By 2069, some areas of Montana can expect up to 39 more days above 90 degrees, attendees at a recent webinar on climate change and other environmental issues were told.
The League of Women Voters of Montana had a Zoom call Wednesday discussing extreme climate events in Montana with speakers from the Montana Climate Office and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes.
The Montana Climate Office is an independent, federally designated agency based at the University of Montana that provides science-based climate information and services.
Kelsey Jencso, state climatologist with the Montana Climate Office, provided viewers with a description of where the state is in relation to current and future climate conditions. In 2017, there was a first-ever Montana Climate Assessment conducted under the oversight of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, Jencso said.
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He said Montana is a upstream state and said the land area drains into the Columbia River, southern Saskatchewan and the Missouri River basins. Jencso said when you add it up, Montana’s headwaters drain nearly a third of the land area of the Conterminous US. He added that what’s happening in Montana is affecting not only the state, but many water users downstream as well.
Jencso said Montana is geographically very complex in terms of climate and hydrology. He said that makes it difficult to predict future weather conditions and weekly forecasts. He said changing topography in mountain systems affects precipitation patterns in Montana.
He said the average annual temperature is 45 degrees, but moving from western Montana to eastern Montana tends to see warmer conditions.
Jencso said Montana’s temperature has increased by 0.42 degrees per decade over the past 65 years, while the national average is 0.26 degrees per decade.
That is an increase of 2.7 degrees in the past 65 years, which is also above the national average.
He said the rate of change can be attributed to Montana’s higher elevation, making it more sensitive to temperature changes.
Jencso said average rainfall is 18.7 inches and hasn’t changed in the past 65 years.
He said spring rains increased 1.3 to 2 inches in eastern Montana and decreased 0.9 inches in western Montana, consistent with the frequency of La Nina and El Nino events over the past 50 years in was connected.
Projections from global climate models and science are improving, but there is a degree of uncertainty, so projections need to be updated to assess possible changes in future climate. He said they used eight models for 2040-2069 to make predictions, adding that not every model agrees in every case.
Jencso said there will be a 5 degree rise in east and north-central Montana and a 4 degree rise in central and west Montana by mid-century. He said these are the best estimates based on the best models. He said eight models were used for this report and 100% made the same prediction.
He said that due to the proximity to mountains and higher elevation environments, there are likely to be 39 more days over 90 degrees in east Montana and 10 to 15 days in west Montana. There was 100% model agreement on these predictions.
There will be an increase of 5.3 degrees in winter and 6.4 degrees in summer, he said.
He said the high temperatures would affect people and crops, and have a drying effect on soil and forests. It will also lend itself to fire launches, he said. Jencso said large wildfires could also result in public health impacts.
He said the “good news” is that they expect a slight increase in rainfall, but it’s small. He also said precipitation is difficult to predict. He said precipitation is expected to increase in winter, spring and autumn, and decrease in summer.
He said there is an opportunity to affect changing temperatures through changes in greenhouse gas emissions.
Regarding recent climate extremes, he said it’s interesting that Montana went from very wet to very dry very quickly. He said there was a rich and plentiful snowpack combined with atmospheric fluxes, which are large conveyor belts of moisture typically coming from the tropical Pacific. This, combined with rain on snow earlier this year, resulted in catastrophic flooding that was a once-in-a-lifetime event in the Yellowstone Basin in 500 years.
He said atmospheric rivers can hold large amounts of water, up to 15 times the volume of the Mississippi at its mouth.
He said snowpack was 178% of normal on June 11 and there was 2 to 4 inches of rain June 10-13.
The other strange weather event was the frequency of droughts in Montana.
He said more ground-based stations are needed to help with observations to make better forecasts of flood conditions or drought predictions. He said 205 new stations will be added over the next five years as part of a $21 million contract provided by a US Senate bill to build better climate infrastructure. Data from the stations is public and online.
Michael Durglo Jr., department head for historical preservation of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and chair of the Advisory Committee on Climate Change, said CSKT developed a plan for the 1.3-million-acre reservation in northwest Montana in 2012. He said the plan will be revised based on new models because what was supposed to happen in 2060 is happening now.
Durglo said the tribal council passed a resolution stating that climate change poses a risk to the health and overall well-being of the tribe and is initiating resources for climate change planning and mitigation.
“This is a big deal for me,” he said, adding that they have been addressing climate change for a long time.
He said everyone is connected as a human, “we are connected to our animals, our land and our resources.”
Gwen Lankford, a CSKT board member on climate change who also works with groups to improve communication, said there are some unnerving forecasts, such as 39 more days of 90-degree-plus weather.
Lankford, scheduled to speak on resilience, social justice and equity, said many systems are vertically integrated or have power at the top. She said such systems are prone to the consolidation of power, greed and resources.
She said such systems are not sustainable. Lankford called for horizontal integration, where everyone can contribute to their empowerment and capitalize on people’s strengths.
“That, I think, is a really key difference in terms of how we need to (overhaul) systems and how we need to think about progress and how we think about resources,” she said.
When it comes to climate change, Durglo said people need to be united.
“We’re all in this boat together and we all have to do our part and paddle the boat,” he said.
“We all have to do more,” Durglo said.
He asked people to help the next generation, adding, “Everybody get in a boat and grab a paddle.”
Jencso said people need to be better at adapting to change, and science is key to that process.
At the start of the meeting, organizers said “far north of” 120 people attended online. Maureen McCarthy, a research professor, moderated the meeting.
Webinar co-sponsors included Citizens Climate Lobby; Climate Smart Missoula; families for a climate worth living in; Great Falls Rising; Montana Environmental Information Center; Montana Health Professionals for a healthy climate; Wild Montana; Wilderness Guard; and the League of Women Voters of Billings, Bozeman, Helena, and Missoula.
The webinar will be posted online at https://my.lwv.org/montana and on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVDxqS88D9fMCaMvl3ze7gg?app=desktop.
Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.