Climate change real, says scientist who shared in Nobel Prize

2013-04-04T18:00:00Z 2014-08-25T07:44:25Z Climate change real, says scientist who shared in Nobel PrizeBy MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montanans need to look no farther than their own state to see the effects of global warming, a University of Montana professor said Thursday.

Steven Running is the Regents professor of ecology at UM and was on a United Nations climate change panel that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

For the past 30 years at UM, Running has used satellites to study the global environment and measure its health.

Running spoke to students and faculty members at Rocky Mountain College on Thursday and will make similar climate change presentations at Montana State University Billings on Friday.

Not only is climate change real and mostly caused by human activity, global warming also hits close to home, he said.

Global mean temperatures are rising at an accelerating rate, and the earth no longer has cooling cycles as it once did.

Signs of that trend are everywhere, but none is more dramatic than the fact that the polar ice cap around the North Pole has receded more than 40 percent since 1979.

That melt is expected to continue and “by 2040 or 2050, the Arctic Ocean may be open water,” Running said.

Closer to home, all glaciers in Glacier National Park could be gone by 2020 if current trends continue.

In the Northwest, snowpacks are melting two weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago, and runoff happens earlier in the summer.

Warmer temperatures also are causing moisture to evaporate more quickly, leaving less water for everything from agriculture to recreation.

Since 1950, late summer stream flows in major rivers in Montana have declined by 20 percent.

Some streams have so little water at the end of the summer that Fish Wildlife and Parks has to shut down fishing.

“Our rivers are running out of water,” he said.

Although some of those low river levels can be traced to irrigation, higher temperatures play a significant role.

Global warming also has meant more severe wildfires.

In the past 30 years, wildfire seasons have lengthened by about two months. Fires are larger than several decades before, too.

Warmer winter temperatures that haven’t dropped much below zero the past several years have allowed mountain pine beetle larvae to survive until spring, grow into adults and extend their attack on forests throughout the Northern Rocky Mountains.

“Forty-below is a nice cleansing agent for the ecosystem and keeps creepy stuff way down south,” he said.

If current trends continue, winters and summers in the Northwest will get warmer. Although winter precipitation may increase a little, summer rainfall may decrease.

Years from now, Montana may have a climate more like Utah's, he said.

Competition for water among river users, agriculture and energy development could heat up along with temperatures.

We have to get smarter about managing water or water rights will be a “political train wreck,” he said.

Another critical issue is continuing to burn fossil fuels that is driving global warming.

Looking out at the audience of students, he said, “We either do this smart or do it dumb. Your generation will make that decision.”

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