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Steve Running discusses long-term climate trends during Front tour
Steve Running discusses long-term climate trends during Front tour

CHOTEAU - As the small plane lifts off from the remote runway, Steven Running and Roy Jacobs marvel at the green landscape below the six-seater's wings.

Jacobs is a lifelong resident along the Rocky Mountain Front, a taxidermist by trade. Running is a University of Montana ecology professor in Missoula who recently shared the Nobel Peace Prize for groundbreaking insights into the world's changing climate.

Both men share a love for the mountains and plains that meet along the Front, and both men are taking this flight to discuss the impacts that climate changes may have not only here in the wilds but also in human-inhabited areas.

Yet it's hard to talk about droughts, wildfires and rising global temperatures on a day like this, after a "typical" Montana spring - something not seen here for years - dropped enough snow and rain that creeks remain swollen, "prairie potholes" are full of water for the first time since 2002 and non-irrigated lands are still emerald and forest green as June comes to an end.

"We see a year like this and we think that maybe we're coming out of this long drought we've been in. Maybe it's not permanent," Running said. "But we need another three or four years before I say this is any kind of a trend, or that we didn't just get lucky with a few late snowfalls.

"Climate is about long-time trends and weather is about today. That's the biggest challenge when everyone is talking about climate change, yet you have the biggest winter in recent years. It makes you wonder if the experts know what they're talking about."

Running says he was in Dupuyer last year on June 25, also pleasantly surprised at how green the Front was for that time of year.

"Then came the July from hell just a week later," he added. "This green could be gone in two weeks."

In fact, it was only three days after Running visited the Front last year that the Ahorn fire started. It was discovered on July 11, as was the Fool Creek fire; together, they burned more than 100,000 acres on the Rocky Mountain Front, through timber that Jacobs noted had "less moisture in it than his furniture at home."

Running recently testified before Congress that fire suppression policies, coupled with climate changes, will increase and intensify wildfires.

But it's the precipitation aspect of climate change - not just hotter temperatures, but drier days and longer summers than seen in years past - that could have more of an impact on the animals and vegetation along the Front, and statewide at a landscape level, Running said.

"If we don't get the additional precipitation we need, then this will become a much more arid landscape; it will slowly dry up as it warms up," Running said. "But temperature alone isn't the key issue. It's temperature in combination with precipitation that matters for the landscape.

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"Unfortunately, that's the trend and the models predict it will stay warmer and we'll have the same precipitation as we've had recently."

Published reports anticipate summer temperatures in western North America will rise 5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 50 years, with no increase in precipitation.

Jacobs already is seeing mule deer come out of the mountains earlier in the fall now than when he was growing up; he theorizes that the drought is drying out their forage earlier, making the deer come down to irrigated acres.

Chris Mehl with the Wilderness Society, which sponsored Friday's flight, later added that as the snowpack and runoff end earlier due to climatic changes, it translates to less water available for irrigators and communities that rely on high-mountain water from roadless and wilderness areas like the Front.

"That leads to longer fire seasons, more pressure on irrigators and more fights over water," Mehl said. "Fewer roads and less development along the Front will translate to holding snow longer and cleaner snowmelt, which means there's less need for chemical treatment at water plants, and it lasts longer.

"The Front is a big resource now, but will be even more so in the future."

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