1. Signs of a drought are easy to recognize when the ground cracks, plants shrivel and lake levels plummet. But surviving a drought requires planning and the ability to recognize the markers of the problem before the drought gets severe. So how do we know when a region may be experiencing an early drought? Dr. Heidi Cullen talks to a NASA scientist who relies on sophisticated satellites for the answer.

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  2. In recent years, the state of Washington, like other Western states, has seen a significant increase in wildfires. So far, almost twice as much land has burned this decade than during the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s combined. Almost all of this activity has been on the drier east side of the Cascade Mountains.

    Why is it happening? For a number of reasons, but at least one, say scientists, is climate change. Since the 1950’s, temperatures in the state have been rising; spring temperatures, in particular, have gone up nearly three degrees on average. Natural variability still makes some years warmer, some cooler, but the overall trend has been upward. And in years with unusually warm temperatures, more acreage tends to go up in smoke.

    This warming trend leads to more fire damage in several ways. First, warmer springtime and summer temperatures make leftover winter snows melt sooner. That makes forests dry out earlier in the summer than they once did, and lengthens the overall potential fire season. Beyond that, warmer summers put more stress on vegetation, leading to an increase in mortality. Dead vegetation can be easier to ignite than living plants.

    Warmer temperatures also lead to another source of disturbance in the forests of Washington and much of the West. Spruce beetles and mountain pine beetles are voracious pests that thrive in warmer weather, and which find it easiest to attack trees that are already under stress. By eating their way into the vital tissues of spruces and pines, the beetles kill trees by the thousands, creating dead, dry fuel that can easily be ignited by lightning strikes or careless humans.

    Massive beetle infestations during the past 10 years may in fact have set the stage for the so-called Tripod Complex fire that swept through the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest in 2006, burning some 180,000 acres of woodland, destroying wildlife habitat and costing the state tens of millions of dollars. It can take a full century for the scar of a wildfire like the Tripod—or even a smaller blaze like the Oden Road Fire, which burned 10,000 acres in the same forest in late August of this year — to disappear completely.

    In the short run, say local residents, there’s also the problem of property damage and lost revenue, as the fires and their aftermath keep wilderness enthusiasts away. The smoke from wildfires, moreover, can irritate the eyes and air passages of people living nearby, and can trigger or worsen asthma, bronchitis and other pulmonary diseases, especially in young children and the elderly.

    This is not to say that warming temperatures are the only factor in more frequent and severe fires. Another may be the fact that the U.S. Forest Service has traditionally fought fires aggressively, which allows both dead vegetation and young, living trees to build up rather than burn off. Over time, that makes it more likely that fires will happen more often and burn longer. Newer Forest Service policies try to counteract the problem by thinning trees, prescribing burning and letting some natural fires burn to consume the excess fuel. Washington authorities are also considering another strategy: clearing out woody debris, such as trees killed by beetles, and converting that biomass into fuel.

    If temperatures in Washington continue to warm, however, the extent to which new forest management practices can counter the effects is unclear. Under threat from fires and beetles, the fate of forests in the Evergreen State is an open question.

    Credits: National Interagency Fire Center, Noblèt Productions, WA DNR, US Forest Service, NASA, Rich Wood, Nick Mickel, Russ Armstrong

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  3. Susan Prichard discusses the impact of bark beetles on western forests.

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  4. The flow of water in Montana's rivers is lifeblood for its economy, both through tourism and agriculture. Montana's trout and the $300 million recreational fishing industry depend on cool waters flowing from melting snow high in the mountains throughout the summer. Irrigated crops play a prominent role in Montana's $2.4 billion agricultural industry, and these crops rely on the same strong river flows during the summer when soils are driest and plants thirstiest. But a broad trend is changing the way streams and rivers flow in Montana.

    The pattern over the past fifty or so years is unmistakable. Across Montana, temperatures in March have been rising. An analysis by Climate Central shows that average March temperatures have risen over 7°F since the 1950s. This rise matches general expectations from other research on effects of human-caused global warming in the US West; and the climb is projected to continue (see animated map), although its steepness will depend on how many more greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere.

    Warmer March temperatures mean that snow in the mountains begins melting sooner. Earlier snowmelt means less snow remains during the summer months — especially late in the summer — which translates to less water flowing down Montana's rivers. This means less water for irrigation, and slower flows in streams. Slow-moving water heats up more easily when the weather is hot, so slower summer flows mean more opportunities for water to get above the lethal 78°F threshold for trout.

    Beyond this, Montanans also have to cope with increased wildfire activity and more outbreaks of tree-killing insects. Both trends, which have been linked to human-caused warming, cost the economy dearly.

    Montanans are not sitting idly in the face of these challenges. They have already begun to tap their massive potential to produce climate-friendly wind energy. In fact, it is estimated that Montana's winds could generate as much electricity as nineteen western states consume today; currently, Montana is tapping about 4% of this potential. Making energy from wind produces essentially no greenhouse gases.

    Montana also sits on about a quarter of the nation's coal reserves. Governor Brian Schweitzer wants to build coal to liquid (CTL) plants, which use coal to make liquid fuels that can replace gasoline or diesel fuel. However, CTL plants are water-intensive, and the production and use of CTL fuels generates twice the greenhouse gases that regular petroleum products do. Recognizing the carbon challenge from coal, Montana is aiming to be a leader in a new technology that would harvest coal's energy while capturing and burying deep in the ground carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released in liquid fuel production. Even with this step, however, using CTL fuels would still release about the same amount of greenhouse gases overall as burning gasoline or other crude oil products.

    Footage credits: Environmental Defense Fund, Government of Canada, Invenergy & the Andy Nebel Company, Getty Images, University of Montana, Broadcast Media Center, American Museum of Fly Fishing, Western Governors’ Association, Phil Takatsuno/ Yellowstone Media, Casey A. Cass/ University of Colorado

    # vimeo.com/2091418 Uploaded 6,077 Plays 0 Comments
  5. Climate Central research scientist, Dr. Heidi Cullen, and Governor Brian Schweitzer, discuss the changing climate in Montana and its impact on trout fishing and energy consumption, and explore solutions.

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Climate Central Plus

A drought occurs when there is reduced water supply for an extended period of months or even years. This is usually the result of consistently below average precipitation. Climate change can play a role in drought cycles.

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