.. Global Warming / Yellowstone (pg.1)

AS IT STANDS

Story by David Nolt, Livingston Weekly

Is Global Warming Affecting Yellowstone National Park?

The discussion around global warming often centers around the relationship between a warming climate and melting ice sheets, rising ocean levels and intensified hurricanes—seemingly faraway issues for Montanans. But new science is finding a warmer climate could have many more impacts on our world, and in the North American West—a region warming faster than many other parts of the planet—the changes are already being felt.

There is still much uncertainty about global warming, but the international scientific community is now in consensus about two things: The climate is warming, and the release of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and halocarbons) is directly related to the warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United Nations-sanctioned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among others, all acknowledge human-induced factors are warming the climate.

According to NOAA, rises in global temperatures align with the sharp increase of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Age. Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey recently released a study of Antarctic ice cores and found the sharp rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is unprecedented in the past 800,000 years, and a new draft report by the IPCC says we can expect continued rises in global temperatures of 2° (35.6°F) to 4°C (39°F) over the next 100 years.

The specific effects global warming and increased emissions will have on the environment are less certain than the actual existence of the problem. Scientists are now beginning to take a much more critical look at the potential far-reaching consequences of global warming on localized regions. The climate is incredibly complex, though, and this makes predicting the future all the more difficult. Here in the West, many concerns loom: milder winters with less snowfall; earlier springs and earlier spring snow runoff; increased and prolonged drought; potential for an increase in disease; increases in the number, intensity and duration of wildfires; loss of glaciers; changes in the makeup of forests and vegetation, and stresses on animals and insects.

This will be the first of two installments looking at how climate change could affect southwestern Montana, and in particular, Yellowstone National Park and Park County. This installment will focus on Yellowstone National Park and the potential affects global warming could have on forests, plants, wildlife, and water in the park.

The national parks of the United States are not only a special place to witness the grandeur and sublimity of the natural world, but they also serve as laboratories of sorts where scientists can study and observe environments relatively untouched by humans. Scientists are beginning to look closer at Yellowstone National Park—the nation’s first national park—in an effort to learn from past climates and also to learn if and how global warming is affecting the Greater Yellowstone Area.

Yellowstone Histories

The Earth’s climate has fluctuated much over the planet’s history. Massive volcanic activity formed the Yellowstone caldera, but eventually ice ages formed there and the receding ice sheets carved out the landscape as the climate naturally warmed. Understanding the Greater Yellowstone Area’s (GYA) past climates is an important factor in distinguishing anthropogenic trends from natural ones.

The National Park Service and Montana State University (MSU) are taking a critical look at Yellowstone’s history, and they are doing so by learning from what animal species and trees have to tell. A new network called the Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network is working with the National Park Service to take a critical look at the histories of national parks in the United States. The program divided the parks in the continental United States into 32 regions. In each region scientists will be undertaking a rigorous approach to long-term monitoring of the ecosystems’ health.

Lisa Graumlich is the executive director of the Big Sky Institute, a scientific and public outreach center helping educate people about the ecosystem of the Greater Yellowstone Area and how humans have affected it. Graumlich dedicated much time studying tree rings and tree cores from the GYA. She believes the national parks provide a unique opportunity to learn about the health of ecosystems. “The limited land use, such as logging, in forests and parks means the parks are one of the few places where we can see the global impacts of global warming,” Graumlich says.

One of Graumlich’s graduate students, Anne Schrag, is examining the impacts of climate on high elevation forests through time as part of the Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network. Over the past two years the network chose a set of indicators for the health of the ecosystem, and Schrag says the information they collect will help scientists monitor long-term change in the GYA. “We hope to eventually show how to relay those results to a land-use manager so they can make better informed decisions,” Schrag explains.

The network will be looking at a wide array of environmental indicators including water and soil quality, amphibian populations, and high-elevation conifers such as whitebark pine. Amphibian populations, for example, are very sensitive to environmental changes, so the network will be monitoring the area’s available amphibian breeding habitat. The whitebark pine is a keystone species for the sub-alpine ecosystem of the GYA. The network will be monitoring the percentage of trees affected by drought throughout the area’s history and also will be exploring the possible effects of drought in the future.

Graumlich says long-term monitoring will help keep the “pulse of the park” and will be very valuable in helping address climate change and other environmental issues, particularly in the five to 10-year future. “We want to be able to say to the park, ‘this is what’s happening based on the best data,’” Schrag says. Her thesis paper will be trying to establish a way to integrate the cause of environmental change into long-term monitoring of the GYA.

The Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network is still in initial stages, so no conclusions have been reached based upon the network’s studies yet. In the summer of 2005, Schrag and other MSU students collected tree cores from whitebark pines and other tree line conifers in Yellowstone National Park’s high country. The main objective of the study is to examine spatial and temporal effects between the trees and the environment, or how they respond to temperature and water.

Tree rings can tell scientists the year a tree was established, the length of each year’s growing season, whether or not there was a drought, temperature and the presence of fire. Many of the GYA’s whitebark pine trees are anywhere from 500 to 1000 years old, which allows scientists to get an intimate look at environmental histories. Schrag says the tree ring study is too new to make far-reaching conclusions, but she does say some of the modeling they did concerning tree line conifers and a warmer climate indicate the decline of whitebark pine as a major concern for the future.

Jesse Logan studied mountain pine beetles with the Forest Service for 30 years. Though he is retired, he is still studying the beetles’ effects on conifers, and in particular, their effects on whitebark pine trees in Yellowstone National Park.

“The whitebark pine in much of the park are really getting clobbered,” Logan says. “It is unprecedented in recent times. Global warming has allowed mountain pine beetles to exploit high elevation ecosystems in ways that they’ve not previously been able to do.”

Logan says the beetles respond almost immediately to a warming climate, while it takes trees decades to respond to the same changes. Mountain pine beetles are native to Montana, and outbreaks of infestation in the state vary much over the years. Roy Renkin, a vegetation specialist for the National Park Service in Yellowstone, says the infestations almost always coincide with drought. Immature stages of the mountain pine beetles stay within trees through the winter, so colder winter temperatures can result in high mortality. On the other hand, warmer winters, which Yellowstone National Park has been experiencing since the 1980s, have allowed more of the beetles to survive. When the adult insects emerge the following summer they immediately attack and burrow into other living trees where they lay eggs t o continue the life cycle. Healthy trees can affectively “pitch out” the insects by sending a flow of sap to the affected area, but only to an extent. Too many attacking beetles will kill a tree.

Logan believes the increases in mountain bark beetle outbreaks is consistent with global warming climate modeling, and because most models predict a global increase of 2° (36°F) to 5°C (41°F) over the next 50 years, Logan believes the situation will only get worse. “It’s a major issue,” Logan stresses. “There is a chance of losing whitebark pine—a foundation species—as a dominant forest in the U.SÉnot only in the park and the Greater Yellowstone Area, but across the distribution of whitebark pine. At all of our study sites we are getting unprecedented mortality rates that far outstrip the widespread mortality that occurred during the warm period of the 1930s.”

Logan points out whitebark pine provides much habitat for wildlife and is critical in the distribution of snow because the trees act as snow fences on high ridgelines. The loss of these “snow fences” will have subsequent effects on soil hydrology and spring melting, Logan says. “Remove that species, and the whole ecosystem will change. It’s a major concern as far as biodiversity.”

The potential loss of whitebark pine in the GYA is also a major concern for grizzly bears. Whitebark pine seeds are a major food source for grizzlies. Last autumn the Bush Administration proposed removing the Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species List, but many environmental groups say it is too early to do so. The potential loss of one of the grizzly’s main food sources could significantly harm the species, and some say would threaten grizzlies enough to warrant continued protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Many other shifts in vegetation could occur if current warming trends continue. Cathy Whitlock, a professor of Earth Sciences at MSU, and colleagues used a computer models to project future vegetation changes in the GYA if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were to double. She says the models produced a complicated pattern. Some species, like lodgepole pine, did fine while others, such as whitebark pine, suffered considerably from a warmer climate.

Whitlock uses data from sediment cores from Yellowstone Lake—some of which date back to the last ice age. Whitlock says understanding past climates and ecologies is vital to determine whether what the GYA is seeing now has a precedent. Her studies show many changes in the makeup of plants and forests throughout history. She says more data are needed to determine whether or not current GYA conditions are part of a long-term trend, but points out much of what is happening now is consistent with predictions and models of warming induced by a rise in greenhouse gases.

“Every one asks about the long-term, if what we’re seeing has a precedent,” Whitlock says. “We’re using the best information we can get to try and understand this. We do know that the current drought is equal to or greater than what we’ve seen in the last 100 years and possibly in the last 1000 years.”

Seeing Through the Smoke

The 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park captivated the nation. According to the Park Service, ecosystem-wide, about 1.2 million acres burned; 793,000 of the park’s 2,221,800 acres burned, or almost a third of the entire area of the park. Many thought the forests would never recover but were soon proved wrong when the charred forest floors sprung back to life the next spring. Some scientists are now saying the ’88 fires may have ushered in a new age of fire activity in the West. As University of Montana climate scientist Steven Running points out in the August 18 issue of the journal Science, the government sunk $120 million fighting the enormous fires, but the flames only went out when snow fell in mid-September.

While no one is claiming wildfires are not a natural and cleansing force in Rocky Mountain forests, new science is showing global warming is likely making wildfires worse. For several decades Smokey the Bear and the Forest Service aggressively fought wildfire in the national forests of the United States. Many forests, which could have benefited from a burn, became choked with fuels, and many believe this is what is driving the larger wildfires in some forest types in recent years.

A new study published in the journal Science and led by Tony Westerling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California shows climate, not land-management, is likely the larger driving force in wildfire activity. According to the study, which used the most comprehensive data compiled for wildfire in the western United States, “Élarge increases in wildfire driven by increased temperatures and earlier spring snowmelts in forests where land-use history had little impact on fire risks indicates that ecological restoration and fuels management alone will not be sufficient to reverse current wildfire trends.”

These findings, according to Running, call in to question the logic of the controversial “Healthy Forests” initiative, which sites an over-buildup of fuels as the main source of increased wildfires. Under the initiative, dead and dying trees are to be cleared within national forests to reduce the risk of wildfire, assuming an increased density in forests is the main reason for bigger, more intense fires.

Westerling’s study also states, “Since 1986Élonger, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.” The study also shows the length of the active wildfire season in the western U.S. increased by 78 days, and the average duration of large fires increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days. It continues, “Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer bruning (5 weeks) fires.” According to the study, “the greatest increase in wildfire frequency has been in the Northern Rockies, which account for 60 percent of the increase in large fires.”

Mountain snowpack in the western United States serves as a vital reservoir of water—a precious resource in the region. Three quarters of annual stream flow in the western United States comes directly from snowpack. According to a study led by Steven Running, March temperatures across Montana are up 5°C (41°F) in the last 50 years alone (more on Running’s research in next week’s issue). This trend, fairly consistent across the western United States, is resulting in an earlier snowmelt, and leads to a longer, drier fire season.

Westerling used data collected by Thomas Swetnam of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research for the wildfire study. Swetnam told the Livingston Weekly the difference in moisture between an early spring and a late spring is huge, and a strong warming signal in the Northern Rockies means early springs are most likely to continue.

Swetnam says it is hard to say for certain whether human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are directly responsible for more frequent and intense wildfires. “It is tough to say for sure that global warming is causing these patterns in fires,” he admits. “In my opinion, it is likely. The West is warming and experiencing earlier runoff and earlier flowering times for plants are occurring. There is no smoking gun [linking global warming to fires], but what we’re seeing is certainly consistent with our studies of global warming, and we certainly can expect these trends to continue.”

Swetnam also says he is concerned warming and drought could eventually change the makeup of western forests. “I worry these forests are adapted to fires, and if the fires occur over a greater frequency than in the past, they will be affected negatively. The forests may convert to shrubfields and grasslands, and this would have larger negative ecological effects.”

The Westerling study predicts global warming could negate and even reverse the effect of forest carbon sequestration. Plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Westerling’s study finds “Éan increased frequency of large wildfires will lead to changes in forest composition and reduced tree densities, thus affecting carbon pools. Current estimates indicate that western U.S. forests are responsible for 20 to 40 percent of total U.S. carbon sequestration. If wildfire trends continue, at least initially, this biomass burning will result in carbon release, suggesting that the forests of the western United States may become a source of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide rather than a sink, even under a relatively modest temperature-increase scenario.”

Fire events in the GYA are certainly nothing new, however; history shows cycles of large fires in the area over the past several thousand years. Grant Meyer, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico, took a look into the history of wildfire in Yellowstone National Park to see how erosion and sedimentation after fires respond to changes in climate. Because severe wildfires initially leave the ground barren and covered with ash, they often create large debris flows during subsequent summer thunderstorms. Meyer used records of fire preserved in sedimentary deposits from fire debris flows and compared the historical fire data with that of the 1988 Yellowstone fires.

Meyer says the data distinctly showed times when there was a lot of fire and erosion and times when there was not. The differences, Meyer says, related to well-known climate episodes. “The last time there was a real spate of fires and debris flows in Yellowstone was the Medieval warm period between 900 and 1300 AD,” Meyers says. The effects of the Medieval fire events were not that different from the 1988 fires, which Meyers says indicates the 1988 fires were not unprecedented.

“What happened to Yellowstone’s lodgepole forests in 1988Éwas not related to fire suppression efforts,” Meyers says. “Thirty years of effective suppression would not make that big of a change. It looks like the whole system is controlled by climatic changes.”

Meyers looked at climate trends in the GYA for the last 100 years and says summer temperatures are going up and winter precipitation is going down. “If the climate shifts to one where certain vegetation can’t exist and becomes more conducive to fire and insects [like mountain pine beetle]Éno matter how much management you do, you won’t be able to maintain what was former vegetation,” Meyers says. “Certain species will just get forced out.”

The Mystery of the Willows

Don Despain was a plant ecologist for Yellowstone National Park for over thirty years. After receiving his doctorate, he began working for the park in the fall of 1971. Though he is retired from the National Park Service (NPS), he is currently working on behalf of the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in conjunction with the NPS to study the park’s willow species. Since September 2005, Despain and Roy Renkin, a vegetation management specialist for the NPS, have been studying the Bebb’s, Geyer’s and Booth’s willows in an effort to explain an unprecedented surge in the plants’ summer growth.

The study is focusing on plant growth and chemical herbivory, or how plants produce starches, sugars and secondary compounds in order to grow rapidly yet discourage herbivores from eating the plants. The ecologists are looking at how the levels of these compounds change throughout the year and how much temperature influences the process. The willows produce glucose, which produces sucrose and sugars for food storage. Most plants keep the starch for the next year, but once the temperature drops they begin breaking the starch down into simple sugars. It is a process heavily dependent on temperature.

Typically, the willows only grow a few inches to a foot in the summer. Data from the 1980s show the average annual growth of the willows at only about one foot or less, but recently the plants have been growing three to four times longer. In some cases the willows are producing summer growth of up to four feet, something unheard of in the 50 years ecologists have been studying the willows. Many willows cannot even hold up the extra growth and sag under their own weight.

The willows’ growth begins in the spring after the first few consecutive days above freezing. The end of their growth is determined by day length. Despain and Renkin worry milder winters and earlier springs in the park are inducing the growth spurts. Other scientists studying the willows believe reintroduced wolves are responsible for the growth; the mere presence of the predators is deterring elk from browsing the willow stems, they say. Despain and Renkin acknowledge the willows first began growing two to four feet longer during the time of wolf reintroduction, but they believe temperature is the controlling factor in the willow growth.

On a balmy August day in the Lamar Valley, Despain and Renkin wander between the willows looking for one of their study points. Renkin hones in with a GPS device, and soon they find their willow. A small orange flag is tied the tree as well as a small sensor, which records temperature data every hour. Renkin downloads the temperature data as Despain cuts a couple of sample branches—about three feet of this summer’s growth. He puts them in a bag and then into a cooler full of dry ice, which he will express ship to a lab in Salt Lake City by the end of the day.

“People think this is caused by wolves,” Despain says, “but there is something else going on here.” Obscured by willow branches, Renkin echoes those sentiments as he downloads from the temperature sensor. “The whole wolf thing is intriguing,” Renkin admits, “but the fact is, they don’t make the willows grow like this. We’re looking at about four feet of new growth here.”

Despain and Renkin’s willow studies are ongoing for another year and will not be published until later in 2008. Until then they cannot say for sure if a warmer climate in the park is responsible for the growth, and even then it is hard to decisively connect the growth spurts with global warming. However, Despain and Renkin do say a logical hypothesis can be made if temperature increases are found to be the cause of the growth.

Yellowstone Warming By the Numbers

Snow course and climate stations in Yellowstone National Park reveal a slight trend in temperature increase and a decrease in winter precipitation and snow water equivalent (SWE)—a common snowpack measurement to determine the amount of water in snow. For almost 37 years Phillip Farnes worked for the Montana Snow Survey Program. Since his retirement 16 years ago, he has continued to work on snow and climate related analysis. His data for Yellowstone National Park at Mammoth shows the average annual temperature increased by 1.20C from 1888 through 2005. . The 1971-2000 average annual daily temperature at Mammoth is 50C (410F). In roughly the same period (1895-2005) the annual maximum daily temperature increased 2.10C (350F), and the average annual minimum daily temperature increased 0.60C (330F). The growing season for grasses is now starting 12 days earlier and ending four days earlier.

The 1971-2000 average annual precipitation at Mammoth is 371 mm (14.6 inches). Between 1890 and 2005, annual precipitation decreased 66 mm (2.6 inches), October-March precipitation (average 136 mm/5.4 inches) decreased 83 mm (3.3 inches), April-June precipitation (average 127 mm/5 inches) increased 7 mm (0.3 inches), and July-September precipitation (average 108 mm/4.2 inches) increased by 10 mm (0.3 inches). The day of maximum estimated snow accumulation is 16 days earlier, the estimated maximum annual SWE decreased by 68 mm (2.7 inches). The day snow starts accumulating is now 14 days later, the day snow reaches 25 mm (one inch) SWE is 22 days later, and the day winter’s accumulation melts is now 35 days earlier. Snow courses, where the snow is measured manually, show some decrease in SWE over the past 70 years. However, Farnes says some of this decrease may be related to tree growth and increased snow interception at the snow courses.

Farnes’ data also shows the coldest winter temperature has warmed at Mammoth by 3C (37F). The average temperature is -29C (-20F). He acknowledges the numbers indicate an upward trend, but he is skeptical the trend is evidence of predominately human causes because he says the trends have been relatively constant over the past century with no noticeable increase in the rate of warming trends in recent years.

Farnes says predicting the future impacts and trends in Montana’s climate is very difficult because of the large variability in weather across the state and Yellowstone National Park. He says annual and seasonal variability may be bigger factors than changing averages, and he also says there appears to have been more variability prior to the 1950s than during the past half-century. “Time will tell if the recent change in our climate is just a short term variability like that which has occurred periodically in the past or something more permanent,” Farnes explains.

Wildlife, Water and a Warmer Climate

Along the road between Mammoth and Cooke City in Yellowstone National Park, visitors drive over the Yellowstone River, across the Yellowstone plateau, past lakes, ponds, buffalo, elk—even wolves if one is lucky—and eventually to the feet of the southern Absaroka mountains near Cooke City.

A closer look, especially to a seasoned eye, can reveal several changes along the road. Many of the pond and lake levels are so low several feet of bleached rocks and cracked soil reveals where the shorelines used to be. In some cases, the lakes and ponds are dried up altogether. Roy Renkin sees those changes everyday, and he has seen the subtle and not-so-subtle decline in water over 20 years.

“One of the biggest changes, yet subtle—but at the same time is very dramatic—has been the reduction of source water and groundwater that I’ve seen in the park in the last two decades,” Renkin says. “Mostly in the northern range and in high country ponds—ponds that existed through the summer are now dried out to the point there isn’t standing water and hasn’t been for 10 years. What was formerly wetlands is now replaced by grasslands.”

Renkin often flies over the park to do fire surveys. Recently, flights are revealing something else: receding water. “The lakes are very much receded,” Renkin stresses. “You can see the former shorelines, and in some cases they are as much as 50 percent reduced in some lakes and ponds, forming a halo around the water.”

Renkin says even though the past two years’ snowpack has been at or above average, the park is not getting the groundwater recharge it needs to keep water in the ponds and lakes. Wetlands are crucial to waterfowl and amphibians, but Renkin is not aware of any current studies focusing on drought and species loss. Though he says there is no eminent extirpation of species looming, with the loss of wetlands goes a loss of biodiversity.

John Varley, is a former chief scientist for Yellowstone National Park. In an interview with the Bozeman Chronicle, Varley talked about the changes he saw in the park’s wetlands. “In Yellowstone the decrease in lakes and ponds and wetlands has been astounding,” Varley says. “What were considered permanent bodies of water, meaning reference was given to them in the 1850s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and bestowed with a name as a lake, are now gone. Some wetlands that were considered permanent ponds are no longer there. Some lakes have become ephemeral.”

Varley also says warmer and drier translates into a loss of biological diversity, an expansion of succulent plants in the park’s northern range, and could create an environment wherein diseases and organisms like hookworm parasites—fatal to canids—could gain a stronghold.

Christopher C. Wilmers of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley and Wayne M. Getz of the University of California, Berkeley Mammal Research Institute, released a report on climate change and wolves in April 2005. In the report, the scientists say milder winters could lead to a domino of changes involving wolves and their prey.

The report states, “In Yellowstone National Park, winter conditions and reintroduced gray wolves together determine the availability of winter carrion on which numerous scavenger species depend for survival and reproduction. As climate changes in Yellowstone, therefore, scavenger species may experience a dramatic reshuffling of food resources.”

Upon analyzing 55 years of weather data from the park, the scientists concluded winters in the northern range of the park are shortening, which could lead to elk recovering sooner from the stresses of winter, and also could mean elk may find more and more succulent plants to eat. These factors, they say, will influence the timing and abundance of carrion as late-winter elk mortality declines. Because scavengers are heavily dependent upon the carrion, the report states “a serious food bottleneck could develop.”

Wolves are scavengers, but they also directly kill their own prey. Because of this, the report says wolves could act as buffers of climate change in Yellowstone, providing year-round carcasses when milder winters are declining mortality rates for scavenger carrion.

Douglas Smith, a wolf biologist in Yellowstone National Park, says the Wilmers/Getz report shows the presence of carrion and carcasses came as pulses in a warmer climate. “Climate change creates a highly variable and unpredictable environment,” Smith says. “Scavengers couldn’t adapt to that. Wolves smooth out the variability.”

Smith also cited a study on wolves out of Banff, Canada proving a relationship between global climate patterns and wolf kills. The study showed a high number of wolf kills in deep snow years, and low wolf kill numbers in low snow years. Ungulates have a harder time in deep snow, making them easier prey for wolves.

While Smith says no such study has proved a relationship between climate and wolf kills in Yellowstone, he does say last year’s winter could emphasize such an effect. Snowfall accumulation in the 2005-2006 winter was average, but temperature created its own effect on predators and prey. Cold snaps occurred at the beginning and the end of the winter, but abnormally warm conditions in between crusted the snow causing an detrimental effect on ungulates. Because of this, wolf kills for the winter were high. Smith also worries the extreme variability involved with global warming—such as unseasonably warm late winters and unseasonably cold early springs—could severely stress the park’s wildlife.

The relationship between a warmer climate, snow, water and plant and animal species in Yellowstone is a testament to the exacerbating domino effect global warming could have on the environment. Much is still uncertain, but some scientists like John Varley are saying the expected continued warming will certainly have significant effects on the Greater Yellowstone Area. “YellowstoneÉwon’t be the same place that we worked so hard to protect the last 135 years,” Varley says.

Globally Local

Equal parts skepticism and doomsdaying have been a part of the global warming debate since the phrase first surfaced in the 1980s. Scientists are now beginning to understand much more about the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and the climate, but the issue is as complex as the systems driving the Earth’s climate. While scientists can hypothesize and make logical conclusions based on observations of today’s climate and what we know about past climates, it is extremely difficult to take a single environmental change and attribute it to greenhouse gas emissions. However, most scientists now believe the sharp rise in atmospheric gases since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly since the mid-20th century, are playing a significant role in record-breaking temperatures across the world.

As the debate goes on, many worry the problem only gets worse as people continue to bicker about its existence. Over hundreds of thousands of years the planet’s climate went from one extreme to the other and back again. Are the changes we are seeing natural, or are they related to greenhouse gas emissions? If the problem is real, what will it mean for ecosystems and societies around the world, and is there anything communities can do to prepare for the changes?

Eric Schneider served as the chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 1988 to 1992. Although he now lives off Mission Creek Road on the northern end of the Absaroka Mountains, Schneider’s tenure with NOAA is still very fresh in his mind. For four years Schneider says he had the privilege of working with some of the best scientists in the world, and the news he now receives from them about global warming gives him cause to worry.

“They tell me, according to their models, it [global warming] has happened exactly as they said it would,” Schneider says. “It’s come true in spades.”

Schneider says the evidence is apparent all over the world. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting at alarming rates. A forty percent reduction in the thickness of Arctic sea ice means around 16 feet of ice melted in the past 20 years, and Schneider says scientists are saying the loss of the Earth’s great ice sheets could signal a fast-approaching crisis point. “If this thing [the Greenland Ice Sheet] melts, which it could do in 20 years, all bets are off because we don’t know what will happen. The sea ice won’t reflect the sunlight, and the expansion of darker water will absorb more of the sun’s energyÉwhich most likely will exacerbate global warming.”

Scientists at NASA recently discovered Arctic ice is not only melting in the summer but in the winter as well. Polar ice twice the size of Texas has melted in the last 27 years, and if current trends continue, there could be no ice in the Arctic during the summer by the end of the century. In March 2002, the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf—a mass of ice larger than Rhode Island—astounded scientists. Melting glaciers and ice sheets will add volume to the oceans, but Schneider says this effect is miniscule compared to the rise of sea and ocean levels due to the heat expansion of a warmer ocean. Some scientists predict there could be as much as a 20-foot increase in sea level within 100 years if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melted.

The oceans operate like conveyer belts of temperature distribution and subsequently drive the Earth’s climate. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the oceans have absorbed about 20 times as much heat as the atmosphere over the past century, which means warmer surface water temperatures and warmer water 1,500 feet below the surface. Scientists say this increase is well beyond the bounds of natural climate variation and could induce large shifts in world weather behavior.

The world’s climate is incredibly complex, though, and Schneider points out even the best climatologists and meteorologists have trouble predicting the weather three days out, let alone several years down the line. Scientific models can predict big things, like global temperature rises, but they cannot predict the weather of Park County in 50 years. The temperature increase alone will have global implications, climate scientists say, though no one quite knows what those changes will be. Schneider says it is important to realize big changes are already beginning to manifest themselves in the Rocky Mountain West.

“There are cascades we can’t predict. We do know it’s going to get warmer,” Schneider points out. “In Montana and the western high plains we can expect it to get 50 percent drier in 50 years.”

As stated in last week’s installment of this story, Park County and the Rocky Mountain West face many potential threats from a warmer climate. At the top of the list is the potential loss of high mountain snowpack, which could mean an exacerbation of the area’s current drought, which could impact agriculture and also lead to longer, more severe wildfire seasons. Earlier runoffs could also mean less water for farmers and ranchers in the late summer and autumn, and it could also mean rivers, lakes and wetlands could get warmer, which could cause stresses and other changes on aquatic environments.

Jim Larkin sees those changes every day, and he has seen some significant changes in ranching and the climate in Park County over a lifetime of ranching. His family has ranched on Oregon Valley Road on the northern bench of the Absaroka mountains since 1927. Larkin, now 66 years old, still runs the ranch mostly by himself. He also plowed roads for the Montana Highway Department in Park County for many years. Winters, Larkin says, are not what they used to be.

“We aren’t having any winters anymore,” Larkin says. “We’d get winter for sure by Thanksgiving. Come November and December it was genuine winter. These last 20 years we haven’t had a winter that’s amounted to nothing.”

Plowing used to be a full-time job in Park County, Larkin explains. Now, between winter rain and sparse snowfall blown away by the strong winter winds, the job of snow removal tends to often be much more part-time. Larkin also sees significant drops in spring water tables as a result of milder winters.

“The spring water table has gone way down,” Larkin says. “Spring snows used to bring good grass and good water. I never dreamed of a dry spring. There used to be creeks where now there are none. It used to be nothing to get snows of 40 inches two or three times a year. It was nothing to get snow in June. We used to get about 17 to 18 inches of moisture from spring to fall. Now we get about eight.”

Larkin also finds himself farming much earlier and later in the year than usual. “The last two years I’ve been farming in April,” Larkin says. “That’s unheard of. The whole country is drying out. Everybody’s in the same boat. Hay tonnage is down. There’s hardly ever a second crop, and providing cattle with water has been a consistent challenge.”

Larkin also says he sees big changes in wildfires in the county. The Derby and Jungle fires both burned at the backdoor of his ranch, and Larkin says he hardly remembers seeing any large fires in the area. While it is true the Forest Service aggressively fought and extinguished many of the fires in the past, Larkin says the drier climate seems to be the main force behind the big fire seasons of late. “Some of the old-timers tell me it’s drier now than it was in the 30s,” Larkin says.

Larkin thinks global warming could be related to the changes he has seen, but admits it could also be a natural cycle. Either way, if current trends continue Larkin says the situation leaves ranchers with few choices. “You either buy hay, sell cows or go out of business.

A Shift in Spring

Steven Running is a climate scientist at the University of Montana in Missoula. His involvement in climate change science, including playing a part in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has him in the news a lot lately. He travels all over the world working on global warming issues, but he says he is also seeing many changes due to global warming evident back home in Montana.

Last year Running released the results of a study on historical temperatures across Montana. The study looked at five cities in the state on both the east and west sides of the mountains: Billings, Great Falls, Bozeman, Kalispell and Missoula. He says temperatures were up across the board, but the most surprising and significant data found March temperatures in all five cities up 41°F in the last 50 years. He also says the average spring snowmelt is happening three weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago.

“What I find amazing is most climate trends are 33.8° to 35.6°F in 50 years,” Running says. For it to be 41°F really pegs the meter, so to speak. We see the result of those temperatures in the early snowmelt. This is so important for Montanans. The early snowmelt will mean mid-summer droughts, accelerated wildfires, reduction of irrigated water and effects on winter recreation.”

This temperature trend could mean the climate on the east side of the mountains in Montana could end up being more like the climate of Salt Lake City or Sacramento, Running says. Such a shift would mean changes in vegetation, a rise in the timberline, and could mean increased drought. Running does admit precipitation in this region is still a large unknown, though.

“Global climate modelers are fairly confident in rising temperature, but we don’t know whether it will get wetter or drier. In our part of the world, though, as it gets warmer it gets drier through evaporation. We could also get more winter rain and less winter snow.”

A 2004 report released by the American Meteorological Society found declining mountain snowpack across western North America. The study states, “Mountain snowpack in western North America is a key component of the hydrologic cycle, storing water from the winter (when most precipitation falls) and releasing it in spring and early summer, when economic, environmental, and recreational demands for water throughout the West are frequently greatest.”

The report says the declines in Snow Water Equivalent (SWE)—a common measurement of water in snowpack—occurred in the North American West from 1925 to 2000, especially since mid-century. The report says the decreases are consistent with the global pattern of anthropogenic temperature increases, such as the rise in greenhouse gases. Because global temperature is predicted to increase between 35.6° to 41°F over the next century, the report says the loss of snowpack observed to date could continue and even accelerate.

A report by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) on streamflow trends in the United States warns the early runoff “threatens finely tuned water-resource and flood-management systems and procedures in many western settings.” Flows in many western streams now arrive anywhere between one to three weeks earlier than occurred in the middle of the 20th century.

Locally, data from a USGS streamflow monitoring site on the Yellowstone River reveals an upward trend in April-July runoff from 1911 to 2006. The trend then declines slightly for October-March runoff for the same years. Whether the cause of the trends is related to natural climate variation or human greenhouse gas emissions is hard for scientists to say. The USGS report does say, “The observed streamflow timing and winter-spring warming trends are consistent with current projections of how greenhouse effects may influence western climates and hydrology; thus streamflow timing and trends may be attributed, in part, to global warming.”

Steven Running agrees scientists cannot definitively connect snowmelt events with greenhouse gas emissions. “From a rigorous point of view, we can’t pinpoint the cause,” Running explains. “You can’t definitively tie back any one episode to emissions, but we do feel these events are more generally attributed to a global change caused by greenhouse gases. From polar ice caps melting to western wildfires, from sea level rise to early snowmelt, they all come to the same conclusion. The only thing we have in common around the world is atmosphere. Those who say these are only natural trends are reluctant to look at global data sets.” The global data sets for temperature trends, Running says, consistently follow the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Season of Fire

The threat of longer, more severe wildfire seasons due to decreased snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt worries climatologists and firefighters alike. While wildfires are nothing new to Montana, the size and behavior of fires in recent years are markedly different than fires of the past.

Historical wildfires tend to burn through forests in a mosaic pattern, burning hot in some places, cooler in others and leaving some parts of a forest untouched by the flames. The burns clear dead and dying tinder and open up the forest floor to the sun, which produces vital new plant and tree growth.

The fires of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park and other fires across the West in the 1980s seemed to mark a turning point in wildfire activity. Fires began burning hotter and longer, charring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest during a single season. Large fire events are certainly not unprecedented in the West, but some say the high frequency of large fire events in recent years is a troubling trend.

Believing wildfires to be a menacing force in U.S. National Forests, the Forest Service and Smokey the Bear aggressively fought forest fires beginning in the 1950s. Their efforts resulted in an over-buildup of fuels in forests across the West, which many people feel is responsible for the increased severity of recent fire seasons. As mentioned in the first installment of this story, a recent study in the journal Science and led by Tony Westerling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, asserts climate, not land management practices, is the driving force in wildfire events.

The study states, “Temperature affects summer drought, and thus flammability of live and dead fuels in forests through its effect on evapotranspiration and, at higher elevations, on snow. Additionally, warm spring and summer temperatures were strongly associated with reduced winter precipitation over much of the United States.”

The study used the most comprehensive data set compiled for wildfire events in the western United States. Large wildfires consistently occurred during the hottest and driest years.

The 2006 fire season in Montana provides an excellent example of the influence of temperature on wildfire. The mountains of southwestern Montana received average or above-average snowfall during the winter of 2005-2006. A warm, wet spring resulted in an early runoff and a surge of grass growth in the foothills. By July, weeks of sustained, dry 90°F days sapped the land of its moisture and set the stage for a busy fire season.

As of press time, over 369,000 acres of land burned in Montana since July 2006. In late August and early September, fuel moisture across the Gallatin National Forest was eight to nine percent—about seven percent drier than kiln-dried retail timber. The combination of parched trees and tall, dried grasses quickly caught fire and burned fast and hard once the inevitable lightning strikes occurred.

The Derby Fire south of Big Timber burned over 208,000 acres, 26 homes, 20 outbuildings and became the nation’s top priority fire for several days. Thirty-year fire fighter veterans said they had never seen fire conditions like those of the Derby Fire. Grasslands produced 20-foot tall flames, and in places where the fire crowned it produced 200-foot flames and created a plume of smoke that created its own weather system and lightning. More recently, the Jungle Fire rekindled on September 13, producing a giant plume that passed over Minnesota and Wisconsin within 12 hours. The Energy Release Component, a measure of burning potential, was 77 the day the Jungle Fire made its largest run, setting a Montana record for that date.

Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and are responsible for 20 to 40 percent of total carbon sequestration in the United States. Tony Westerling’s study predicts more frequent and severe wildfires could eventually negate forest carbon sequestration, and the forests could actually even become a source of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide rather than a sink.

Another concern for western forests is greater outbreaks of insects like spruce budworm and mountain pine beetle. Milder winters allow more of the insects to survive, and recent population explosions of the insects produced significant destruction in forests across the state. Forests with heavy beetle and budworm kill are also much more susceptible to wildfire.

As the wildfires burn more and more land, the cost of protecting homes and structures within the path of danger simultaneously grows. Efforts to suppress fires burning within Park County tallied at just over $18 million. The Derby fire alone accounted for nearly $18 million.

Warm Water

The mountains and rivers of Montana produce huge amounts of cold, clean water for three of the Earth’s oceans. The Yellowstone River, the longest un-dammed river in the lower 48 states, is the largest tributary of the Missouri River and pours off the plateau of Yellowstone National Park before it eventually flows through Paradise Valley and Park County. The world-class trout fishing, hunting, rafting and kayaking the river provides is a major source of revenue for Livingston and Park County.

By most measures, the Yellowstone River is very healthy. The high volume of cold water the river receives from its source in Yellowstone National Park provides a consistent, strong current. This current flushes the river of sediment and disease, and the cold water provides habitat for healthy populations of trout, which need cold water to survive.

A recent study by Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council used increased greenhouse emission scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to model how a warming climate could affect trout and salmon streams across the United States. The study found the two species to be very vulnerable to global warming. Individual species of trout and salmon could lose five to 17 percent of their existing habitat by the year 2030, 14-34 percent by 2060, and 21-42 percent by 2090.

Bruce Farling is the director of the Montana office of Trout Unlimited in Missoula. He also believes global warming is a threat for Montana’s trout. “The early runoff is my concern,” Farling explains. “This year is an acute year to look at. We had a high snowpack, but the snow came off so fast the rivers just plummeted. The river temperatures over here were just stunning. If the trend continues, we’ll end up with less water and warmer water. That’s just not good for fish.”

Farling says the prairie streams of Montana are on the edge of the temperature threshold as it is, and are of particular concern when considering the impacts of global warming. The Yellowstone River essentially becomes a prairie stream once it flows east of Livingston, and could be sensitive to a warmer climate. However, Farling says the high volume of cold water the river receives from its source will make the river much more resilient to the affects of rising temperatures. Other streams, like the Shields River, would be more sensitive to rising temperatures.

Bob Wiltshire, director of the International Federation of Fly Fishers Discovery Center in Livingston, agrees the Yellowstone River is less likely to suffer from global warming than other rivers in the state. However, this is not to say the issue does not worry him. “Personally, I have great concern that climate change could have an impact on our fisheries,” Wiltshire says. “The fish that exist in marginal streams are my big concern.”

Species like the gila trout, a native fish that has been extirpated by fire in some parts of the state, could be particularly threatened by global warming. The Big Hole River in Montana is the southernmost fringe of the fluvial arctic grayling’s natural range and the only place where the fish exists in the lower 48 states. The fish was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and Wiltshire says warmer water would further threaten the species.

Global warming could also make the effects of invasive species worse. Warmer temperatures and lower flows could stress sensitive native species and it could also create a more habitable environment for invasive species like the New Zealand mudsnail and parasites like the tubifex worm, which causes whirling disease in fish. A warmer atmosphere would also make Montana more hospitable to disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes, which could mean more outbreaks of Western equine encephalitis.

The larger context surrounding the effects of global warming could also mean communities would have to make difficult decisions concerning the environment. “Potentially, the impacts of global warming could cause us to accept the deterioration of some of our environmental safeguards,” Wiltshire says.

Global warming could also affect Park County’s wildlife and wildlife habitats. A statement released by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks states, “Initial evidence indicates dramatic consequences for entire ecosystems are possible” because of global warming. A drier climate and the loss of wetlands and prairie potholes would mean serious negative impacts on amphibians, birds and other mammals dependent upon wetlands. Climate change could also mean a northern shift of many species’ natural ranges. The loss of glaciers and mountain snow could also mean a loss of fragile alpine habitat throughout the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Uncertainties for Agriculture

Agriculture is one aspect of life in Montana that could actually get better with a warmer climate—or it could get worse, depending on precipitation. Warmer temperatures would lengthen the growing season, and Montana farmers could even begin to plant crops not traditionally suited to the state’s colder temperatures—once again, provided there is ample water.

For almost a decade, drought has been a fact of life for Montana farmers and ranchers. In 2000, a Drought and Fire Impact Survey by the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service reported 81 percent of survey respondents in southwestern Montana said they were adversely affected by the recent drought. Fifty-six percent of producers reported they had to move livestock to alternate locations because of food and water. A third of ranchers reported having to haul water for livestock for an average of 63 days for an average cost of $30 per day, and many also said they would have to continue to haul water for livestock throughout the winter if conditions did not improve.

For Montana producers who already farm and ranch in marginal, arid land, drought can be a very serious concern. Ranchers often end up grazing winter pastures and hay fields to make up for feed deficits, and if conditions do not improve they are often forced to ship livestock elsewhere, acquire more feed, or sell livestock to cover their costs.

A study of the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture by Cynthia Rosenzweig and Daniel Hillel explores some of the uncertainties facing farmers and ranchers. The study, supported by the NASA Climate Program and the Goddard Institute, says the potential changes range from the effect increased carbon dioxide would have on plant photosynthesis to the effects the warming would have on soil fertility and crop pests and diseases. The study states climate change can impact agricultural sustainability in two interrelated ways: “First, by diminishing the long-term ability of agroecosystems to provide food and fiber for the world’s population; and second, by inducing shifts in agricultural regions that may encroach upon natural habitats, at the expense of floral and faunal diversity.”

Higher temperatures will affect rainfall, evaporation, runoff, and soil moisture storage. While this region could receive more precipitation during the growing season, the timing of the rains is crucial to the success of crops. Sustained heat waves could also cause more water in the soil to evaporate, which would speed the natural decomposition of organic matter and decrease soil fertility. Higher temperatures could also produce conditions more favorable to insect pests. A shift in climate in Park County could mean new pests move in, and it would also mean insect larvae could “winter-over” more successfully during milder winters.

While the study states there is no predicted threat of famine because of climatic effects on agriculture, it stresses the need for agricultural communities to explore new irrigation techniques as well as a need to experiment growing alternative crops. The study urges agricultural communities to explore “diversification of productive and technological systems (such as provision for reserve rangeland and supplementary irrigation for the eventuality of drought), the establishment of disaster coping and entitlement systems, and the creation of management systems that are capable of adapting to and learning from surprises. Adjustments in livestock populations represent one of the first lines of defense against the surprises that can result from short-term fluctuations in crop production.”

John Antle, a professor in the Department of Agriculture Economics and Econometrics at Montana State, says changes in Montana’s climate should be taken with a grain of salt. “You shouldn’t put too much stock in one particular model in one particular place,” Antle says. However, Antle also says farmers should be prepared for further drought. “If I were a farmer or rancher, I would be looking to see if this drought continuesÉit will probably be the longest we’ve ever had. There have been about six in the past 100 years like this one. It may be a cycle, and it may be a trend.”

Even if the trend continues, Antle admits farmers and ranchers are fairly restricted in adapting. “We’ve always had droughts,” Antle says. “There is nothing dramatically different we can do to adapt.”

Jake Cummins is the executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. He has kept up with studies and news on global warming for the past 12 years or so, and though he believes farmers should be aware of the possibility of warmer temperatures and drought, he thinks much of the news about global warming is over-hyped.

“I find some of the predictions a bit dire,” Cummins admits. “Some of them are more rational than others. The fact is, droughts are a part of what we live with in this part of the world. In the end, the value of a warmer climate is not a bad thing from an agricultural perspective.”

He says advances on the technical side of agriculture, such as researching alternative crops, will allow farmers to cope with the uncertainties of a warmer world. Cummins says the uncertainties today’s farmers face are nothing new.

“Farmers are quite comfortable with adapting and adjusting,” Cummins says. “These guys go out on their tractors and plant and do what they do. Weather is a reality they live with. They’re not ringing their hands with worry over what’s going to happen. We don’t know the weather three days from now, let alone in 50 years. It’s just not a very productive use of their time. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be, and from an agricultural perspective, that’s no different from anything our grandparents did.”

Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA), believes the potential for increased drought and temperatures should give ranchers cause for concern. Though the MSGA has not performed any individual studies on the effects of climate change on ranching in the state, Rice says members of his staff have been working with experts to learn how to deal with drought and a warmer climate.

“It is certainly something our guys are aware of,” Rice says. “The general conversation of Montana ranchers is that we have been fighting some serious drought conditions. It also seems the weather patterns used to be more predictable.”

Rice points out this past year as a good example of the challenges of a warmer climate. Once again, the issue boils down to snowpack, early runoff and hot, dry summers. “We had good moisture and snow, but then to have no moisture in July was devastating, especially looking at some of the fires we saw in the state.” Specifically, because the Derby Fire burned mainly on private land, many ranchers lost cattle in the blaze.

The hotter summer temperatures are also a big concern for Rice, especially in portions of the state lacking in trees and shade for livestock. “The extreme hot temperatures we saw in July and AugustÉhad a heavy impact on cattle,” Rice says. “It takes a toll on their performance and how calves grow. Those things certainly weigh into profitability come October and November when ranchers take their cattle to market.”

On the Horizon

So where should Park County go from here? Should any action be taken to reduce emissions here or to prepare for what scientists say could be a hotter, drier future, or is the uncertainty about the issue too great to warrant the allocation of precious time and resources?

Pat Wagman, a Montana State Representative from Livingston, believes the science is still out on global warming, and he would not support efforts to curb emissions. “You can find scientists who could prove both sides [of global warming],” Wagman asserts. “I don’t think our yardstick is long enough. Everything I’ve seen says attempts to curb emissions are so miniscule that even if scientists are correct it wouldn’t have an effect anyway. I just don’t buy it. At this point we don’t even know whether it’s a weather trend, but the liberal part of society has bought into it lock, stock and barrel.”

The highly-charged politicization of both sides of the debate often seems to convolute the science, and even the recent ground-breaking discoveries of connecting greenhouse gas emissions with rising temperatures has not proved to be catalyst enough to result in widespread action within governments across the nation. As of yet, the U.S. government has not taken any significant action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Though the United States is the single largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions, opponents of emissions curbs say the costs of doing so would far outweigh the benefits, especially when considering the exponential increases of emissions from developing nations like China and India.

On the local level, Park County Commission Chair Jim Durgan says the government needs to take more action in addressing the effects of wildfire and drought regardless of the cause.

“I feel we need to change our forest management policies,” Durgan says. He stresses the need to reduce fuel loads around areas inhabited by humans, as well as the need to restore lands burned by wildfire. “The Healthy Forest InitiativeÉhasn’t been approached on a wide basis,” Durgan contends. “After fires, there needs to be renovation practices initiated by the government to reseed with accepted practices of forest and range renovation.”

Durgan, who is also a rancher, says government drought assistance programs are not what they should be. “I don’t think it’s been enough to offset the effects of the drought,” Durgan says. He thinks the government needs to be looking at opening up more conservation reserves and allowing more grazing on certain public lands. He also feels the government should initiate assistance from other areas of the country receiving good rains and producing surplus amounts of feed.

In the end, the one certainty in opinions about global warming seems to be uncertainty. The complex and nebulous nature of the issue leads some to believe it is just too early to tell if global warming is a legitimate problem. Others say waiting until the problem becomes too acute or irreversible would far outweigh the costs of preparing for the potential far-reaching consequences of global warming.

Scientists involved in climate science like Eric Schneider feel global warming is real, and he says Park County needs to begin a serious dialogue to look at the problem much more seriously. “Look, I’m not an alarmist,” Schneider admits. “I’m a physicist. I have to have things right. To me, global warming is as real as the sun going up or down. But how are we going to adapt to this?”

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