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Missoula could see global warming refugees

Temperatures in the Rocky Mountains have increased by approximately 3 degrees in the last century. Balmier summers and warmer winters leave the region facing a nearly unprecedented decline in snowpack, waning stream flows and increasingly powerful wildfires. Now, a new report indicates that global warming could trigger another 5-degree spike in Missoula County temperatures by 2045.

The Geos Institute, an Oregon-based nonprofit, worked in conjunction with Headwaters Economics in Bozeman and Missoula's Clark Fork Coalition to compile the report. It projects—and attempts to plan for—how global warming will shape Missoula County's social, physical and economic landscapes in the coming years. The Clark Fork Coalition's Jill Alban says the report should serve "as a starting point for continued conversations around the issue of how a changing climate could impact our livelihoods and our community."

For the report, nearly 100 locals, including scientists, community leaders, forestry experts, public health officials and landowners, reviewed climate-change data and then set to work during a two-day workshop last summer to identify ways Missoula can prepare for continued global warming. Alban says it was "a great first step to bring folks together in this manner, to have these conversations and to begin to think proactively about potential changes to our community, to our economy, to our natural resources."

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  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • In 2008, fire ripped up Mt. Sentinel’s tinder-dry west face in just a few hours. A new report says the Missoula area will see even more and fiercer wildfires.

Based on that projected 5-degree temperature spike, project researchers and workshop participants anticipate more stressors on aquatic life from warmer and lower stream flows, increasing floods and progressively worsening fire seasons.

In Montana and elsewhere, climate change is becoming an increasingly disruptive force. Rising ocean temperatures are fueling hurricanes that batter the eastern seaboard with increasing brutality. In Alaska, the permafrost is melting, forcing entire communities to relocate or sink. Last summer's historically unprecedented heat wave and draught in Texas brought ferocious fires and forced ranchers to relocate their cattle to greener pastures outside the state. As the Independent reported in October, some of those ranchers and animals made their way to Montana.

Findings from last month's Geos Institute report indicate that in comparison to southern and seaside communities, Missoula appears well equipped to handle global warming. Despite the Rocky Mountains' waning snowpack, the Garden City still has a plentiful water supply. "Missoula County may be spared from some of the worst climate change scenarios due to our intact headwaters, our high peaks [and] our near-pristine aquifer," says Alban.

That's leading local policy experts with the Clark Fork Coalition and economists such as Ray Rasker from Headwaters Economics to hypothesize that Missoula could become a haven for people displaced by warming temperatures and rising tides, called "climate refugees."

Rasker, who helped compile information for the report and discussed his findings with workshop attendees, says climate refugees could exacerbate Missoula County's future planning challenges. "We might actually have even more of a growth management issue than we used to have, driven by climate refugees," he says.

Scientists know that temperatures are rising. But variables like how quickly they will continue to increase and the outcome are tough to pinpoint, Rasker says. That makes it difficult to predict how warming will affect migration. "What's the likelihood? When will it happen? Nobody knows that for sure, because the science of climate change isn't that precise."

However, University of Montana Professor Steve Running points out that there's no sign that carbon emissions, a primary force behind global warming, are declining. In fact, they're spiking: According to the Global Carbon Project 2010 emissions summary, scientists last year charted the biggest one-year increase in carbon emissions ever. "So for all the talk, there's certainly no action measurable at the global scale," says Running, who spoke to Geo Institute workshop attendees and owns a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work combating climate change.

Running says reversing the warming trend requires a wholesale shift in the way individuals, communities and decision-makers think. He adds that one simply has to look at the coal trains that roll through Missoula to witness an ill-conceived status quo. "I'm reminded how pathetic the state of affairs is almost every day as I ride my bike down to work," Running says. "I cross under the railroad tracks and there's a trainload of coal going from Montana to China. In a matter of days, they burn it and it comes right back to us in the atmosphere."

According to the Carbon Project emissions summary, coal burning accounted for 41 percent of the total growth in carbon emissions in 2010.

Running says there's a vacuum among elected representatives when it comes to climate change. That makes conversations like those facilitated by the Geos Institute and the Clark Fork Coalition especially important. "Clearly, at the national level we don't have a Congress that's willing to get started on anything around this issue. I think it's quite appropriate for communities to start getting to work on their own."

Alban agrees that education is a vital first step toward claiming responsibility for—and easing the impact of—global warming at home. "Everyone who cares about the future of Missoula County has a stake in this process," she says.

The Clark Fork Coalition is inviting people who want to get involved in the discussion about climate change to join one of their adaptation working groups. For more information, visit www.clarkfork.org.

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