UW News

August 31, 2017

Q&A: How Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Yellowstone National Park are confronting climate change

UW News

The Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem includes huge swaths of federal lands, two national parks and some of the most spectacular wild spaces in the country. University of Washington researchers are helping managers of those lands prepare for a shifting climate. “Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems,” published in August by Springer, was edited by Jessica Halofsky, a UW research ecologist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and David Peterson, a senior research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and faculty member at the UW.

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The book brings together years of conversation about what resource managers are seeing – and doing – on the ground. While Halofsky and Peterson wrote the introduction, other chapters were written by scientists and resource managers who are members of the Northern Rockies Adaptation Partnership, a group of 35 organizations that the two UW environmental scientists co-lead.

Q: Where exactly are the Northern Rocky Mountains?

JH: We focused on the northern region of the U.S. Forest Service in the Rockies. Our area includes northern Idaho, all of Montana and North Dakota, a small portion of South Dakota, and all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (including part of Wyoming).

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Q: How is this book different from other climate change reports?

JH: This book is a deeper dive into the Northern Rockies region, and federal forest lands and grasslands in particular. The book also focuses on the specific needs of the Forest Service and National Park Service, which manage millions of acres of land in this area. It puts it in the context of their management practices, and what they may be able to do about climate change.

Q: What new threats will this region face?

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Grand Teton National Park, in western Wyoming, is included in the book’s focus area. Jon Sullivan, PD Photo/Wikipedia

JH: Some of the biggest threats are lower snowpack, which affects a number of different areas. Obviously skiing and winter recreation are affected, but water supply is another big impact. Lower snowpack and less precipitation falling as snow means that the water runs off earlier in the season, and then you have lower streamflow in the summer. That affects water availability for cities and people, for agriculture, and for fish and other aquatic organisms. When we have lower streamflow and lower moisture levels, we also see more wildfires.

Q: What are people doing, or what could they do, to prepare for these changes?

JH: A lot of the “what do we do about it?” is promoting healthy ecosystems. The idea is that a healthier ecosystem will be better able to respond to these changes. We can make sure that the streams are healthy, and that impacts from roads, livestock grazing, and other stressors are minimized.

Restoring the functionality of streams and floodplains is very important. Reintroducing the beavers can also be helpful, because they build dams that slow the water flow, retain cool water in the mountain streams and augment summer flows.

Q: What about forest fires? Is there any way to prevent that risk from increasing?

JH: For forests, it’s about reducing existing stressors. Fire suppression has really affected forest conditions — the forests are denser than they were historically. Doing things like thinning treatments, where you reduce the density of the forest, can help reduce fire risk and help trees respond to drought because they’re not competing with other trees. Reducing high fuels on the forest floor, with prescribed fire or other methods, is also important.

These actions are not necessarily going to decrease the number of fires, but thinning and other treatments can reduce the severity of the fire. So the fire won’t burn as hot, or damage the soil as much.

Q: What about the forest fires this summer that caused evacuations and smoky conditions as far west as Seattle? Were those fires related to climate change?

JH: It is difficult to say how much of a role climate change has played in recent wildfire activity. However, climatic conditions are a major driver for how much area is burned. Over the past century, wildfires in the mountainous areas of the West have seen larger areas burned during periods of low precipitation, higher temperatures and drought conditions. Climate change will bring higher temperatures and more severe droughts in fire-prone regions of the U.S., and that is projected to lead to larger areas burned.

Q: What do you hope this book will achieve?

JH: We hope that it increases awareness of climate change and its effects on natural resources, and also can give people some hope that there are things that can be done on the ground, and things that are already being done, that can help reduce the negative effects of climate change.


For more information, contact Halofsky at jhalo@uw.edu.