Fire scientists muffled from speaking

A changing climate is having a powerful effect on Montana.

From melting glaciers in the northwestern corner of the state to drought-stricken fields in the southeastern corner, and fires and floods seemingly everywhere in between, Montanans are facing rapidly evolving environmental conditions that present a host of urgent new challenges. In fact, Montana’s climate is changing faster than almost any other state. 

Amid the chaos and climbing costs, a rising tide of political arguments is threatening to drown out the important work being done in climate science. Good, factual information is more important than ever. It is vital that the state get a firm grasp on the climate changes it is experiencing so that we can best position our limited public and private resources to mitigate harmful impacts and better prepare for whatever the future brings.

Fortunately, Missoula in particular is a center for environmental research and expertise, and just this fall, the Montana University System’s Institute on Ecosystems released the first-ever statewide climate assessment. The study set an important baseline; it is critical that Montana build on this information by supporting further climate assessments.

That’s not to underestimate the obstacles such an ongoing effort would face. Montana is currently struggling to overcome a state government budget crisis and does not have extra funding, let alone the clear political will, to call for such a study. On the national scale, a federal administration that appears at best indifferent and at worst hostile to climate science leaves Montana pretty much on its own.

Yet it should be obvious by now that a lack of solid climate information is bound to prove even more costly in the long run: in wildfires, public health, cattle and crops.

Just last week, the Missoulian reported that only a handful of scientists from the Missoula fire lab will be allowed to attend the International Fire Congress later this month. The nonprofit Association for Fire Ecology, which is hosting the conference, had expected at least 40 Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists to travel to the gathering in Orlando. In all, the association says more than 100 federal fire scientists have not received the required approval.

Some suspect that climate-related research is being suppressed. Their suspicions appear well founded, given that many of the scientists who will not be attending had planned to present their latest research on climate change-related studies.

Just last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prevented three scientists from sharing their work at a climate change conference in Rhode Island. And several of President Trump’s picks for federal appointments have been openly skeptical or dismissive of the scientific consensus on climate change.

The Montana Climate Assessment ( was released in September following two years of study funded through a federal grant from the National Science Foundation. It and studies done in other states were a direct result of the National Climate Assessment that came out in 2015 and which pointed to the need to do state-level studies.

It proved a valuable examination of the distinct factors affecting Montana, a large state with multiple climate zones and challenges unique to those zones.

The climate assessment examined the impacts of climate change on the state’s water resources, forests and agriculture. It crunched available data and found that average temperatures are increasing, the fire season is expanding and drought conditions are growing more extreme.

Across all sectors, stakeholders universally agreed that they were seeing climate-driven changes in their daily lives. They wanted to know how to respond to these changes, how best to adapt for the future.

Montana has been warming at a rate nearly double that of the rest of the United States. Between 1950 and 2015, Montana’s average temperature increased by between 2 to 3 degrees. As the number of extreme heat days increases, the duration and intensity of western Montana’s forest fires will also increase – along with the costs of firefighting, flood prevention and property damage.

The study’s writers were careful to use apolitical language and avoid any hint of advocacy in order to skirt an ideologically charged debate over the root causes of climate change and instead focus on areas of certainty and scientific consensus. This assessment avoided getting bogged down in political debate by looking at what Montanans can do – now – to adapt to the changing climate. By shifting the focus to what from why, they were able to tap into the real-world observations of the state’s farmers, ranchers and timber experts and offer them potential solutions.

The assessment’s writers talked to farmers about selecting new drought-resistant crops and planting earlier or later in the season. They discussed the elevating importance of smart forest management, including the often-overlooked realm of urban forestry. And they identified areas of additional focus, including climate-related impacts on outdoor recreation and tourism, wildlife, public health and energy development in Montana.

The next study should begin as soon as possible to expand on the foundation provided by this first statewide assessment, and concentrate even more on developing a toolbox of actions that can be taken to help the Montanans better handle the climate changes coming our way.

Next steps: Expand the statewide network of weather stations so even more detailed information can be collected in the future. And prepare for a second statewide climate assessment. So long as climate changes continue to dramatically shape the state’s fortunes, these kinds of thorough, fact-based assessments should be undertaken on a regular basis.

Check out the assessment online. As we continue to deal with the fallout from climate-driven weather changes, keep in mind that the best place on which to base decisions would be good, solid information. Such assessments should be an ongoing thing, so that Montanans have access to the kinds of fact-based, politics-free information we need to make informed decisions.

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