By 2050, temperatures in Helena could look more like Salt Lake City, a University of Montana climate scientist said Monday, with the only remaining question being whether a predicted uptick in winter precipitation will come to fruition.
University of Montana professor Steve Running, who's work contributed to a Nobel Prize in 2007 for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spoke Monday at Last Chance Audubon’s Natural History Lecture Series at the Montana WILD Education Center. This year’s series focuses on wildfire, and Running’s talk ranged from current and predicted impacts of climate change to a few potential solutions as wildfire seasons become longer and hotter.
Greenhouse gas emissions equate to more energy, and while the atmosphere delivers daily weather, about 95 percent of that energy is absorbed into the ocean.
“We don’t know when, where or how this excess energy is going to manifest itself into the daily weather,” Running said, whether warming the ocean, feeding hurricanes or in other ways.
Montana has seen an uptick in average temperature of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years, while precipitation has stayed largely the same. At the same time, temperatures at the extremes -- the absolute coldest and absolute warmest temperature of the year -- have shifted upwards by about 10 degrees for the absolute low, with more days falling into the hotter extreme as well.
In order to compensate for predicted temperature increase in coming decades, an additional inch of precipitation is necessary, Running said.
Recognizing year-to-year variability, snowpack is melting about two weeks earlier than half a century ago, he said, and that has continued to push August stream flows lower.
“In 50 years, we’ll have a much longer growing season,” Running said. “If you take two weeks out of our snowpack season, that’s adding two weeks to the growing season, but the crucial question is, ‘Do we have water or not?’”
While temperature models have accurately reflected what has come to pass, precipitation models, which call for increased winter precipitation in the region, have not borne out. Precipitation models are much more complex in coupling temperature with hydrological behavior that is greatly impacted by the presence or absence of water, Running said.
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“By 2050, we’re heading towards temperatures kind of like that of Salt Lake City, and the real question is whether we’ll get that additional precipitation that the models predict we’ll get,” he said.
An increasing aridness is already visible in mountain pine beetle, which Running cited as “the biggest forest insect epidemic on the planet.” Since 1986, wildfire seasons are nearly 80 days longer, with increases in large fires and fires at high elevations.
“High elevation systems used to never burn because they never dried out, now we see wildfires going up to 10,000 feet we never saw before,” he said. “A repeat of what happened in 1910 is absolutely possible in the next couple of decades.”
Running noted that forest fuels are one area where humans can take immediate control, as addressing climate change is a longer term proposition. That leaves a question of what to do with the logs and branches produced by clearing fuels.
Biomass burner prototypes are still not economically viable, Running said, and past interest in producing ethanol has also run its course.
Running now sees strong possibilities in “bioenergy plants.” The plants, which currently take about $2 million to construct, take biomass at extreme heat, producing oil, electricity and biochar for fertilizing and the ability to heat facilities such as greenhouses.
“It’s beyond the conceptual stage, and appears to me to be a profitable business out of burning this wood residue taken off the forest during fuel reductions,” he said.
Bioenergy plants may have success at a local level, but globally Earth does not produce enough biomass to replace other sources such as oil and gas. Running emphasized that climate-driven temperature thresholds cannot be met without ceasing the burning of coal.
This story has been edited to correctly characterize Steve Running's work as contributing to the 2007 Nobel Prize won by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.