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Cathy Whitlock was nervous when she first started traveling around Montana to talk to small groups of farmers and ranchers, foresters, tribal college and church members about the hot topic of climate change.

“I was really terrified. I’m an introvert and a scientist,” Whitlock recalled.

Whitlock is respected as a regents professor of Earth sciences at Montana State University and the first Montana scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Still, she worried that people might be rude or angry or shut her down.

Instead she found the people she met were “very gracious and good listeners. They were genuinely interested and concerned.”

For scientists like Whitlock, the evidence of climate change is too strong and too alarming to stay home and stay quiet.

“We’re certain enough about this one that we’re pretty darned serious,” said Bruce Maxwell, an MSU ecologist specializing in crop science. Maxwell is co-director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, a joint project of MSU and the University of Montana.

Whitlock and Maxwell are two of the five lead authors on the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment report.

They worked with a team of 30 — scientists, water experts, economists and policy people from all around the state — to write the first major report on climate change in Montana. They spent two years collecting data, working on computer models and talking with Montanans.

The report’s goal was “to inform Montanans about the state’s changing climate so that they can better plan for the future.”

The scientists drove all across the state to hold listening sessions and meet with some 4,000 Montanans to talk about “our changing climate.”

Only two or three times did anyone stand up and claim climate change was fake, a government conspiracy. In Havre, farmers in the audience told the few disrupters to shut up — they wanted to hear what the scientists had to say.

Melting glaciers, burning forests

Montanans can clearly see that our climate is changing.

Just about everyone has seen the dramatic photos of Glacier National Park’s disappearing glaciers. In the 1850s, the park had about 150 glaciers. By 2016, only 25 remained, the Montana Climate Assessment reports.

“We’ve gotten 2 to 3 degrees warmer since 1950 in Montana,” Whitlock said, adding that most people who’ve lived here for decades know things are changing.

“Warming is driving everything,” she said. “There’s more drought because of warming. There’s less snow because of warming. More fires because of warming. Closing streams because of warming.”

If nothing is done to alter our current direction, if we stick with business as usual, the scientists predict Montana could be 10 degrees warmer by the end of this century.

“That 10 degrees would really be a game changer,” Whitlock said.

Maxwell said when he was growing up in Hamilton, his mother struggled to get any tomatoes to turn red.

Montana gardeners love that our growing season today is 12 days longer, thanks to more frost-free days — though Maxwell is quick to point out you can still get a killing frost any day in May. Montanans can now grow melons in the Paradise-Plains area northwest of Missoula.

But warming also has brought troubling changes.

“The snow goes off much faster than when I was a child,” Maxwell said. “The river almost gets drained, by irrigation and human uses. Forest fires have become the norm. We never had fires when I was a child. I don’t remember any smoky summers.”

“Montana has actually warmed at a faster rate than the national average,” Whitlock said. As an interior state, Montana is far from oceans that moderate temperatures.

The average U.S. temperature has increased 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 2.7 degrees since 1950 for Montana.

Even with just a 2.7-degree temperature rise, Montana has seen some record-breaking changes.

Headlines told the story in 2017. It was a year of severe drought, and Montana had its worst wildfire and forest fire season.

Fires burned 1.2 million acres, the most in 100 years. Two firefighters died, thousands of people were evacuated from homes surrounded by forests. Skies were so smoky that some people’s health suffered.

That year the rains failed to come to eastern Montana and there were a record 22 days over 90 degrees in July.

That produced a “flash drought” — a new kind of drought not seen before, Maxwell said. It wrecked crops, fueled rangeland fires and forced ranchers to sell off thirsty livestock.

Agricultural losses in Montana and the Dakotas exceeded $2.6 billion, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Montana’s famous clean and cold trout streams have been closed to fishermen for weeks in several recent summers when warm water temperatures threatened or killed trout. Rivers have been closed in Yellowstone National Park and in Montana, the Blackfoot, Beaverhead, Big Hole and other popular streams have seen closures. In 2016 the Yellowstone River was closed for 184 miles in the wake of a massive die-off of mountain whitefish.

At the other extreme, the Musselshell River in recent years saw its worst flooding in more than a century.

This summer, people in Alaska, the Central Plains, East Coast and Europe suffered from record heat waves. Worldwide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July 2019 was the hottest July on the planet in 140 years. Montana had its coolest June and July since 1955, on the heels of two of its warmest years since it became a state.

The cool summer made our state “one of the best places to be this year,” Whitlock said.

It’s the kind of news that might make Montana attractive to climate refugees from hotter states.

But people shouldn’t confuse short-term weather patterns, like one cool summer, with the overall long-term trend of a warming climate, the scientists say.

To explain the difference between climate and weather, they show a video cartoon of a man talking a dog on a leash. The man walks in a steady direction up a trail, but the wandering dog sniffs and roves far to the right and left, while still heading in the same general direction up the trail. The man is like climate and the dog is like weather.

Clearly things are warming globally, and Montana’s old patterns of heat and cold, rain and snow, flooding and wildfires are changing, too.

“Montanans are not going to escape the effects of climate change,” Whitlock said.

800,000 year chart

800,000 years

About 98% of scientists are convinced that warming is caused by human activity, Whitlock said.

Since the start of the Industrial Age more than 200 years ago, humans have been burning coal and other fossil fuels to run our factories, heat our homes, produce electricity and drive our cars.

This has fueled revolutionary advances in our standard of living.

Yet progress came with a hidden cost.

We have poured millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These greenhouse gases persist and act like an invisible blanket that traps heat in the atmosphere, warming the world, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

In their public talks, the scientists lay out evidence that the world is getting hotter:

--The last 115 years are the warmest of the past 1,700 years.

--The years 2013 to 2017 were the warmest five years on record.

--In 2018, there were 14 weather-climate disasters — hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, fires, freezes, etc. — that each caused losses of $1 billion or more.

Maxwell said he showed one chart at the Drummond public library to a bunch of ranchers that they found fascinating.

It shows how the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has gone up and down over the last 800,000 years.

Scientists have been able to measure the atmosphere over millennia by pulling up ice cores in the Antarctic and Greenland and measuring air bubbles frozen over time. Carbon dioxide levels have fallen and risen — ranging between 170 and 300 parts per million — as ice ages have come and gone.

Scientists also measure CO2 in the atmosphere every year from the Mauna Loa mountaintop in Hawaii.

“What’s important is where we are now,” Maxwell said.

After staying within the range of 170 to 300 parts per million for 800,000 years, suddenly carbon dioxide levels have spiked, zooming up above 400 parts per million, basically off the chart.

Carbon dioxide is roughly “double what we’ve seen in the last 800,000 years,” Maxwell said. “That blanket is twice as thick.”

By the end of the meeting with the Drummond folks, he said, “it was really sinking in with them that things are really different.”

Alarm bells

The spike in carbon dioxide is behind what Maxwell called “a very alarming report” — the 2018 report by some 800 scientists on the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC panel warned that as early as 2040 the world will see food shortages, wildfires, coastal flooding, droughts, sea ice melting and coral reefs dying. That is unless we change the world’s economy faster and on a more massive scale than humankind has ever attempted.

“They’re saying that these are the most important years in history,” Maxwell said. “Scientists are not people that typically sound alarms unless they really, really know what the chances are. This report sounds an alarm like no other.”

He quoted the IPCC report: “Only the remaking of the human world in a generation can now prevent serious, far reaching and once avoidable climate change impacts.”

The panel concluded we have to get to “net zero” — stop adding to the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere — within the next 20 to 30 years.

America’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually leveled off and dropped slightly since 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s mainly because of the shift from burning coal to natural gas in power plants, Whitlock said.

Yet the global trend is going in the wrong direction. The amount of worldwide carbon emissions keeps growing.

“This report is really pretty depressing,” Maxwell said. “If we get over 2 degrees Celsius, all bets are off.”

By mid-century the global effects of climate change — losing coral reefs, losing sea ice, rising sea levels, island nations disappearing — could be irreversible and catastrophic.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, signed three years ago by 195 countries, set a goal for nations to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gases to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Paris was shooting for 2 degrees Celsius warming by mid-century,” Whitlock said. “This new report said, ‘Nah-ah — we need to be at 1.5 degrees.’

“And the only way to do that is to stop using fossil fuels,” she said. “Stop burning coal, basically. Shift to alternative energy sources.”

That’s a tough message to deliver in a state where coal, oil and gas are major industries, providing good-paying jobs and paying millions in state and local taxes.

In the Montana Legislature, Rep. Joe Read, a Ronan Republican, introduced a bill in 2011 that would have declared that global warming is “a natural occurrence,” that “human activity has not accelerated it” and it is “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana.” The bill drew national criticism and died in committee.

In 2019, Read introduced a new bill that stated that humans cause less than 5% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while nature produces 95%.

“Carbon dioxide is not the culprit,” Read told the House Natural Resources Committee. He called climate change a “war against coal” and other fossil fuels.

Several groups spoke against the bill. Julian Adler, student lobbyist for the Montana Public Interest Research Group, argued the Legislature has the power to rewrite laws but not to rewrite more than 50 years of peer-reviewed scientific studies and the conclusions of virtually all climate scientists.

That bill also died in committee.

‘Here be dragons’

Time is running out to do something to prevent the worst effects of climate change, Maxwell said.

This month the United Nations’ IPCC scientists issued a new report saying the Earth’s oceans are warming, rising, becoming more acidic and experiencing heat waves, which is threatening fish populations, hurting ecosystems, and fueling more hurricanes and floods.

Climate change skeptics and deniers contend that the climate is always changing. It is always changing, Whitlock said, but what’s happening now is unprecedented.

“When you show them the magnitude of change over 800,000 years,” Whitlock said, people can see “we really are in uncharted territory.”

She quoted a saying old mapmakers once wrote to describe what lay beyond the edges of the known world. “‘Here be dragons.’”

When Whitlock shows audiences a chart of average temperature over the past decades and predictions for the future, she says that in her mother’s lifetime there was little change.

In her own lifespan, the temperature has started to rise.

What concerns her is how dramatically temperatures are expected to rise in her baby granddaughter’s lifetime.

“She’s on the steepest part of the curve potentially and that worries me,” Whitlock said. “She’s going to live in a vastly different world, unless we start to do something now.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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