Glacier National Park - melting glaciers

A hiker at the Gem Glacier Overlook observes the layer of rock dust coating Salamander Glacier in Glacier National Park. Observations of the glacier’s condition indicate it may have lost so much ice mass, it has stopped moving and carving its rock basin.

Topsy-turvy weather seems to be a theme around these parts. We've recently experienced weeks of warm temperatures and rain in the valleys, together with one of our best early season snowpack totals in years. Let’s not forget the extreme summer heat and wildfire smoke that engulfed western Montana just five months ago. Is this a changing climate?

Last summer’s aptly termed “flash drought” caught farmers, water managers and forecasters by surprise. After a winter that featured frigid temperatures and above-average snowpack, and a spring that was marked by high streamflows and a lengthy runoff, Montana roiled under its driest summer in 123 years of record-keeping. The summer drought of 2017 devastated locations throughout the state, resulting in millions of dollars in damages to Montana’s agriculture, forestry and recreation sectors. In fact wildfires and drought played a role in our need for a special state legislative session to deal with budget shortfalls.

Were this winter’s rain and last summer’s drought really that abnormal? The recently released Montana Climate Assessment (MCA) offers some guidance. The MCA, released in September 2017, was a collaborative effort between the Montana Climate Office and researchers at University of Montana and Montana State University. The report focuses on climate trends and their consequences on three of Montana’s vital resource sectors: water, forests and agriculture. The data contained in the report paints a clear picture; Montana’s climate has changed dramatically since the 1950s.

According to the MCA, average temperatures in Montana have increased 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, with the greatest warming occurring during spring and summer months. Over the same period, Montana has experienced a decline in average winter precipitation, with slight increases in moisture in the spring and fall. Increasing average temperatures and changing patterns of precipitation are altering Montana’s watersheds, forests and farms.

Glacier National Park’s once iconic namesakes have already shrunk in dramatic fashion and are anticipated to be reduced to semi-permanent ice fields by mid-century. Average snowpack has decreased statewide, and we've seen a shift toward earlier snowmelt and spring runoff. Climate models are projecting that these trends will continue and become more severe in the coming decades.

The two largest sectors of Montana’s economy, agriculture and tourism, have already been impacted by a changing climate and will face even graver challenges going forward. In the face of climate challenges, Montanans are adapting and will need to even more so in the future. Fishing guides are booking clients earlier in the summer; farmers are planting more winter wheat and barley.

The drought and wildfires of 2017 could be a sneak peek into the way that western Montana’s climate will continue to trend. Today, Montanans are working to determine how best to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate.

How can Missoula work to be more resilient against the implications of hotter summers and drier winters? And how can individuals get involved with ways to reduce our carbon footprint? Join the League of Women Voters, Climate Smart Missoula and the Clark Fork Coalition on Feb. 13 to hear climate projections for the area and what actions local groups and citizens are taking to be prepared and part of the solution. Missoula city and county sustainability officials, together with additional local nonprofits, will also be on hand to answer questions. Join us.

Nancy Leifer is with the League of Women Voters of Missoula, Alex Leone is with the Clark Fork Coalition, and Amy Cilimburg directs Climate Smart Missoula.

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