Saving Winter

Whitefish Climate Action Plan dovetails with screening of ‘Saving Snow,’ a documentary about the economic impact of warming winters

By Tristan Scott
Jackson Glacier from Going-to-the-Sun Road on Aug. 17, 2015. Beacon File Photo

It may require a stretch of the imagination for winter-weary Flathead Valley residents recovering from a long, snowbound season in the Rocky Mountains, but the trend of warmer winters is only projected to accelerate, and the health of western winters hinges on quick action, according to scientists and local community leaders working toward solutions.

To help gain a better understanding of the future, both in the Flathead and beyond, a committee of volunteers has released the draft Whitefish Climate Action Plan, a guiding document designed to strengthen local resilience to future climate change impacts and transition to a cleaner energy economy.

The two fundamental goals of the plan identify key trends and scientific projections for what an increasingly volatile climate means for Whitefish while offering a pathway for solutions, such as becoming a more fire-adapted community and protecting

The city of Whitefish, alongside nearly 400 U.S. cities and 195 nations, has also committed to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, emphasizing energy efficiency, local production of clean energy and conservation of carbon-rich forests and soil.

Final revisions to the draft plan are set to be completed by the Climate Action Plan Committee on March 28. The plan and committee recommendations will be submitted to the Whitefish City Council for a work session and a public hearing on April 2. The committee will seek the council’s approval of the final plan on April 16 so it can be formally unveiled and celebrated at the April 21 Earth Day Celebration, which will be held at the Whitefish School District’s new Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.

The Climate Action Plan Committee has also partnered with 350 Glacier, Climate Smart Glacier Country, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Flathead Valley Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby to introduce a new documentary about the impact of climate change on the region’s prized winters.

The film, “Saving Snow,” focuses on people coming to terms with these changes, but it also presents solutions and highlights individuals and organizations working to reduce their communities’ impacts on the environment and raise awareness of the need for action.

“I grew up skiing in Whitefish, and I want to make sure we have plenty of snow in our future for my daughter who also loves to ski,” Tori Marcial, president of 350 Glacier, a local group that advocates for climate solutions, said.

Following the film, a panel will discuss the experiences, the science and what communities can do “to save winters for our children and grandchildren,” according to organizers.

Anne Nolin, a climate scientist and professor of geosciences and hydroclimatology at Oregon State University who is featured in the film and will be one of the panelists in Whitefish, said the Flathead will experience warmer winters in the future despite this winter’s abundant snowpack.

“We’ve been in a weak La Niña weather pattern this winter, which can mean more snow in Montana,” she said. “Future winters in western Montana will see ups and downs in the amount of snow but the overall warming trend will continue with more winter rainfall, less snow, and earlier snowmelt. How much warmer depends on how quickly we reduce fossil fuel emissions.”

The snow sports industry will continue to endure rocky times, she said, as it has throughout the winter in Colorado and Utah.

A preliminary report authored by Nolin takes a seasonal approach to predict the future frequency of warm winter, using global climate models to make her calculations and how the temperatures will affect mountain sports.

A two-degree Celsius increase may be hard for most people to fathom, she said, but its effects are clear to skiers and snowboarders as climate change moves the snowfall line higher up the mountains, with lower elevations getting hit the hardest, Nolin said.

According to her modeling, the percentage of warm winters will increase on Big Mountain compared to the historical period. Possible impacts of climate change on winter recreation include: a later beginning and earlier ending to ski and snowmobile season; more rain-on-snow and freeze-thaw conditions; less reliable low- and mid-elevation snow for Nordic skiing; fewer opportunities for ice skating and ice fishing.

Her report notes that Whitefish Mountain Resort may hold a competitive advantage compared to lower-elevation or lower-latitude ski areas.

Meanwhile, public health and safety concerns continue to mount as the Climate Action Plan tracks more days of unhealthy air quality due to forest fires, more frequent severe weather events like heat waves and flooding, and higher incidents of insect-borne diseases.

A screening of the 53-minute film and panel discussion will be held Wednesday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish.

To view the Whitefish Climate Action Plan, visit http://climatesmartglaciercountry.org/

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