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Sudden Droughts And Wildfires Are A Vision Of Montana's Future, Says State Climatologist

A large fire and plume of smoke burning down trees.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
U.S. Bureau of Land Management

If you’re wondering what climate change will look like in Montana, state climatologist Kelsey Jencso says take a look outside. 

“This is certainly what the future may look like,” he says.

Extreme fires, flash droughts, and melting snowpack are all predicted in the state’s first ever climate assessment, which is slated for release on September 20th. The report, which isn't publicly available until its release date, is the culmination of a two-year project involving state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, Montana universities and tribal colleges.

“Essentially we’ve used global climate models and then we’ve down-scaled those to the levels of seven regions within the state,” he says.

Montana is in for some big changes, some of which have already happened. The state’s growing season, for example, is nearly two weeks longer than it was back in the 1950s. Seasonal temperatures are rising faster than the national average and Jencso says it’s getting hotter, more quickly, when winter turns into spring.

“I think everybody kind of recognizes that with the earlier snow melts that we’ve seen,” he says. Snow is now melting 15 to 20 days earlier than it did back in the 1950s.

“That water leaves our landscapes and things begin to dry out much more rapidly," he says. "So we go into summertime with a reduction in soil moisture and fuel moisture and so conditions are set for increased fire and potentially drought.”

Montana is currently spending more than a million dollars a day fighting fires. The drought in eastern Montana cost farmers nearly $400 million dollars in crop losses compared to July of last year. That’s according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

Jencso, who is an assistant professor in the college of forestry and conservation at the University of Montana, stresses that there’s no way to tell whether this summer’s flash droughts and fires were due to climate change.

“To really say this is related to climate change, you need a long period of time to make observations, but this is certainly what the future may look like,” he says.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester says in the 39 years that he’s owned his farm in Big Sandy, he's seen a lot of changes.

"We’ve seen reservoirs go dry that’ve never been dry since my dad dug them in the 1950s. We’ve seen seeding times get earlier and earlier and we’ve seen harvest times get earlier and earlier. So the climate is changing,” he says.  

But Tester says the conversation on how to curb climate change hasn’t really happened in D.C. because some legislators are in denial.

"They bury their heads in the sand and expect things to be different," he says. "On this one, Mother Nature always bats last, and if we don’t deal with this, we got big trouble.”

Republican Senator Steve Daines says the federal government needs to relist large wildfires as natural disasters, allowing access to federal funds that otherwise are off-limits. And he believes "there is some link, there is some human cause, as it relates to the change in climate. However, really the question is what then should we do? What policies should we put in place here because there are trade-offs.”

Daines says those trade-offs should not include the shuttering of coal plants in Montana to reduce carbon emissions.

“I think it’s a mistake for us to move away from coal," he says. "We should continue developing clean coal technology to reduce CO2 emissions and lead the world with that. We’re better global stewards of the environment if we do that."

At this point, capturing carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants adds significant costs to running them. According to a 2016 paper from the Brookings Institute, shuttering coal plants across the U.S. has been driven less by environmental regulations than by competition from the market’s turn towards cheaper natural gas.  

Senator Tester says he’s in favor of investing money into research on carbon capture, as well as tax credits for renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Jencso says even if the world significantly reduced its carbon emissions, temperatures in Montana could still warm by almost five degrees by mid-century. There could also be an increased amount of precipitation.

“But more of that precipitation will be in the form of rainfall and not as snowpack, because of the temperature change,” he says.

Yet despite all the doom and gloom, Montana has actually got it pretty good compared to states like Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, where it could be hard to even grow crops. Here in Montana:

“If we start to plan ahead now, we can actually start to build opportunities out of these changes,” he says.

In an email sent by his spokesperson, Republican congressman Greg Gianforte says “while the report has not been released, it’s clear that our fire seasons are growing longer and more severe. Fire preparedness is a key way to effectively contain wildfires. Because first responders to a fire are often from the local community and state, we need to look at how the federal government can aid the efforts of our local firefighters. One such approach is to provide a more permanent firefighting fund so that local, state, and federal efforts can be better planned and coordinated.”

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock was unable to comment for this story before deadline. The Montana climate assessment is currently not publicly available. Yellowstone Public Radio was not able to look at it. However, it is slated for release on September 20th.