The Billings Outpost

Wood rats, tornadoes, climate

By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost

This is a tale of climate change and how plants and animals (including human beings) respond to it – “not in a nice neat linear way,” according to climatologist Stephen T. Gray, speaking last week at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

This tale stars the bushy-tailed wood rat, the Utah juniper, the Rocky Mountain pinyon pine, and their shifting fortunes over 35,000 years – but especially during the last 1,300. 

Let us first set the stage.

Two hundred tornadoes blasted the Midwest, from Oklahoma to Iowa and beyond, ripping up towns and killing at least five people, on April 14-15.

 A couple of days before this, three scientists were scheduled to speak in the Billings area on topics relating – directly or distantly – to severe weather and our shifting climate.

The most famous of the three, Steven Running of the University of Montana, would be speaking Friday the 13th in Red Lodge. His topic:  “More Fire, Less Ice: The Future Climate of Montana.

In 2007 Dr. Running shared the Nobel Prize with colleagues on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and also with former Vice President Al Gore, whose movie “An Inconvenient Truth” alerted many people to a runaway “greenhouse effect” – rapid global warming with effects ranging from more severe weather (such as clusters of tornadoes) to melting ice fields and rising, acidifying oceans.

Rampant burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, natural gas – and the release of excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is, in many people’s minds, the prime culprit.

Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry has backed a vigorous negative response to any concerted, planet-wide effort to curb human consumption of its products.

Dry places get drier?

Steve Running is a compelling speaker, but the last time I heard him was in 2008, and I’d like to hear his view on how effective the fossil fueled counter-attack on climate science has been. I would also like to hear if he’s developed a more nuanced pronouncement on Montana’s projected future climate than “wet places likely will get wetter, and dry places drier.”

But Running’s talk would take place 110 miles from our home in Roundup, and Elizabeth and I were scheduled to be in the Billings area all the previous day, Thursday, April 12, when the other two scientists would be talking.

“From Yellowstone to Yukon: Archaeology on Ice in the Rocky Mountains” was the noon topic at the Western Heritage Center by Craig Lee, an anthropologist at Montana State University, Bozeman.  Global warming, for Lee’s field of study, is an opportunity.  Melting glaciers, ice and snowfields can reveal artifacts of older human cultures and tell us a lot about how previous inhabitants adapted to high latitudes or high altitudes.

An opportunity with a problem

However, this opportunity arrives with a problem. The following quote is from a January 2005 “American Antiquity” article, co-authored by Craig Lee, about ”emerging archaeology” in Alaskan ice patches (see

“Because thawed and exposed organic artifacts decompose or are destroyed soon after exposure, there is an urgent need to locate and preserve them before they are lost forever.”

Interesting topic. (There are many things that melting ice will cause us to lose, if not forever, for a very long time.) But at noon Thursday we would be attending a track and field meet in Laurel. That left us the 7:30 talk that evening at Rocky Mountain College: “Long Term Perspectives on Climate Change and Ecological Impacts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” by the recently appointed director of the Alaska Climate Science Center of the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey, Stephen Gray.

This was the second in a series of environmental lectures organized by David Strong, who teachers philosophy and environmental ethics at RMC.

(First in the series was a March 9 presentation at MSU-Billings by Thomas Michael Power, a Missoula economist and emeritus professor at the University of Montana; it was the opening presentation in the “Coal Train Conversation” reported in the March 15 Outpost. Before introducing Stephen Gray, David Strong announced the third lecture in the series, at RMC Wednesday evening, April 18: Andrew Hansen, a professor of ecology at Montana State University Bozeman who runs the biodiversity laboratory there, speaking on “Land Use Change in the Greater Yellowstone.”)

Climate is not stable

I don’t count heads at RMC’s Fortin Auditorium, but I estimate 50 to 60 people are here for Gray, who before going to Alaska had spent much of his time at the University of Wyoming, earning a doctorate in range ecology before expanding into tree ring research at the University of Arizona, then back to Wyoming: water issues, studying snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, the ocean’s influence on precipitation in the West.

Gray was Wyoming’s state climatologist before going to Alaska. I am interested in what he might say about the north country – melting permafrost, caribou migrations, dwindling polar bear habitat, whatever – but Gray’s power point show, projected on a large screen, taps into areas of expertise he has developed further south, and relies on a long list of studies by other scientists (this list sweeps by on the screen).

Timelines and charts mingle with photos from nature. A cross-shaped figure appears. Each of the four quarters ise labeled: on the left, Cool/Wet over Cool/Dry; on the right, Warm/Wet over Warm/Dry.

A large squiggle appears in the center of this figure; it represents temperature and precipitation activity in the Yellowstone Basin over the past 1,000 years. The squiggle looks like a scrunched-up metal wire, looping this way and that, but generally the squiggle has been moving toward Warm and seems to be sinking toward Dry.

If a particular place gets the same or less rain and snow (another chart shows) yet temperatures continue to warm, then “dry is the norm, and droughts intensify”; if that place gets really “hot!” then droughts become the norm.  Even if a place gets more rain and snow, warming brings more intense droughts, while “hot” offsets any gains in precipitation.

Steve Gray wants to tell us that climate is not stable. Human activity – agricultural fields, cities – have a large impact, but Gray says, “Expect major switches, even if humans are not screwing around with the climate.”

Enter the wood rats

Brushy-tailed wood rats build nests, called middens, into which they bring food from their immediate environment. Seeds, crumbs, bits of vegetation litter the midden, and the rats pee on them, and the pee preserves them, and globs of organic litter dry into the sort of thing we see on the screen: a flat, vaguely oval object, brownish-red, which can be carbon-dated (with the dates verified in other ways).

Gray says this particular platter of ancient vegetation is 35,000 years old.

For nearly 9,000 years Utah juniper dominated the mountains of Utah. About 800 A.D. pinus edulsi, Rocky Mountain pinyon, arrived in the region. Ancient wood rats tell us this. So do tree rings, river flows, and other methods.

At that time the region was in an “extended dry regime” – called the Medieval Dry - with “broadscale mortality” and “abundant niches” opening up for new plants and animals to move into, given the opportunity.

Comes the opportunity, a century or more of rains from the 1300s into the 1400s A.D. It’s called the Big Wet. This allows “rapid recruitment” of new species, “low mortality” and “wholesale vegetation change.” Pinyon takes over as the dominant species in the region.

Inevitable surprises

Utah juniper moves north – as far as the Pryor Mountains on the Wyoming-Montana border – but this movement is not steady; it happens “in fits and starts” often spurred by accidents of weather or geography – rain falling here but not there, incidents of fire.

Today, with widespread warming, many plant and animal species are moving not only northward but upward, to higher elevations. “But species don’t simply move northward or upward,” Gray says. “Change is not steady nor gradual.  Surprises are inevitable.”

To illustrate, and inject some humor, Gray shows a picture of a Standard Poodle, says our usual way of thinking about climate change is that everything just intensifies. A much larger poodle joins the smaller one on the screen. We smile.

Then an entirely different type of dog appears, a Chihuahua. We laugh. Then a giraffe! Then a whole panoply of disparate animals: preying mantis, rooster, auk, lizard.

Will we use our tools?

But we do have tools to deal with uncertainty and complexity, Gray says. He mentions the Cold War - lots of angry, hungry people, some of them possessing nuclear weapons — but somehow we figured out how not to blast ourselves to oblivion.

He talks about how businesses like United Parcel Service adapted to a giant volcano erupting in Iceland and disrupting air travel.

Game theory, he says, has brought us “scenario planning”: We can’t know the future but we can envision a variety of outcomes and how to respond to them.  We need to closely monitor environmental changes, and improve public access to information.

Questions follow, such as “what is the general trend in the Yellowstone ecosystem?” — to which Gray says, “Tremendous swings between wet and dry, over decades … . It’s a complex situation.”

If monitoring and providing information is so important, someone asks, what about recent budget cuts to agencies like the U.S. Geological Service?

“The USGS took a hit,” Gray agrees, but nothing compared to cuts that hit NOAA, the agency that monitors ocean and atmospheric conditions. And realistically, he says, more cuts to agencies like his own, in Alaska, may be coming.

“Imagine sea level rise and what happens to coastal cities. Imagine more hurricanes in Florida, more fires in Texas. Money will flow from rural areas to impacted population centers.”

A final question asks what can we learn from studying the demise – likely due to prolonged drought – of the Anasazi civilization in the Grand Canyon area?

Gray says we have two advantages over the Anasazi. One, we know change is coming, and two, we have better technology to deal with it - and more ability to move ourselves elsewhere.

“But,” he concludes, “will we take advantage of this?”


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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