BILLINGS — Mild-mannered Cathy Whitlock is blunt when she talks about climate change in Montana.
“Spoiler alert,” she said. “The climate is getting warmer, and we’re going to have to deal with it.”
Whitlock is in a position to know. As a professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University she’s spent decades analyzing mud core samples drilled from lakes around the world to examine climate and fire going back thousands of years. She also recently co-wrote the 2017 “Montana Climate Assessment” report, which can be found online at montanaclimate.org.
What the assessment revealed is that the climate is continuing to get a little warmer and a little wetter: the temperature is warming by about .3 degrees per decade, and moisture is increasing by about .19 inches every 10 years.
That may not sound like a big change, but consider this: 2016 was 99.4 percent warmer than any time in the past 11,000 years — that’s way back when the last ice age ended. “Since the Industrial Revolution, global climate has changed faster than at any other time in Earth’s history,” the report noted.
“So we’re in uncharted territory here,” Whitlock said.
Skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers take note: If the trend continues, Whitlock said Montana could see a 20 to 60 percent decrease in snowpack. Temperatures would be warmer year-round, meaning less snow and more rain.
“Obviously there’s a big challenge there,” said Scott Christensen, director of conservation for the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition advocacy group, which invited Whitlock to address a recent gathering. “We (Montanans) like to think we’re protected.”
Already, Whitlock said people living in Montana are seeing spring runoff two to three weeks earlier than in 1948, a trend that will continue. By the end of the century, runoff could be as much as a month earlier, she said.
More warm days mean more droughts, and more severe droughts, she added, which will affect the state’s agricultural and recreation economies — Montana’s two biggest industries — as well as human health. Wildlife will shift where it lives; some species adapted to narrow high-elevation climate niches could die; and pollinators like bees and other insects will be challenged to arrive at the same time that flowers and trees bloom, since that will take place earlier.
“We can already see some of those impacts with whitebark pine,” Whitlock said.
The pine tree that grows high in the mountains surrounding Yellowstone National Park is expected to be near extinction by 2099, she said, thanks to disease and insects that no longer have to contend with the freezing cold winters that used to keep them at bay.
By 2010, surveys showed that 73 percent of the trees had already died in the area, one of the species’ strongholds.
Warmer weather and more warm days each year also mean more wildland fires — a trend the western United States has been entangled in for more than two decades. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that nine of the 10 years in which the most acreage was burned have occurred since 2000. Such fires have a measurable effect on the economy.
“Montana may have lost $240.5 million in tourist spending in 2017 due to ‘severe smoke and fires,'” according to a study released in March by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, the Missoulian reported.
Another effect of climate change on the area’s recreation could be that more people will be taking part in water-based sports where they can stay cooler in the summer, Whitlock speculated. That will put increased stress on infrastructure like boat launches and fishing access sites.
Warmer temperatures could also lead to more problems with fish diseases, like the one that killed off hundreds if not thousands of whitefish on the Yellowstone River in 2016, along with another 80 killed in 2017.
The problems aren’t isolated to Montana. A recently published study out of Dartmouth College noted that, “Previous studies show that stream temperatures react to changes in air temperature and that this can affect the distribution, abundance, physiology, behavior and mortality of cold water fish and other species such as mayflies and stoneflies, invertebrates that support species such as brook trout” in New Hampshire.
“We need to elevate climate change in our decision making,” Whitlock said. “We need to be ready for climate surprises” like drought, floods and hail.
The statement is in direct contrast with the Trump Administration’s rollback of laws meant to decrease air pollution in an attempt to slow climate change. Last year, the president announced the United States would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement in which 195 nations agreed to limit emissions that cause climate change. In October, Trump prevented government scientists from even presenting their climate-change research at a Rhode Island conference.
“I really am worried about us going into the future,” Whitlock said. “We need a serious conversation that elevates climate change as a topic. It’s going to factor in to every decision we make.”