THE BUZZ: Teton Temperatures Rising
New report illuminates possible local effects of climate change.
While the potentially cataclysmic effects of global climate change are becoming more widely studied and discussed, there has been less focus on how climate change stands to affect local regions. However, a new report entitled “The Coming Climate,” may help usher rising Teton temperatures to the community forefront.
Commissioned by the nonpartisan think tank Charture Institute and conducted by the Teton Research Institute of Teton Science Schools, the report reveals a warming trend across Teton County, where the annual average minimum temperature has risen 1.3 degrees since 1948. The annual average maximum temperature has climbed 1.6 degrees. Most of this warming, the report explains, occurred since 1980.
Corinna Riginos, PhD, co-authored the study with Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb. A research ecologist with the Teton Research Institute, Riginos said there were a couple findings that struck her, particularly the amount of warming that has already occurred locally.
“For example, the frost-free season at Philip’s Bench weather station on Teton Pass is about 20 days longer than it was in 1980,” Riginos said. “If this is the amount of change we have already seen, imagine how much more change we can expect with the predicted three to six times more warming by the end of the century.”
In a region dependent on long, frigid winters, escalating temperatures are of grave concern.
“Jackson Hole’s intense cold is at the core of all of its essential qualities,” writes Jonathan Schechter, executive director of the Charture Institute, in the report’s preface.
In addition to the flora and fauna that has adapted to this area’s cold climate over the millennia, Schechter also noted that the success of the local human populace is tied to the region’s extreme cold, too.
“Whether it’s residents living here because the environment speaks to them or the vibrant tourism economy based on people drawn to the region’s terrain and wildlife, all of Jackson Hole’s human systems ultimately depend on the Tetons enjoying long, harsh, cold winters,” he said.
Climate change may have drastic effects – both ecological and economical – on myriad spheres in Teton County and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The report outlines three of the most consequential impacts: Warming temperatures will decrease the length of winters and increase the amount of rain during the winter months; the size and number of wildfires will sharply rise (the report likens the wildfire potential to that of the abysmal Yellowstone fires of 1988) and streams and rivers will warm while water levels shrink, resulting in the loss of endemic fish, including cutthroat trout.
Riginos pointed to the most devastating of these impacts.
“The potential for much more frequent large fires would radically alter the ecosystem as we know it,” she said. “We are not just talking about a few species going locally extinct or needing to shift to higher elevations; we are talking about fires so frequent that they could wipe out forests in most parts of the region.”
Such massive, frequent fires would not only convert forested areas into grasslands and shrubs, decimating the habitats of species such as moose and mule deer, but the economic impacts would be far-reaching. Along with the cost of fighting fires, tourism would plummet, much the way it did following the Yellowstone fires, the report concludes.
But not all local effects of climate change may be negative, according to the report. As temperatures rise across the globe and people seek cooler locales, they may consider moving to Teton County, which could boost real estate sales, yet it would also further exacerbate a housing shortage that has risen to epic proportions. More skiers and snowboarders may also look to this area for recreation, as other parts of the country and world experience less snow, subsequently boosting winter tourism. Overall, however, the winter season here will constrict and the need for more snowmaking, a process that uses massive amounts of water, will increase.
Void of panic-inducing language, the concisely written report asserts that solutions will arrive in the forms of mitigation and adaptation. At a local level, the report maintains this includes pursuing greater energy efficiency and implementing policies that offer incentives for consumers to reduce their use of fossil fuels.
As part of the report, researchers surveyed public, private and nonprofit organizations that have varied and diverse connections to the outdoors.
“They are completely aware that climate change poses a threat, a possible existential threat,” Schechter said, “and that’s huge.” But many of the organizations agreed that finding ways to effect change remains the biggest hurdle, he added.
Schechter hopes the report will spark meaningful dialogue that leads to specific solutions. “The first step is clearly identifying the issue and raising consciousness … you can’t solve the problem unless you can identify it,” he said.
But Schechter also sees an opportunity to shift mindsets and foster stewardship among the millions of visitors passing through Teton County’s stunning landscape.
“There has to be a way to create a teachable moment,” Schechter said. “Two and a half million people will be driving by the Tetons this summer saying, ‘This is so incredibly beautiful,’ so what kind of lesson can we leave them with?”
Read the full report at www.charture.org.