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Climate Warming Hits The Hi-Line

The Hi-Line is heating up twice as fast as the national average.

That is the conclusion of a yearlong study conducted by Washington Post reporters for a series of stories that ran last week.

The journalists reviewed information from each weather station in the United States. The average temperature at the stations had increased 1 degree Celsius — or about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit — since 1895, the Post reported. 

But in several locations, including New York City, Los Angeles, nearly the entire state of New Jersey and much of the Hi-Line, the temperature increased by 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The Post labeled those areas “hotspots.” About one-tenth of the nation’s population lives in hotspots, though the areas account for much less than one-tenth of the land mass. 

Much of New England was labeled a hotspot, as was a swath of Minnesota, portions of Utah and Colorado, and various other places. 

Winter (December-February) temperature trends across the Lower 48 United States from 1895-2017 (left), alongside monthly trends for December, January, and February (right column). Places that have gotten warmer over time are colored in shades of red. (NOAA image, based on maps from NCEI)

The cause for the temperature increases are varied and many are unknown, the Post reported. 

The potential effects are causing concern among some public officials. Most of the effects will be felt in the agriculture industry, Hi-Line community leaders feel.

Bruce Maxwell, a professor at Montana State University who led a panel of experts in preparing the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment report issued last year, said the immediate impact will be felt by a change of growing seasons, less natural pest control and more serious irrigation problems.

The Post report confirms what the MSU study determined: The Hi-Line is getting hit much harder than the rest of Montana. 

While much of the state is feeling the effects of higher temperatures, the committee was surprised to learn that the Hi-Line was hit so much harder.

“That was a surprise to us,” Maxwell said.

But the rest of the state is warming too: about 1 degree Celsius. 

The MSU committee surveyed every National Weather Service station in Montana. Maxwell said all but two had seen increases in temperature since 1950. 

The impacts, said Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. and a member of Gov. Steve Bullock’s Climate Solutions Council, will be felt worldwide.

“We are the breadbasket for the nation, actually for the world,” he said. 

If Hi-Line farmers are not able to produce enough wheat, the world supply of bread will be affected, Tuss said.

Residents in the five Bear Paw counties — Liberty, Hill, Blaine, Chouteau and Phillips — produce enough wheat per person to make 62,800 loaves of bread annually,  Tuss said. A change in that figure will have widespread implications.

Northeast Montana has been the hardest hit by climate change.

The counties of Sheridan (Plentywood), Valley (Glasgow)  and Daniels saw an increase of 3.9 degrees Fahrenheit, while Roosevelt County increased 3.8 degrees.

According to the report, parts of Hill and Liberty counties were labeled hotspots, though no figures were given. All of the Hi-Line was at least 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than the 1895 records.

Maxwell said the problem will be felt in irrigation of crops. Because temperatures have warmed, snowpacks will melt at one time instead of gradually. Farmers are already feeling some of the effects. They can’t plant because the ground is too wet, but once they do plant, the weather turns dry.

The problem will be more acute in areas not served by reservoirs, Maxwell said. Some plants, such as pulse crops, will react more favorably to climate change, but not others.

Depending on what changes are made in greenhouse gas emissions, the average Montana temperature is expected to increase 4.5 to 6 degrees as we head into the last part of this century, the MSU report said. Montana farmers, as always, will have to be nimble in their response as the climate changes, he said.

Fewer pests will be killed off by the cold winters, Maxwell said, meaning they will live until spring to create trouble. 

He predicted that years such as 2017 will become a more frequent occurrence. That year, scorched forests in western Montana burned in record-setting fires and a fire between Rocky Boy and Havre raised havoc along the Hi-Line. Farmers faced an extremely dry season, which resulted in poor yields.

Maxwell said he was encouraged by Gov. Steve Bullock’s appointment of the 15-member climate council. He said efforts have to be made to fight climate change’s advances but also to cope with its effects. Some of the changes to the climate are irreversible or will at least take years to reverse.

Based on NOAA data, the 2017 average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas was 0.84°C (1.51°F) above the twentieth-century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F), making it the third-warmest year on record behind 2016 (warmest) and 2015 (second warmest). It was the warmest non-El-Niño year in the record. 
From 1900 to 1980 a new temperature record was set on average every 13.5 years; however, since 1981 it has increased to every 3 years.

Tuss said the council will submit its report to the governor and the 2021 Legislature in about a year.

The climate change issue is full of political landmines. Bullock said he was looking for recommendations that fit within the guidelines of the Paris Climate Treaty, known as the Paris Accords. But the administration of President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal.

Still, Tuss said, the membership of the committee is bipartisan enough, with representation from business, labor, civic and environmental groups, that it should be able to avoid partisan bickering.

Tuss said he was hopeful the panel could come up with reasonable recommendations that Montanans can implement.

Maxwell said next on the agenda is a study to determine the health effects of climate change on Montanans. MSU has received grants to move forward, and they hope to have the results by later this year or early next year.

He anticipates that the effects will be widespread, especially on older people. Older people who live alone and can’t afford air-conditioning will be the most in danger as the temperatures rise, Maxwell said.

The problem will be compounded on Indian reservations, Maxwell added, where the poverty level is higher and people are more isolated.

Fort Peck is in an area classified as a hotspot.Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap are in areas getting close the hotspot designation.

The study will also determine what health problems are created by increased smoke inhalation because of forest fires.

Smoke problems from western and Canadian fires has increased in Havre in recent years.

Email John Kelleher at (406) 262-7778
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