be hosted by the authors this year across the state.

On Oct. 16, Montana’s top climate scientists from the University of Montana and Montana State University will present the first statewide Montana Climate Assessment at Flathead Valley Community College from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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