Cathy Whitlock is a professor at Montana State University in the field of paleoecology and paleoclimatology. She is also the lead author of the Montana Climate Assessment, a collaborative project between Montana universities, non-profits organizations, State-Tribal Colleges, and federal-state agencies, that outlines the potential impacts climate change will have in Montana. The assessment paints a concerning picture of Montana’s future – one with warmer temperatures, declining snowpack, increased droughts and increased fire risk.
But Whitlock says there is reason to be hopeful.
“I think it’s just going to be a different world. There’s a huge opportunity for the next generation of young people now to come up with creative solutions. These are solvable problems. This is not hopelessness in the sense that it can’t be solved. We just need the will to act.”
Whitlock, who is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, studies past climate and environmental change. Her work helps shed light on the question of how much of the change in our climate is related to human activity.
“It’s a very legitimate question to ask if current climate change is unusual, because our climate has varied through geological time,” says Whitlock. “Understanding how present and future climate conditions compare to the past is where I can weigh in, because it is my area of research.”
Whitlock’s study of past climate change has ranged from Yellowstone National Park, to Patagonia, to New Zealand. As a paleocologist, Whitlock studies how terrestrial ecosystems have changed through time, and how climate in causing past ecological changes. And while climate has always changed, earth’s current warming trend is human-caused, Whitlock confirms.
To help understand environmental history, Whitlock and her team sample sediment cores from lakes like the ones in Yellowstone National Park to map an area’s fire activity, vegetation and climate over thousands of years. By identifying the pollen and charcoal particles in the sediment samples, Whitlock can discover clues about the climate and ecology of an area tens of thousands of years ago. The earth’s current warming trend has no correlation to the past, Whitlock confirms.
Whitlock confirms that Earth’s current warming trend is unprecedented over the last 800,000 years and probably the last 3 million years. “The rapid changes that we’re seeing now are unusual compared to the last 20,000 years that I study,” says Whitlock. “So that gets my attention.”
Whitlock hasn’t left her passion for her research in the lab. Through her work on the Montana Climate Assessment (MCA), the internationally recognized scientist has helped bring awareness of climate change to the broader public.
Whitlock is the lead author of the MCA. The assessment is “stakeholder driven, science informed,” says Whitlock, and a reflection of Montana’s desire to work together to solve problems when they realize there is a one.
The assessment is a broad analysis of the available research on climate change’s impact on Montana’s water, forests and agricultural landscape. And the data is concerning. The MCA asserts that average temperatures in Montana have risen 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit between 1950-2015 and the growing season has lengthened by 12 days. The assessment predicts more severe droughts, irrigation difficulties for Montana’s farmers, and a longer fire season.
One of Whitlock’s areas of research is the history of fire in ecosystems. “We see from the paleo record that any time conditions have gotten warmer in Montana, there have been more fires,” says Whitlock. “You make it warmer; you make it drier; the fuels dry out, and conditions are set for fires.”
And with fire comes consequences for the health of the public. Whitlock notes that residents of Montana have a unique protection granted in their state constitution – the right to a clean and healthful environment. Climate change, however, puts that right in jeopardy – especially for people with asthma and other respiratory problems.
“I think fires are in our future,” says Whitlock. “We need to learn to live with them.”
Climate change is the biggest issue Montanans will face in the coming years Whitlock believes. And as a new grandmother, she has begun to feel an increased sense of urgency. She says her research on climate has gone being from an intellectual endeavor as a scientist, to something she cares deeply about.
“My granddaughter was born last year, and, her life is going to experience a huge amount of change. She’s likely to see Montana become warmer every year, and as much as 10 degrees warmer by the end of the century. This means she’ll witness to dramatic ecological changes, less snow, more fires, and more extreme climate. There’s going to be health risks associated with these changes. My granddaughter is the one that I worry about because she’s going to live in a different world than I can probably even relate to. And, it’s happening so fast.”
While Whitlock’s research shows that climate change started with the activities of previous generations, the burden lies with future ones.
“We’ve caused climate change. We are giving that problem to our children,” says Whitlock. “Our children are going to have to solve climate change in their lifetime. How they solve it is going to be their legacy.”
Whitlock has spent years researching how ecosystems change and adapt when the climate changes. With unprecedented warming happening in our lifetimes, Whitlock believes we will have to learn to live with uncertainty.
But despite the challenges ahead, she remains somewhat optimistic.
“I think we should be hopeful. But we should be vigilant — there is a real call for action. And that action should include personal, community, state and national responses. We vote. We have a voice. We can change policies.”