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Snow pack is important for our local climate. Photo courtesy Avista Snow pack is important for our local climate. Photo courtesy Avista

Climate change at the local level

The term “climate change” has quickly become a buzz word, a mantra, and a complicated web of science and theory that can, seemingly, cause one to turn the page, flip the channel, or turn a cheek. We tend to get caught up in the firestorm of finger-pointing and causation, but regardless of why, there is a when, and it is fast approaching.  

Though the topic of climate change can seem like more of a global issue than a local one, impacts to our region are being observed and documented as we speak. The warming of our planet has some pretty serious consequences for our water supply, our communities, our fish and wildlife, our economies, and our very way of life. Instead of being a daunting topic that requires significant time just to wade through years of data, we might be better suited to standing up straight and looking the issue in the eye.

What exactly does climate change refer to?

“Climate change” is any long-term significant change in the “average weather” of a region or the earth as a whole, whereas “weather” is the day-to-day playing out of the atmosphere. Average weather may include average temperature, precipitation and wind patterns; “climate” is more stable and predictable than “weather.”

During the modern era, rising carbon dioxide levels are identified as the primary cause of climate change since 1950. There is now consensus on the general warming patterns of the climate in the global scientific community. The “greenhouse effect” has been part of the earth’s process since its beginning; gases like carbon dioxide and methane allow sunlight to reach the earth, but thwart some of the resulting heat from radiating back out into space. Indeed, without the greenhouse effect, the planet would never have been warm enough to allow life to form in the first place. But as larger amounts of carbon dioxide have been released—along with the development of industrial economies—the atmosphere has grown warmer at an accelerated rate. Though natural sources of carbon exist on a massive level, such as volcanoes, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that human activities generate more than 130 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that since 1970, temperatures have gone up at nearly three times the average for the 20th century. The IPCC is a scientific intergovernmental body that is considered the most authoritative source for climate change data; it is made up of government scientists from around the world.

In general, the IPCC concludes that climate change will strain many of North America’s water resources. A warmer climate will affect the availability of freshwater resources by increasing evaporation and reducing snowpack. The IPCC also predicts that the Columbia River Basin and other heavily used water systems of western North America are expected to be particularly vulnerable.

What does climate change mean for us locally?

The Pacific Northwest temperature predictions range from an average increase of 5 degrees F in the winter and summer, and 4 degrees F in the spring and fall. Both Montana and Idaho are heavily dependent on surface waters for water supply; runoff is reliant on winter snowpack and spring snowmelt. According to the IPCC 2007 Report, warmer climate could mean less snowfall, more winter rain, and faster and earlier snowmelt. This could also result in drier summers—lower levels in our lakes and reservoirs, increased evaporation, and lower streamflows.

Local groups and resources are already observing this pattern.

“Just slight changes in temperature and you have all of these cascading results,” muses Chris Brick, Science Director for the Clark Fork Coalition based in Missoula, Montana. The Clark Fork Coalition recently published a report on local climate change predictions in the 22,000 square mile Clark Fork Basin titled Low Flows, Hot Trout.

The report utilizes data gathered in the basin over time, as well as anecdotal information from area residents. It is meant to be “…accessible to the public, informative to those whose livelihoods are directly tied to the river, and illuminating to the policymakers looking for effective responses.”

Local groups such as the Clark Fork Coalition are focusing on the issues and working to get the word out about what people can do, every day, to make a difference and mitigate predicted impacts from climate change upon our communities.

“We did [the report] to localize the issue, to bring the science home, to spark the discussion, and to empower citizen action,” says Brick.

Regionally, climate change is more than just a theory. Since the 1950s, March is hotter in western Montana. Also, precipitation comes as rain, spring snowmelt arrives earlier, wildfires are more frequent, and glaciers are rapidly receding. According to Low Flows, Hot Trout, in Glacier National Park, only 27 of the estimated 150 glaciers remain since the park was established in 1910; scientists predict that by 2030 the glaciers will be gone.

The IPCC reports that in northern Idaho, white pine stands have decreased by 50 to 100 percent, due in part to fire suppression and white pine blister rust, a non-native fungus that has taken a serious toll on the state tree. White pine blister rust impacts to white pine trees also affect grizzly bears; the nut of this precious tree provides grizzlies with an essential pre-hibernation food source. The pine bark beetles are also vastly increasing in number with the higher temperatures, adding fuel to an already rampant white pine fire.

Western Montana’s growing season has become noticeably longer. Missoula, for instance, gained 15 more frost-free days in the past 50 years. Between 1990 and 2006, the USDA shifted the hardiness zone in most of the watershed by one full zone. Though a longer growing season can mean bumper crops, our gardeners and farmers may also be impacted by water scarcity during the summer months with the higher temperatures.

A wider range of plant species will thrive, and the forests should also, but the warmer weather will also bring on more insect pests; native plant species distribution will shift over time, moving higher up. Though elk and deer might do better with less of a snowpack situation, they also might find themselves surrounded by more predators and less food sources.

Fish are one of the most treasured resources of our water-laden neck of the woods. Predictions forecast a loss of 5 to 30 percent of the native trout habitat in western Montana within the next century due to warming. As lower elevation streams warm up, these cold water dependent native trout will survive only in cooler waters at higher elevations; the populations will likely grow isolated from each other, decreasing chances of long-term sustainability.

“Not only are hot trout becoming uncomfortably common in the watershed—so are the number of river closures during fishing season on favorite rivers like the Blackfoot, Clark Fork and the Bitterroot,” says Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks regional fisheries manager Pat Saffel in Low Flows, Hot Trout of increasing stream temperatures. “To maintain diversity, we need healthy riparian areas where trees shade the waters and reduce the stress on the fishery.”

The “snowpack economy” that is so familiar to us will also be impacted—this includes recreation, tourism, hydroelectricity, agriculture, forestry, and more. Our ski hills and back country trails could experience seasonal shifts. Our peak flow river seasons will change. Hydropower generation will be impacted.

What is being done to address climate change locally?

Avista Corporation, the utility company that holds license to two dams on the lower Clark Fork River at Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge, acknowledges climate change and its projections for the region with measures like the creation of its own Climate Change Council in 2007.

Avista’s climate council meets on a regular basis to report on issues such as climate policy, federal, state and regional climate initiatives and legislation. Avista is also a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange; the company has already met the greenhouse gas reduction goals. Avista participates in Washington State’s Climate Advisory Team and is a member of the Clean Energy Group, a consortium of low carbon-emitting utilities that is working on federal climate legislation. Avista also encourages its customers to support the “buck a block” program, which supports the development of new renewable energy sources such as wind, biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, and solar (avistautilities.com/services/renewable).

In addition, Avista’s “Every Little Bit” campaign encourages consumers to use energy in the most resourceful ways possible; “energy efficiency is doing the same amount of work, but in a cleaner, better or cheaper way." This program advocates easy ways to save energy, such as setting the thermostat to 68 degrees or lower in the winter, using window insulation kits, planting trees on the north and east sides of your house, and keeping blinds open during the day and closed at night. Numerous rebates and incentives for wise energy use are offered through these programs. In 2008, Avista provided over 18,000 rebates and incentives totaling over $15 million to residential, commercial and limited income customers; the average residential rebate for single family homes was $200.

 “It seems counter-intuitive to pay customers to use less of your product. As demand for energy continues to grow, we need to meet those needs reliably and responsibly. But new energy comes at a price,” says Bruce Folsom, Avista’s senior manager of energy efficiency programming. “While renewable energy will continue to play an increasingly important role in our energy future, creating new sources of generation is costly. That’s why Avista is committed to the lowest cost “new” source – energy efficiency.”

In Montana, Governor Schweitzer requested the development of a Climate Change Advisory Committee; it comprised 18 citizens and was supported by a panel of experts, public and private technical/policy specialists, and state staff. The group evaluated current greenhouse gas emissions and made recommendations to the state on existing programs, policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and potential costs of these policies. Montana has a very high rate of greenhouse gas; per capita, it is nearly double the national average. The committee cites the reasons for this as the state’s large fossil fuel production industry, substantial agricultural industry, long distances for transportation, cooler climate, and a low population base.

The city of Sandpoint, Idaho became part of the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement when former Mayor Ray Miller signed on the agreement in 2007.  New Mayor Gretchen Hellar plans to continue this effort.

A local Sandpoint group, the Climate Change Action Network (ClimateCAN) is a group of concerned citizens who organized in October 2006; their mission is to educate and empower local communities to make decisions that both prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The “Sandpoint Transition Initiatives” is yet another effort underway to address climate change, as well as peak oil concerns. This group aims to “bring the community together, develop practical solutions and improve the quality of life for everyone.”

The goal of this initiative is to rebuild local resilience, reduce carbon emissions and achieve independence from unrenewable energy and other resources. Created in February 2008, the Sandpoint Transition Initiative received the official designation as a “Transition Town” from the Transition Network, based in the United Kingdom. Sandpoint is the second town in the U.S. after Boulder, Colorado to receive this designation. (Visit their website.) .

“Transition Initiatives are a response to the twin challenge of peak oil and climate change,” explains Sandpoint TI founder Richard Kuhnel. “TIs take a systems view—looking at the underlying dynamic of root causes and developing local solutions based on some key concepts like resilience and sustainability.”

Acknowledging the potential impacts to our natural resources and communities as a result of climate change is an important step in preparing for our future. Whether or not you can agree on the absolute cause of our changing climate patterns, there is some pretty serious data from a lot of different sources pointing to its presence.  

Reading up on the issue can help answer questions and work toward solutions. Look up the Low Flows, Hot Trout report. See the 2007 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are plenty of local, state, and national efforts underfoot; jump on the train or make your own track. Remember, everyone has to be part of the solution; together, our chances improvse exponentially.

“Even if you don’t particularly think that global warming is human-caused, there are a lot of the things that you can do that just make sense anyway,” says Brick. “Decrease dependence on foreign oil. Use energy in environmentally-conscience ways; develop clean sources. Live within our water means. Figure out ways to solve these problems that are, whether human-caused or not, all smart things to do.”


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Author info

Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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