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Greater Yellowstone Climate Guru: 'I Worry About Our Wild Ecosystems'

MoJo interviews Dr. Cathy Whitlock about coming climate change impacts on nature and rural communities in West

Climate change is projected to not only transform plant and animal communities, pushing some to the edge, but it will essentially shrink the habitat viability of where wildlife lives. Resiliency depends largely upon giving animals (and plants) plenty of terrain where they can move in accordance with the natural food that gives them sustenance. Photo courtesy Rick and Suzie Graetz/University of Montana and Montana Climate Assessment
Climate change is projected to not only transform plant and animal communities, pushing some to the edge, but it will essentially shrink the habitat viability of where wildlife lives. Resiliency depends largely upon giving animals (and plants) plenty of terrain where they can move in accordance with the natural food that gives them sustenance. Photo courtesy Rick and Suzie Graetz/University of Montana and Montana Climate Assessment

by Todd Wilkinson

Cathy Whitlock's curiosity got piqued about climate change when, as a young paleoecologist, she studied tree rings in whitebark pine outside of Big Sky and charcoal sediment depositions on the bottom of lakes. That information provided a window into past periods of warming and cooling, dryness and seasons thousands of years ago with lots of moisture. 

The geo-biological records are like pages in the book of time. 

Today, huge swaths of whitebark forest in Greater Yellowstone are dead and the decline is so severe that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended the hardy long-lived trees be given special protection. Whitebark produce cones which contain tiny edible nuts that grizzlies love and which have produced healthier bears crucial to the miracle of bruin recovery. The nuts also are staples for red squirrels and Clark's Nutcrackers that cache the cones and have helped the whitebark forest grow historically. 

Tree rings, Whitlock says, revealed previous droughts and warming, both of which have become more acute in the last century. Whitebark pine have been decimated by a combo of a proliferating fungus called blister rust, outbreaks of beetles whose reproduction cycles have become more intense with warmer temperatures, less precipitation that leaves trees weakened and more vulnerable to threats, and forest fires occurring in the higher ramparts where whitebark grow.

Charcoal sediments can be correlated to tree rings to show when forests burned. Whitlock credits mentors with pushing her to consider how sound science can be applied to real world challenges and how solid knowledge can help society make more informed decisions. When Whitlock was getting her Ph.D. at the University of Washington, her adviser was Estella Leopold, youngest daughter of Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac.

Since the early years of Whitlock's career, when ecologists poured into Yellowstone to study the after-effects of the fires of 1988, she has a massed an impressive body of 200 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. She also co-founded the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and more recently was accepted as a member of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS). Notably, she is the first person from a Montana university ever to be elected to the NAS.

Whitlock's insights as a large landscape scientist have lead her to become not only a respected authority but a role model for younger women interested in careers in the biological sciences. On Saturday January 30 as part of the Big Sky Big Ideas Fest and its annual TEDx presentations, Whitlock will deliver a keynote on what data are telling her and colleagues about shifts large and small being caused to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Northern Rockies and treeless prairie by climate change. This Wednesday she will be part of a roundtable discussion with three other people who are dealing with the issue. Both events are being held at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky. You can attend in person or take advantage of live streaming.

Whitlock has national stature and has helped give Greater Yellowstone an international profile in thinking about climate change. In 2017, she helped lead a team from MSU and the University of Montana that delivered a report as part of the first-ever Montana Climate Assessment that addressed impacts to water, forests and agriculture.  Her work is corroborated by numerous studies, including one that predicts that with continued warming, drying and more fires, a huge percentage of Yellowstone's present forest cover could become high elevation grasslands.

Thomas Karl, who served as director of the National Centers for Environmental Information and the National Climatic Data Center as well as chair of  the White House Subcommittee on Global Change Research, reviewed the research that informed the Montana Climate Assessment as well as the outreach to1500 stakeholders across Montana. "I believe the Montana Climate Assessment is a model for how state assessments can be developed and provides an example of how to connect climate change information at the national and international levels to the challenges faced at the local scale," Karl concluded.

A special report added to the Montana Climate Assessment was published in January 2021 and it focuses on the relationship between climate change and human health. A third report looking at the ecological effects of climate change on Yellowstone and its web of life will be out later in 2021. 

Todd Wilkinson of Mountain Journal recently engaged Whitlock in an interview.
Photo courtesy Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Montana State University
Photo courtesy Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Montana State University

TODD WILKINSON: For scientists and, correspondingly, for the media, climate change presents special challenges in translation. The impacts, or rather the disruptive changes coming to what we’ve called normal, seem diffuse or conversely so large or so far in the future that it’s difficult for the public to get their minds wrapped around the urgency. Your thoughts?

DR. CATHY WHITLOCK: I don’t think I agree with the premise. We see the impacts of climate change every day and with ever greater intensity.  Look at this year’s fire season in the West with its record-breaking megafires; look at patterns of warming, with 2020 and 2016 as the warmest on record; look at the persistent drought across the West and the low amounts of snow in Montana this year. The science of climate change has been quite accurate in describing what’s in store for us as we continue to supply greenhouse gases to our atmosphere: warmer temperatures, less snow, drier summers and more fires.  We’re seeing all of that these days.

WILKINSON: You are in the midst of preparing part three in a triad of reports. The first examined, for the most part, coming hydrological challenges facing ag and more fires, etc. Your special report will cause many people to take and realize the connection between what's happening in nature an impacts on human health.impacts to humans.  Riff a little on the importance of this second report.

WHITLOCK: After the release of the Montana Climate Assessment in 2017, we were contacted by physicians in the state who said—you haven’t addressed how climate change will affect our most vital resource—our people.  The recently released “Climate Change and Human Health in Montana” is a special report of the Montana Climate Assessment done to do just that—examine the connections between our greatest environmental threat and the health and safety of Montanans.  The report is intended for individuals, healthcare professionals, and communities.  The goal was to identify the threats of climate change to vulnerable populations and describe measures that individuals, communities, and professionals can take to become more resilient.
"From a health perspective, the greatest climate threats in the decades ahead are the additional days with temperatures over 90 degrees F, smoke from more wildfires, and the increased likelihood of unexpected climate events (floods, drought, extreme storms).  Warmer temperatures, more wildfires, and climate surprises will challenge our physical as well as mental health."  —Dr. Cathy Whitlock
WILKINSON: For you, what are a few of the points in the report that stand out and should be highlighted?

WHITLOCK: The report offers nine key messages and five recommendations.  Key for me are:

From a health perspective, the greatest climate threats in the decades ahead are the additional days with temperatures over 90 degrees F, smoke from more wildfires, and the increased likelihood of unexpected climate events (floods, drought, extreme storms).  Warmer temperatures, more wildfires, and climate surprises will challenge our physical as well as mental health.

The most vulnerable in our population are the old, the very young, and the pregnant. At-risk groups include people with underlying health conditions, people who live far from health services, those who live in persistent poverty, and individuals who work outdoors.  Our tribal communities are especially vulnerable for all these reasons.

Summer drought brings not only the threat of wildfires, it challenges local agriculture, which results in decreased food availability and nutritional quality, as well as supplies of public and private water.

WILKINSON: When you ponder the coming changes to climate, that are going to dramatically alter our region as we know it today, what are the most important things we need to be paying attention to?

WHITLOCK: I worry about our wild ecosystems.  As a paleoecologist, I know that whenever the climate has changed in the past, ecosystems have reorganized, and species have had to adapt, move or go extinct.  It’s just that simple. And, we’re already seeing wildlife and fish populations on the move and undergoing changes.  Do we have enough connectivity in our landscapes to allow wildlife to move and not go extinct as the climate changes?  Increasing population growth in the region, especially at the wildland-urban margin, requires some hard thinking from all of us about how we’ll protect nature and wildlands.
"As a paleoecologist, I know that whenever the climate has changed in the past, ecosystems have reorganized, and species have had to adapt, move or go extinct.  It’s just that simple. And, we’re already seeing wildlife and fish populations on the move and undergoing changes." —Whitlock
WILKINSON: As if this isn't epic enough but what are the other concerns on your radar?

WHITLOCK: I also worry about our small communities, many of them far from services.  We need to help all communities develop resilience strategies for the climate changes ahead so that we don’t leave anyone behind.

WILKINSON: You engage young thinkers, who will be where we are now in 40-50 years. What’s the secret to getting them engaged on a challenge that has been decades in the making and will play out long past the end of their lives?

WHITLOCK: Right now is the time for action and all hands on deck.  My generation has taken too much for granted and young people, especially, are awakening to that fact.  The goal is to reach net carbon neutrality in 20 to 30 years and flatten the curve of global warming, something that can happen during most of our lives.  To achieve this goal will require lifestyle changes, community action, new technologies and some bold leadership.  Now is the time to speak loudly and clearly for action at the local, state and national level. 

WILKINSON: One thing we know: poorer people and or people with less mobility and means are those hit hardest by environmental challenges and so, thus, less urgency is paid to the problems besetting them. How does society address this?

WHITLOCK: While most of us say that climate change impacts us all, that’s not really true. It disproportionally affects people of color, including Native Americans, and the burdens of climate change fall greatest on marginalized communities.  Reducing these inequities is an environmental and a social responsibility that will require coordinated and deeply penetrating actions.  The Montana Climate Solutions Plan, released in the fall of 2020, is a good first step by proposing a creation of a statewide network to develop and share climate information and connect solutions at the state, local, regional and tribal scale.  I hope we can move forward on that recommendation.
"While most of us say that climate change impacts us all, that’s not really true. It disproportionally affects people of color, including Native Americans, and the burdens of climate change fall greatest on marginalized communities.  Reducing these inequities is an environmental and a social responsibility that will require coordinated and deeply penetrating actions." —Whitlock
WILKINSON: When will the third report be ready?

WHITLOCK: The  Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment: Climate and Water, the first in a planned series of assessments for this region, will be released in May 2021.

WILKINSON: For you, what does hope mean?

WHITLOCK: That’s a tough question especially as we are beat up from dealing with enormous toll of  the coronavirus as well as the looming threat of climate change. It feels like a double whammy right now.  Hope for me means getting the US back on track as a global leader in addressing climate change.  Hope means that there will be sustained support for new assessments, which convert scientific information into knowledge that everyone can understand and use.  Hope also means that we can protect wild places that I know and love, like Yellowstone.




Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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