Climate Change

Resiliency Matters: The Challenge of Climate Change

Climate change presents an uncertain future — with potentially high costs — for the Clark Fork basin. Changes in streamflow, higher-than-average temperatures, and shifts in snowpack and precipitation have the potential to make human and natural systems much more vulnerable across Western Montana.

Average temperature has increased 2-4 degrees Farenheit over the last century in the Rocky Mountains. In turn, more of our precipitation falls as rain. Spring snowpack and moisture content is lower throughout the western U.S. Hydrologists have also documented many changes in our rivers and streams. We’re witnessing earlier spring runoff, declines in streamflows, longer periods of low flows and rising water temperatures. Check out our resources and links below to learn more about what the science tells us.

The Clark Fork River: A lens on change

At the Coalition, we understand that our rivers and streams function as the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to a changing climate. Heat, low snowpack, fire and drought can combine in a merciless mix some years, taking a toll on our beloved rivers. The resulting dry streambeds and belly-up fish tell a grim story.

Because we recognize the high price our water resources pay in tough years, the Coalition has been at the forefront of projects that better prepare our streams and rivers for coming change. In addition to community outreach and planning, we infuse our stream restoration priorities with the best available science in order to understand how a changing climate might continue to impact already-dewatered reaches of stream. We use data to inform our on-the-ground priorities and decision-making, drive proactive policy-making and inform people about ways our community can make a difference.

While we cannot know the exact trajectory of change, we can prepare for the future based on a reasonable range of expected scenarios, and we should. In Missoula County and the surrounding area the Coalition has led conservation groups, local governments and business leaders in a collaborative initiative to prioritize strategies that address the potential impacts of climate change.

Working together to inspire action

In early 2013, the city of Missoula passed its Conservation and Climate Action Plan, which outlines its goals to streamline city operations, reduce costs, decrease energy use and build a safer future for the city. Likewise, the University of Montana passed a Climate Action Plan in 2010, outlining its goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020; and St. Patrick Hospital, an affiliate group of Providence Health and Services in Western Montana, espouses a commitment to stewardship and sustainability in its core values. Meanwhile, dozens of groups and entities came together in 2011 to outline climate adaptation strategies at the CFC-hosted ClimateWise workshop.

Numerous mitigation and adaptation efforts are underway across our region. Local, state and federal agencies are responding to the climate challenge through management decisions that are improving resiliency on public lands and waterways. Conservation groups (including the Coalition) are preserving, protecting and restoring ecosystem and watershed function. Local governments and businesses are embracing green building and other sustainability initiatives.

Yet the time is ripe for Western Montana communities to do much more to address the climate challenge — together. For this reason, from 2012-2014 CFC served as lead facilitator for the ADAPT climate working group, made up of representatives from the city of Missoula, University of Montana, St. Patrick Hospital, Sustainable Business Council and various conservation groups. The group not only shared lessons and strategies, but also worked together to convene two Community Climate Summits in 2013 and 2014 to inspire discussion and climate planning. This work culminated in the ultimate creation of the Missoula Community Climate Action Plan, now in draft form.

Scientific papers and research:

Low Flows, Hot Trout”: This long report produced by the Clark Fork Coalition in 2008 delivers a plain-language synthesis of findings from years of data-gathering, covering what’s happening now as well as outlining action items for the future.

Leppi, DeLuca, Harrar, and Running: Impacts of climate change on August stream discharge in the Central Rocky Mountains.”  September 2010.  From the abstract: “In the snowmelt dominated hydrology of arid western U.S. landscapes, late summer streamflow is the most vulnerable period for aquatic ecosystem habitats and trout populations. Download the full paper.

Martin, Maron: “Climate impacts on bird and plant communities from altered animal–plant interactions.” A new study of climate change impacts found that less snowfall at higher elevations is changing where elk browse, and that is changing the plant and bird communities at those elevations. The study was conducted by two University of Montana biology professors – Thomas Martin and John Maron – and published online in the journal “Nature Climate Change.” Montana Public Radio covered this story in a recent Montana Evening Edition feature on January 17, 2012.

In July 2011, the Western Governors’ Association and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a joint agreement for improving the development and delivery of climate science and services to Western states. In the midst of a record-breaking season for extreme drought, flood, wildfire and severe storms, this timely agreement will increase collaboration and boost existing efforts to ensure Western states and the U.S. Pacific islands are better able to plan for these types of natural hazards.

“Climate Change, Aquatic Ecosystems, and Fishes in the Rocky Mountain West: Implications and Alternatives for Management” (USFS): A new report is available that may be relevant to managers of aquatic ecosystems in the western U.S. concerned about the effects of climate change. The report is published as a U.S. Forest Service technical report and attempts to summarize the growing literature on this topic. The report seeks to address three basic questions 1) What is changing in the climate system and related physical/hydrological processes that may influence aquatic species and their habitats? 2) What are the implications for fish populations, aquatic communities, and related conservation values?, and 3) What can we do about it?  The Executive Summary. The full report.

The Environmental Species Coalition report outlining the Top 10 Ecosystems to Save in a Warming World.  Five Western ecosystems made this list.

NASA study by David Easterling and Michael Wehner explores short-term cooling trends within climate change models.  Report summary.

A 2010 report by Western Resource Advocates and the Environmental Defense Fund “Protecting the Lifeline of the West” explores the potential impacts of climate change on water quantity in the West.

A 2010 report by the U.S. Forest Service, “Water, Climate Change, and Forests: Watershed Stewardship for a Changing Climate” explores some case studies in the Lolo area.

Montana DEQ: Climate Change in Montana: Learn how key sectors of the Montana economy may be affected by a changing climate including: agriculture, transportation, tourism, and energy supply. The site also examines climate change and its impacts on the valuable natural resources of forestry, water and wildlife.

Resources on climate planning in the Missoula region and beyond:

The Climate Summits

2013: Inaugural Missoula Community Climate Summit Resource Guide, outlining climate planning history and status in Missoula.

Missoula-area initiative 

  • City of Missoula’s Conservation and Climate Action Plan: Adopted January 2013 to guide municipal operations. Goal of carbon neutrality by 2025. 
  • University of Montana’s Climate Action Plan: Adopted in 2010 to guide UM’s sustainability efforts, with goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.
  • ClimateWise – Clark Fork Coalition: The Missoula Climate Change Primer, published in 2011, summarizes community recommendations for climate adaptation actions that emerged from the ClimateWise workshop.
  • 2012 Climate Adaptation Strategies for Restoration: Adopted in 2012 by Montana Forest Restoration Committee.
  • Sustainability as Core Value: Sustainability comprises a core value for operations at Providence Heath & Services and Missoula’s St. Patrick Hospital.
  • Climate Change Scorecard: Adopted by the U.S. Forest Service, the Scorecard provides a matrix to measure agency performance in the areas of mitigation, adaptation and outreach.
  • Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation Climate Change Strategic Plan: This Plan represents an early step towards addressing the  impacts  of climate change on the Flathead Reservation in   Montana. This initiative’s purpose is to improve the Tribal community and Natural Resources resiliency by effectively informing climate change impact planning decisions made by the Tribes. It is designed to initiate collectively beneficial climate change impact mitigation and adaptation solutions.

Beyond Missoula