How is our changing climate impacting farmers and ranchers in the state of Montana, and what might the future hold?
As is the case with some wildlife species (elk, for example), some crops are actually predicted to do a little better as the climate continues to warm.
For example, hay production on the Rocky Mountain Front has the potential to go up in the next several decades because of a combination of longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures both earlier and later in the season, according to climate modeling from the lab of Professor of Steve Running at the University of Montana.
Winter wheat production within our state also has the potential to increase in the short-term as temperatures in the winter and spring continue to warm as they have in the last century (that is, by 2-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Of more concern is that fact that the state of Montana has become warmer and drier since 1958, with somewhere between 10-15% less precipitation during that 60-year period. This changing pattern of precipitation is shown in the above graph, with a link to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's report from which this graph was derived at right).
Major challenges presented by an increasingly warm climate in Montana in the future include the likelihood that drought events may become more frequent as average temperatures continue to rise.
Figure by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This a major concern for Montana's farmers during the crucial summer months especially, and into the fall.
While drought occurs periodically in our semi-arid state, nobody looks forward to the trouble that it brings - either on agricultural lands or in forests that are more likely to experience big burn years during drier and hotter weather conditions.
While scientists are very sure that temperatures will continue to increase in the near future, the effects of a changing climate on precipitation are more difficult to predict.
Under one scenario, Montana could become a bit wetter in the winter, but drier in the summer months.
Either way, one thing is sure: the timing of rainfall is incredibly important for crops and for cattle production, making the patterning of precipitation in the coming decades a critical concern for all of us moving forward.
The continuation of Montana's heritage of ranching of farming is hugely important, with strong support for these communities throughout the state. With all of this in mind, efforts by agricultural producers to effectively plan for the strong possibility of reduced water availability and potential changes in rainfall patterns will become increasingly important as time goes on.
One example of a made-in-Montana solution to the challenge of periodic water shortages is the Blackfoot Challenge's community-based water conservation plan, developed in partnership with local ranchers in the area.
More recently, the communities in this same area have begun to develop an irrigation efficiency program as a next step to the Drought Response Plan, thereby providing an excellent example of the ways in which communities can sometimes tackle big challenges much more effectively together than as individuals.