Read the full Case Statement
There is no question that the climate is changing. Reducing emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as those produced from burning fossil fuels, in vehicles and as a power source, and clearing land and forests, can help slow the process. Global temperatures are rising more rapidly than earlier scientific models predicted and in a manner distinct from those in the planet’s history.
THE URGENCY OF THE THREAT
The impacts are already evident. Alpine glaciers are in retreat, the oceans are warming and expanding and the vast ice sheet of Greenland is melting at an alarming pace. These changes are harming life forms as diverse as microscopic zooplankton and the mighty polar bear. Even if we stop all emissions today, the momentum of change will continue for decades. If we fail to stop the predicted increase in emissions, scientists predict we’ll have less than a decade to prevent even more drastic consequences than we see now.
CLIMATE CHANGE IN MONTANA
Some impacts of the changing climate are easy to observe – the disappearance of the glaciers from Glacier National Park and the huge swaths of trees killed by increased bark beetle outbreaks. And while it’s difficult to predict precise impacts for specific locations, we are already experiencing or anticipating the following changes.
- Rising Temperatures. Average spring temperatures in the state have risen by almost 4oF over the last 55 years, with winter temps close behind with a 3oF increase. Summer temps have also climbed just over 1oF. Conservatively, those rates are expected to continue. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts we’ll see from two to eight times the rate of warming in the next 50 years.
- Altered Water Balance. “Water balance” is the relationship between temperature and precipitation. In Montana, higher temperatures will increase the rate of evaporation and more than offset any potential increases in precipitation, leading to an overall increase in aridity. Hydrologic conditions will be affected by declining snowpack, earlier spring snowmelt, warmer late-season water temperatures and drought; these impacts will force difficult choices between the needs of municipal, agricultural and recreational users and those of wildlife and fisheries. Besides rivers and streams, the aquatic life in unique systems such as prairie potholes, vernal pools and various wetlands is threatened by the hotter, drier seasons. The state’s recreation-based economy may also suffer with diminishing snow and the threat of closures on Montana’s famous rivers due to low water or high stream temperatures.
- Extreme Weather Events. Fewer, but more intense storms can produce both more flooding and more severe drought. Species at the edge of their climatic tolerance may not be able to rebound.
- Shifting Seasons. Changing temperatures affect the timing of seasons. This can alter the abundance of food, timing of pollination, dispersal of seeds and physical changes that maintain the balance between predator and prey (e.g. change in coat color, birthing times, migration or hibernation). Animals adapted to a specific habitat type may see it disappear and be unable to move to a replacement range.
- Changes in Habitat. A warmer, drier climate will alter habitats and communities across Montana. For example, some forests may be replaced by shrub lands, and some alpine areas may disappear altogether. But it is still difficult to predict these changes at a local level.
- Proliferation of Invasive Species. As native plant and aquatic communities are stressed by a changing climate, they will be more vulnerable to invasive species.
- Expanded and Intensified Fire Season. Summer wildfire will likely be a more frequent feature due to hotter temperatures, drier summers and increased insect pest outbreaks in stressed trees.
- Human intervention. As human livelihood is affected by climate change, increased human interference with natural systems, could, in the near term, have greater consequences than the direct impacts of climate change. Natural habitat could be converted to crop production, and we may see more dams and diversion of water for human use. There may even be population shifts as climate change affects economic activity, or as residents of flooded coastal areas or severe urban heat centers seek relief in more temperate western Montana.
THE NATURE CONSERVANCY ACTS ON CLIMATE CHANGE IN MONTANA
The Conservancy’s response to climate change takes two paths. Globally, we are committed to reducing the causes of the problem (mitigation) by supporting policies to lower GHG emissions and by preventing the destruction and promoting the restoration of forests and grasslands that help capture carbon. At the same time, we will implement ecosystem-based strategies to help natural and human communities cope with the changing climate (adaptation).
- Planning for Adaptation. We’re involved in a number of statewide, collaborative efforts to identify and prioritize climate change planning needs. Our conservation action plans (CAPs) will, over time, provide data to recognize and understand climate-related changes in the landscapes where we work.
- Landscape level conservation. We focus on conserving large, intact areas of natural habitat, and the connections between them. This will ensure that, as ranges shift, there will still be suitable habitat available for wildlife, and room for migration without the obstacles of human development.
- Stewardship and Restoration. Our stewardship and restoration activities – including sustainable grazing practices, weed management and stream restoration – help natural communities to remain resilient in the face of climate change. Likewise, our ongoing monitoring will help us recognize climate-driven change so we can adapt our responses to it in a timely and effective manner.
- Prevent GHG Release. By preventing sod-busting, our easements protect grasslands and soils that can store vast amounts of the carbon that could otherwise be released as GHGs. Similarly, our protection and restoration of forests and wetlands also help with carbon capture.
- Energy Efficiency and Conservation. Our pioneering assessment of the impacts of wind facilities on wildlife provides guidelines for how these plants can be sited with the least ecological risk. Likewise, the energy efficiency practices employed at our Pine Butte Guest Ranch reduce the environmental footprint of the operation, and serve as a model for both guests and the surrounding community.
- Carbon Sequestration. We are currently pursuing the first of what we hope will be many carbon sequestration projects undertaken by the Chapter in the grasslands of eastern Montana.
- Water Balance. Site specific considerations identified in our CAPs will drive any future efforts to address this key issue.
See also Facts About Climate Change in Montana)