November 29th, 2008

Only the Earth and Sky Last Forever...But I am Wondering About Even Those

My brother and I went fishing on the Missouri River on a cold Thanksgiving morning this week. The morning was magic, with streamers of canyon fog blown off the water like a hot cup of coffee, whistling duck wings, chuckling magpies, and time spent with family seen too seldom.

Getting older, almost half a century now, I am amazed at the changes I see on the land and in the climate. There are more and more houses further into the forest. Expensive houses, not the old cabins and trailers of my youth. Where there were nothing but local folks in battered pickups, now there are people who look like they came from Seattle, with "hi-tech outdoors clothes" driving suburban SUVs shooting snotty looks at us oldtimers in our old 4x4s (that is one thing too-- we drove 4x4s, not SUVs).

The fishing has changed greatly too. Whirling disease hit Montana's trout in the 1990s. It came in when folks from other states became enchanted by the movie "A River Runs Through It", which romanticized the flyfishing of old Montana. Unfortunately, they brought with them waders infected by "whirling disease" from other regions, which decimated Montana's trout. They also got real snotty about buying thousands of dollars of high tech fishing equipment and such for catch-and-release, turning up their trendy noses at us locals who used spinning reels, worms and grasshoppers to catch fish to eat. The fishing pressure is immense now. In the summer on the Missouri, the boats and rafts are at best 100 yards apart; when I was in my 20s, there might have been one other boat or so when we went (we never went on high volume days like holidays).

I remember growing up, we felt sorry for Colorado, which grew wildly in the 70s, due in no small part to the romanticization by John Denver's songs and the new adventure lifestyles brought by the popularization of sports like high-tech hiking, hang-gliding, etc. Then in the 80s and 90s, Montana got discovered bigtime by the celebrity crowds, with the famous Ted Turner ranch deal, and it seemed like dozens of celebs and CEOs just had to get a Montana ranch, complete with log megamansions, a few Hereford or Angus for atmosphere, and a canvas tipi or two. Everyone knows this sort of thing spells the end of an era, because arrival of the trendsetters means higher property values and higher taxes, subdivision of ranches, more population coming in to service the elites and follow the fads and their dreams, and the sellout of the local regular folks by local realtors and fat cats dreaming of Hummers and the American Dream. First Whitefish and Kalispell, then Bozeman fell to the new boom. Then early around 2002 or so, I read a booster article in an airline magazine promoting Helena. I knew the axe had fallen on my boring little hometown. Sure enough, when I returned to my home in 2006, Helena had been "discovered" by mobs of outsiders and prices have gone through the roof. But there ain't any place to run to, if even Helena has been "discovered" this video of my favorite Eagles song, and see what I mean.

There are lots of people here in Montana who don't believe that global warming exists. That it's some part of the "liberal media conspiracy." Up until December of 2007, things were unseasonably warm. According to my friends from high school, we hadn't had a "real winter" for ten years or so, not like when I was growing up when there was snow on the ground by Halloween, and lasting snow from November until April or so. Then, beginning in January 2008, we had snow and cold, just like the old days, that lasted until March. From March through September, things were pretty much like when I was growing up, from the late 60s until the 1980s. Then we had a weird snowstorm in October (see the post with photos, below) with snow that stayed on the ground for over a week. Then things got warm again, to the 70s and 80s, slowly declining into the 50s and 60s F during the day, up until Thanksgiving this week.

This is the story that ran in the paper today:

Which season’s greeting?
By MARTIN J. KIDSTON - Independent Record - 11/29/08

Eliza Wiley IR photo editor - Dry valley grasses give light to white-capped Mount Baldy and Edith northeast of Townsend. The month of October was 1 degree above average in the Helena area and November has been even warmer.

Greening grass, budding lilacs — and even a fall encore by the tick — have some Montanans scratching their heads and asking what’s going on with the weather.

An unseasonably warm fall has Mother Nature behaving in ways more like April than late November.

Virginia Knerr, extension agent for Broadwater country, has seen Kentucky Bluegrass turning green in area yards. Daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s have caused the buds to swell on some lilacs.

“If they get too far into it and we get a cold frost, it could kill the lilacs because they’re not really dormant,” said Knerr. “There are some oddities going on out there that will have an impact on what grows back and what doesn’t grow next spring.”

Most of Montana falls in temperature “zone” three, requiring winter-hardy plants. Quaking aspen are considered zone-two trees, making them more tolerant of cold temperatures. The maple, in contrast, is a zone-four tree, meaning it’s less tolerant.

Knerr said many non-native trees suited for planting in zones four and five could be tricked by November’s warm weather and caught by off guard when subzero temperatures strike.

“If you start getting warmer days, those less tolerant trees will start running their sap,” Knerr said. “When you get the moisture up in the bark and we suddenly get cold temperatures, the bark freezes and splits. It can definitely kill the tree.”

The month of October was 1 degree above average in Helena. So far, November has been even warmer. Last week alone, average temperatures have been 6 to 8 degrees above normal.

The warm weather has allowed ticks to remain active. Nymphs and adults winter-over in weeds, duff, brush and fallen leaves, living between four to seven years, barring a deep freeze.

“The warm weather is probably doing the same thing with our ticks,” Knerr said. “We’ll have to see what happens next May.”

Clinton Kujala, management chief for the wildlife division of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the warm weather has given migratory game birds more options for feeding and finding open water.

“Like the elk, it keeps a lot of country open for those field foragers,” Kujala said. “It keeps agricultural fields up north open and available further into the fall.”

Kujala said migratory birds may only fly as far south as necessary. The mild weather may have an effect on when they leave and how far they fly.

“The further you go into the fall, the chances of weather setting in hard and staying hard arguably increase,” he said. “But the critters are probably tuned in to day lengths and things just as we are. They’re physiologically able to tune into that and do what they’ve always done.”

See, I notice when people talk about "global warming," lots of folks from the cooler climes often think it's BS, or they think "hey, that's alright, it'll be nicer during winters, not so cold." They don't realize that a warming climate will increase forest fires, draw down water levels because of the lack of a snowpack in high elevations, throw off hunting and fishing, etc. As an archaeologist, the Altithermal climate during the Archaic Period hints at things to come in Montana: zone shifts by elevation, with forests retreating upslope, increasing fires, and desertification of the Plains areas. Plus, even worse, as things get worse elsewhere, we will be facing more migration from other regions of people looking for a better place to live. The real fight to come will be water.

The term "global warming" immediately sets some people's teeth on edge in rural areas, such as here in Montana, even with all the mounting evidence, as a "liberal" issue, or as actually something positive if it ever really happens.

I know better. I lived in Alaska in 2001-2002. It was then that I went to the Inupiat village of Shishmaref in 2002 and saw the village being washed away by increasing wave action from the Bering Sea. I've been to Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau where the historic photos and marks on the ground of the shrinking glacier hits you in the gut. Even here in Montana, a visit to Glacier National Park is shocking. I guess they are going to have to come up with a new name sometime in the next 50 years or so, when all the glaciers are gone from Glacier National Park-- that is, if anyone cares, as there will be much more to worry about.

The old Indian saying goes, "Only the Earth and Sky Last Forever." But I am starting to wonder about even those.