Climate Change in Montana

In the past 100 years, global climate change has become a pressing environmental issue. Since 1900, the mean annual temperature for Glacier National Park and the surrounding regions has increased 1.33 degrees Celsius, which is actually 1.8 times the global mean increase.  That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the temperature increase has had an adverse effect on GNP’s glaciers.  In 1850, it was estimated that there were about 150 glaciers in the park.  Today, only 25 glaciers, bodies of moving ice that exceed 25 acres in area, remain.

USGS research ecologist Dan Fagre has been collecting data that supports the rapid effects of climate change within Glacier National Park for over two decades.

“It’s my 24th year of working, living and playing in this ecosystem and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it,” Fagre joked during a recent interview.

Fagre’s years of experience have unearthed evidence that supports the rapid effects of climate change within GNP.  Fagre is one of the key players in GNP’s repeat photography project where he snaps photos of the park’s glaciers in the exact place previous shots were taken nearly a century before in order to document the glaciers’ retreat.

“They are very effective at showing environmental change.  People are very convinced about climate change having a real impact when they can see it for themselves,” Fagre said.

In addition, Fagre and a team of researchers also collect data documenting glacial ice content and movement, as well as data pertaining to the ecosystem surrounding the glaciers.

“We have seen a disappearance of many glaciers—in a few decades, they will be gone,” he said.  “We’ve also seen a continued decline of snowpack.  The snow is melting in the spring as much as three weeks earlier.  This affects stream runoff, which has also been starting earlier.  Stream macroinvertebrates and fish are stressed by higher stream temperatures and lower flows,” Fagre explained.

Fagre added that because of the depletion of meltwater caused by receding glaciers during the summer months, the frequency and intensity of forest fires have increased dramatically in recent years.

“We’ve even seen fires up in the alpine zones, where they didn’t used to be,” he added.

Glaciers are frequently utilized by scientists to study climate change.  Although 2014 saw more snowpack than normal, melting trends continue to rise, and glaciers continue to shrink.  One computer-based model estimates that by 2030, all of the glaciers in GNP will be gone.

According to Fagre, the glaciers of GNP began melting rapidly in two phases.  The first phase began in the early 1920s, when scientists documented the first marked retreat of the glaciers.  Then, due to a phenomena known as Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which causes influxes of warm or cool weather lasting up to twenty years, GNP underwent a prolonged cool period, in which the glaciers stopped receding.  The period ended in 1976, at which time a dry, warm period began.  The most recent warm period ended in 1998.

“Once every twenty years we get cooler water off the west coast, and it brings us much more snow.  In Montana this relationship is pretty tight.  The cool period started in 1998, except that it hasn’t been very cool,” Fagre explained.

Scientists link the rapid rise in Earth’s surface temperature to the build-up of certain gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.  These are the main “greenhouse gases.” These gases are called such because they have been proved to trap heat in the earth’s ozone layer.

“It’s extremely well documented and supported that humans have donated to the accelerated rate of global climate change,” Fagre said, referring to one article that provides evidence that approximately 2/3 of global ice melt is due to human activity, with 1/3 being caused by natural phenomena.

“What we’re doing is just sort of turning up the volume of the natural phenomena.  We’ve seen an intensification of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activitiy.”

Fagre explained that emission of greenhouse gases is primarily caused not only by production and consumption of fossil fuels, but also by a change in land use.

“Deforestation and so forth can also have an effect,” he said.

In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report that required each state to lower carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 30 percent by 2030 in order to slow the effects of global warming.  Because the report was issued on a state-by-state basis, Montana is required to lower its emissions by 21 percent.

U.S. Senate candidate Steve Daines, R-Mont., has been documented as being a supporter of Montana’s oil industry, but also supports development of sources of alternative energy, which will help lower carbon dioxide emissions.

“I support an all-of-the-above approach to securing American energy independence that includes alternative sources of energy—hydropower, wind and solar—along with coal, oil and natural gas,” Daines said on his campaign website.

Rivaling Daines for the U.S. Senate seat is Amanda Curtis, D-Mont. Curtis matches Daines’ views on energy sources, saying that Montana should invest in both renewable and non-renewable energy.

“Natural gas, solar, wind, coal and geothermal energy are all available to help ensure America becomes energy independent,” Curtis said on her campaign website.

While both Senate candidates take an “all of the above” approach to developing energy, Dr. Courtney Young, Metallurgy professor at Montana Tech, believes that Montana should put more of its resources into coal power, which, according to Young, is a more fiscally responsible approach.  In a recent column in the Montana Standard, Young stated that while global warming is a very real issue, production of coal power, although having been linked to high levels of carbon dioxide emissions, is the fiscally responsible energy choice for Montanans.

“’Here today, gone tomorrow’ is not the answer,” Young said, referring to the Obama administration’s actions of shutting down 40 coal-fired power plants.  “It’s not being done with a plan such that coal is being phased out and replaced with solar, wind, nuclear, etc.  It has even added to our unemployment numbers,” Young explained.

Montana Tech student Spencer Hale voiced an opinion similar to Young’s.  Hale stated that Obama’s cut-and-dry approach for eliminating sources of dirty energy could have an adverse effect on the Montana economy.

“Although alternative sources of energy are important, the harvesting of coal, oil and gas is necessary for the U.S. to become energy independent,” Hale said recently.  “Coal, oil and gas are critical assets to the economy of Montana,” he added.

Despite the energy debate in Washington, Fagre said there is little we can do to stop the disappearance of the glaciers in GNP due to increasing temperatures.

“Right now, we can only watch how they respond to climate change,” Fagre said.  “We can’t do much directly to stop the glaciers from melting.  They are going to continue to melt before they’re all gone. The glaciers are doomed. It’s already too warm.”


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