Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems (CCME)

Science Center Objects

Climate change is widely acknowledged to be having a profound effect on the biosphere with many and diverse impacts on global resources. Mountain ecosystems in the western U.S. and the Northern Rockies in particular are highly sensitive to climate change. In fact, the higher elevations of the Northern Rockies have experienced three times the global average temperature increase over the past century. These same ecosystems provide up to 85% of the water humans depend on as well as a host of other ecosystem services such as snow-based recreation, timber, unique flora and fauna, and critical habitat for rare and endangered species such as bull trout and grizzly bear. Climate change poses special problems for mountain protected areas, such as national parks and wilderness areas, because most of the land area within their boundaries is at higher elevations. The Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center has been monitoring, conducting research, and modeling ecosystem responses to climatic variability since 1991, first at Glacier National Park but eventually throughout the western U.S. and worldwide in collaboration with other scientists.

Glacier Research: As Glacier National Park’s namesake glaciers recede, CCME staff are monitoring many of the park’s glaciers to determine the causes of change, assess their ecological and hydrological effects, and predict future changes and effects.  Intensive research to determine the mass balance of Sperry Glacier will determine whether small cirque glaciers like Sperry can serve as reliable indicators of current climate variability.  Analysis of aerial photography, repeat photography, and glacier margin surveys document the rapid retreat of these mid-latitude glaciers as increasing temperatures influence mountain ecosystems world wide.

Snow and Avalanche Research:  Since 1991, CCME staff have conducted snow surveys throughout Glacier National Park. These data have contributed to regional climate change and hydrologic models.  Snowpack characteristics have also been evaluated in relation to avalanche forecasting and plowing of GNP’s Going to the Sun Road efforts.  Studies of natural snow avalanches reveal connections with large-scale climate and wildfire patterns as well as the influence on the creation of characteristic habitat vulnerable to climate change.

Landscape Change Photography: Repeat photography is being used by the CCME program to document landscape change.  Glaciers have been the primary  focus of this park-wide survey and  this collection of repeat photographs, available for download on the CCME website, have been used to illustrate the effects of climate change in venues across the globe.  These powerful images, with their inherent ease of interpretation, have become icons of climate change.  Researchers will continue to expand the collection of repeat photographs of glaciers as well as panoramic photos from fire lookouts in an effort to document landscape change in this period of dramatic climate warming.

Alpine Climatology of Glacier National Park:  Glacier National Park is a topographically diverse region, making localized effects of elevation, aspect, and cold air drainage several of many important factors that necessitate a diversity of long-term climate monitoring sites. Additionally, many studies have shown more rapid warming at higher elevations across the Intermountain West, but with relatively few high-elevation stations available in the region it’s difficult to estimate the magnitude of these changes along with the suite of potential impacts on montane to alpine ecosystems. Here we use our network of valley to high-elevation meteorological stations that are arrayed across Glacier National Park (Fig 1), and have been in operation since 1993, to identify trends and variability in biophysically important hydroclimatic metrics. We also take a closer look at potential surface feedback processes associated with the presence or absence of snowpack, and specifically the timing of its meltout. Change and variability in metrics such as temperature, wind, net solar radiation, snow depth/cover, and relative humidity are assessed at daily to decadal scales and will be integrated into ongoing projects monitoring changes in alpine vegetation, snowpack, and glacier mass balance. These data are essential for ongoing ecological monitoring and modeling projects, addressing wildlife habitat and disease related issues, and informing current and potential future resource management practices.

Western Mountain InitiativeUnderstanding and predicting the responses of climate variability and change at a regional scale is the objective of the six research programs collaborating on the Western Mountain Initiative (WMI). CCME research pertaining to glacier recession, analysis of snowpack trends, and paleo-reconstructions of regional snowpack, help define thresholds, sensitivities, and resilience of western mountain ecosystems to climate variability as part of WMI.