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Land managers unprepared for effects of climate change on Crown of Continent

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A firefighting plane circles toward Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, where it was scooping water to dump on the Robert fire.

Glacier National Park’s superintendent once lost a glacier at another park he supervised, and he advises fellow land managers to get used to the feeling.

“You’d better develop your zest for ambiguity,” Jeff Mow told the 2014 Crown Managers Partnership Forum on Tuesday. “The problem with taking risks in the public sector is people just don’t know where they’re going.”

But they know the driver of their journey into the unknown is climate change. That’s what brought representatives of roughly 40 state and federal agencies, universities, conservation groups and other non-government organizations from the Crown of the Continent ecosystem to the University of Montana for a three-day workshop on climate change management strategies.

This region of the Rocky Mountains – covering parts of Montana, Alberta and British Columbia – faces numerous changes. They include more severe fire seasons, drier winters, wetter springs and falls, invasive species and increasing people pressure on one of the most biologically diverse spots in North America.

But while the participants all agreed change is coming, they had few crystal balls to give hints what change might look like.

In Mow’s case, nearly all of the visitor facilities and overlooks at Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park were built to feature Exit Glacier – a massive ice flow coming out of the Harding Ice Field. But the glacier has melted so much since the 1990s that it can’t be seen anymore.

Nevertheless, Exit Glacier still pushes the park around. In 2004, the main visitor road started flooding out at times when no flooding had ever occurred before. In fact, Mow said he got calls from National Weather Service meteorologists unable to find the weather source causing his flooding. It appears Exit Glacier’s meltwater is the cause, although what triggers the flood timing remains uncertain.

What was certain was Kenai Fjords’ most popular road had 4 to 5 inches of sheeting water running across it and lots of white-knuckled tourists trying to drive through it. As park superintendent, Mow dreaded requesting $4 million or $5 million to rebuild two miles of road that might not fix his problem.

He wound up spending about $400,000 on a line of Jersey barriers and sandbags that made the road passable – although it looked like it was about 3 feet below a fast-moving canal.

“I never expected I’d have to send 22 people, park rangers and interpreters, to highway flagging school,” Mow said. “It’s eye-opening to us what the new world can look like.”

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And it doesn’t help that our tools for dealing with it don’t look familiar either, according to Tom Olliff of the NPS Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

“There aren’t many examples of on-the-ground responses to climate change,” Olliff said. “We have lots of great research, but we’re lagging behind on management.”

That’s because future climate change has so many factors and variables, it’s hard to tell what to prepare for. Unlike traditional empirical science, where we study the evidence of what happened and develop convincing explanations, the best we can do with climate change is generate a range of possible scenarios and take guesses about which to act on.

Montana State University Earth science professor Cathy Whitlock said the past 14,000 years of North America’s climate record show a remarkable array of different conditions – warmer, drier, wetter and colder – where the Crown of the Continent radically swapped out one community of plants and animals for another. Very few species, such as whitebark pine, managed to hang on across the whole post-Ice Age period to present day.

And whitebark pine now faces eradication from human-introduced blister rust and climate-driven beetle infestations. Few forces on the planet match humans’ ability to amplify or globalize their impact.

“I’m really curious about its future, if it will go extinct or just be really reduced,” Whitlock said. “The wild card is what people will do.”

The Crown Managers Partnership was developed to tackle just that kind of question, according to steering committee member and UM research biologist Erin Sexton.

“A problem like climate change isn’t small,” Sexton said. “If Glacier National Park does one thing, that’s great. But it would be better if we could all act collectively, so it’s not just the (National) Park Service or the (U.S.) Forest Service or some community stakeholders. We’re getting together to see what we can do for climate adaptation in the Crown of the Continent in northern Alberta and Montana and southeast British Columbia.”

Many conference members agreed with Mow’s assessment that climate change can be so overwhelming, it paralyzes rather than focuses action. That uncertainty and risk make it hard to rally public support.

But Lara Hansen, director of the climate change think tank EcoAdapt, noted that the public has a lot more comfort with uncertainty than most scientists do.

“How much do you really know about the assumptions that went into your 401(k) (retirement account)?” Hansen asked. “We already know we’re getting more intense forest fires. That’s enough to get a lot of land managers to change their thinking. We need to think through what those reactions mean, not just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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