A team of scientists at the University of Montana is looking for state approval and eventual funding to reopen Montana’s defunct state climate office, saying new technology could help local producers keep tabs on global competition and drive commodity prices.
The breakthroughs have come fast and furious in recent weeks, with one UM team making the cover of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society on its advances in satellite-based global drought monitoring.
A second group last week announced the formation of a new Montana State Climate Office, promoting the tools and satellite sensing available to producers and state agencies. Departure from greenness, drought severity, evaporation and daily climate data are among the potential offerings.
“We have a lot of capacity to do some really great things, especially given the expertise here at UM,” said state climatologist Kelsey Jencso. “It’s important for a farmer who needs to know how much wheat he’ll produce that year, or for an agency that needs to measure greenness over a landscape based on new satellite imagery.”
A team of UM scientists led by Regents Professor of Ecology Steve Running – and aided by the Los Alamos National Laboratory – have developed a new satellite-sensed global drought severity index.
Years in the making and a departure from past thinking, the new index includes data from all major regional droughts over the past decade. It allows accurate assessment and mitigation of regional droughts, including those in Montana, where drought holds a grip over 34 percent of the state.
“When we can do this by satellite, you can literally look at every square mile of the state,” Running said. “We like to think this is a breakthrough for complete coverage of the state, as opposed to simple calculations from local weather stations.”
Add it up and the new data, pinned on new technology, could hold implications for Montana agricultural producers, along with state agencies needing accurate and current climate data.
The data could enable observers to follow drought development and “greenness” from week to week across the state. And it could serve as a potential driver of commodity prices, helping producers anticipate good years from bad long before they arrive.
The data also could help ranchers better predict grazing conditions. Farmers around the world could zero in on a particular field and monitor the growth of a single crop.
“If the competitors on the other end of the world are having a good year or bad year, it makes a tangible difference on what your crop here is worth,” Running said. “In today’s global markets, it gives our Montana farmers and ag people another information stream on how other competitors are doing.”
The climate office’s products hold other implications as well. Farmers can more accurately determine how many railroad cars they’ll need at harvest to haul an anticipated crop to market, saving time and money.
Agencies, such as the Montana Department of Transportation, can better anticipate how much gravel to stockpile for winter roads. Large energy users can more accurately budget heating and cooling costs before the season arrives.
“A lot of these ag operations have crop insurance,” said Ashley Ballantyne, assistant state climatologist. “If you’re thinking about whether to buy crop insurance, you want as much information as possible. How variable is the climate? How will it compromise yields over time?”
Last September went down in the record books as the driest month in Montana’s recorded history. Rivers and streams ran low, fertile topsoils were parched and wildfires scorched more than 1 million acres.
Five months later, 34 percent of Montana remains under drought conditions, and 7 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought. Pasture feed conditions in December were rated poor to very poor.
The conditions touch ag producers across the state and impact government’s bottom line. But while Montana is one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers and a respectable exporter of grain, beef and other products, it’s currently one of the only states without a funded climate office.
It hasn’t always been that way. The original office was located at Montana State University. After former state climatologist Joe Caprio retired in 1994, the office went dark. Running said efforts have continued ever since to jump-start the Montana State Climate Office at UM, as designated by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Climate science and its economic and ecological impacts are now better understood, he said. The technology has advanced beyond where it was in the past, promising benefits to Montana and beyond.
“We’re about the only state in the union with no climate office,” Running said. “I’ve made the inquiry to state government. We got authorized by the governor’s office, but with no funding.”
Jared Oyler, a programmer and analyst with the climate team, said the scientific products now available to state producers and government agencies is complete and far reaching. The team recently launched a new webpage promoting its products.
They’ve also met with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Department of Environmental Quality, looking for support. They’re in the process of gaining acceptance into the American Association of State Climatologists, and recognition as an official state climate office is pending.
But while the products are ready and the foundation is in place, the wheels are turning slowly. They hope to begin producing weekly updates by April.
“We’re a member of AASC, but we’re not official,” said Oyler. “That requires collaboration with the National Weather Service. We’ve gotten approval of local NWS offices, but we need a state official to sign off on this. That would be a huge step forward.”