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.