Climate Change: Ecological Impacts of Climate Change in Teton County

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By Trevor Bloom and Corinna Riginos, PhD, The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming and Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative

If you ski, snowshoe or snowmobile, you’ve no doubt noticed the changes. Some places just aren’t getting snow like they used to, and snow is disappearing faster in the spring. River levels are dropping sooner in the summer, and July temperatures are hitting record highs. Climate change is affecting everything from sea levels to extreme weather in all parts of the globe - including here in Teton County.

The situation is serious, but we still have time to act, if we don’t delay.

AN ERA OF CHANGE

Averaged across all of Teton County, temperatures have risen since the 1970s. For example, Teton County’s average minimum temperature has in-creased more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1990s. This might not sound like a huge change, but it is actually a startling number — greater than the global average change and, ecologically speaking, a significant increase. Mountain ecosystems such as ours are more affected by climate change than the planet as a whole. This is because the rate of warming is amplified with increased latitude or elevation, through a phenomenon known as “elevation-dependent warming.”

One of the greatest contributing factors to elevation-dependent warm-ing is the “snow-albedo feedback.” Albedo is the measure of reflectivity of solar radiation. When temperatures rise, more precipitation falls as rain and less as snow. That reduces the overall albedo of the Earth’s surface. As a result, more of the sun’s radiation is absorbed, increasing surface temperatures, so more rain falls instead of snow, creating a positive feedback loop that magnifies warming.

These ongoing changes in climate are likely to have sweeping impacts on nearly every aspect of the Teton region’s ecology, scenery, recreation, and wild character. Below is a brief overview of the changes that have occurred and will likely occur in the future, followed by a snapshot of recent findings contributing to understanding the consequences of climate change for Teton County.

IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Changes that are already occurring:

  • At least in part, declines in moose numbers are most likely due to warmer conditions.

  • Widespread outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and blister rust have caused large numbers of pine trees to die.

  • Snowpack conditions have be-come less reliable for winter tourism and recreation at the start and end of the season.

Possible future impacts of climate change include:

  • Declines and/or local extinctions among cold-dependent species such as moose, pikas, wolverines, and alpine plants such as alpine forget-me-not and spotted saxifrage.

  • Declines in native fish, including the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and the many birds and mammals that eat them.

  • Hot, dry conditions conducive to much larger and more frequent forest and shrubland fires. Eco-logically, this could lead to large-scale declines in forest cover and increases in invasive cheatgrass and other non-natives. Economically, it could lead to rising costs of fire-fighting.

  • Negative impacts to tourism and recreation due to more frequent fires and poor air quality and visibility, reduced snowpack, and fish-ing closures.

To learn more about climate change, recent scientific findings specific to this region, and what we can do as a community to help mitigate these changes, read the whole article in Mosaic.