For the first time in three years, Glacier National Park's Going to the Sun Road wasn't closed by major wildfires in August, the height of the tourist season.
Northwest Montana has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the Earth over the past century, according to information from Glacier Park. The largest and fastest temperature increases worldwide have occurred at the North Pole, south through Canada and Alaska and into the northern tier of the Lower 48, according to a report published last week in the Washington Post.
When Glacier became a national park in 1910, it was home to more than 100 glaciers that provided water for wildlife and streams. Now only two dozen glaciers remain large enough to be considered active and they are melting faster.
Climate change is a key point in litigation over de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly bear. The white bark pine trees of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are dying, so their pine nuts that were a staple of the grizzly diet are disappearing. Loss of that food source was part of the successful argument to keep the bears protected from hunting.
Bears and other animals whose food and habitat are changing with the climate may also get into more conflicts with people. When food is less available in remote locations, the bears will forage closer to where people are.
Among the climate changes documented in Yellowstone:
- Average park temperatures are higher now than 50 years ago.
- The time between last spring freeze and first fall frost has increased by about 30 days in some areas of the park over the past 50 years.
- The Northeast Entrance by Cooke City recently has averaged 60 more days per year above freezing than it did in the mid-1980s.
Warmer days and nights might seem like a good thing, but warmth increases wildfire risk. Winters aren't as cold as they were generations ago, so bark beetles that would freeze to death at 40 below zero are surviving to infect pine forests the next spring and summer. Huge swaths of Rocky Mountain forests (and trees in cities) have succumbed to disease transmitted by bark beetles in the past decade.
Wildfire is bad for forests, rangeland and for people who breathe the smoke. Wildfires in Colorado and Washington in 2012 alone led to 419 premature deaths, 627 hospital admissions and $3.9 billion in total health costs, according to an analysis by the National Resource Defense Fund and the University of California San Francisco that was published this month in GeoHealth.
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Climate change over the past 20 years has made forest recovery more difficulty, according to University of Montana researchers. In study reported March 12 by Science Daily, the authors analyzed regeneration rates of forests
Montana's two biggest industries — agriculture and outdoor recreation — depend on Mother Nature's benevolence. The timing of snow, snow melt and rain are crucial for crops and livestock production. Wildfires that force road closures, evacuations and obscure Montana scenery cut into outdoor recreation for Montanans and our 11 million annual visitors. Lack of mountain snowpack hurts the ski business. Warmer rivers and streams result in hoot owl restrictions that keep anglers off the waterways during the daytime.
The weather changes daily, if not hourly, but climate is long term. Our climate is changing over decades and at an increasingly rapid rate. The vast majority of climate scientists in the United States and around the world have found that these changes are largely driven by increases of human-caused pollutants in the air.
Climate change cannot be ignored. We must prepare to live in a changed and changing world. The first steps are recognizing the problems and working on solutions that will benefit our communities and our children.
For example, there is much work to do in energy conservation. Anyone who has replaced an old boiler with a new high-efficiency furnace knows the dramatic savings it yields in electric or gas bills. Solar panels installed at Billings high schools are projected to pay for themselves in energy savings. Yet our 2019 Montana legislators rejected a well-researched bill that would have provided needed options for small businesses to upgrade their energy efficiency.
What business, homeowner or renter doesn't want to minimize energy expenses?
The city of Billings recently re-instituted an energy conservation advisory panel at the behest of citizens who know the city can save money while reducing pollution by planning carefully and acting promptly.
These are small, but necessary first steps to conserve our resources, reduce waste and respond to the overwhelming strong scientific consensus that human activity is accelerating the warming of our planet. The speed of change calls us to action for the sake of our kids and grandkids. Believe the science and support changes to address our changing Montana climate.