Havre Daily News
It's the first full week of February, and a few signs of spring are showing in farm fields across Hill County. In some places, alfalfa sprouts are starting to turn green, a development that worries Northern Agricultural Research Center superintendent Gregg Carlson.
“It's not out there growing rampantly, but it has started to green up,” Carlson, an agronomist, said. “And that's a little alarming.
“I would not want to see us approach zero with the way it's been growing,” he added.
Snow cover is almost nonexistent in Hill County. January was the warmest on record in Havre, and the region has been above normal since mid-December. An annual ice fishing derby set for this month had to be cancelled for the second year in a row.
People have reported seeing Canada geese, and a local biologist said fish and wildlife are probably benefitting from the mild winter, though a drought again this year could hamper their ability to survive if next winter is colder.
Like Montana's generally warmer winters over the past decade, the temperature of the debate on the causes and effects of global warming has risen.
Some studies show increased temperatures across the globe, with predictions for more of the same. At least one study predicts a drastic increase in drought across the U.S. over the coming decades.
According to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a research center in New York City that has been studying changes in global climate, 2005 was probably the warmest year on record for the planet. The data is notable because temperatures weren't affected by an El Nino warming trend, like in 1998 - which tied 2005 within the study's margin of error.
An El Nino is likely this year or next, the institute said.
“In such a case the 2005 global temperature record will almost surely be broken,” it said.
Global temperatures have increased 0.6 degrees Celsius over the last three decades and 0.8 C in the past century, the institute said.
A majority of the scientific community has said increased global temperatures are directly linked to the increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
“Recent warming coincides with rapid growth of human-made greenhouse gases,” the Goddard Institute said. “The observed rapid warming thus gives urgency to discussions about how to slow greenhouse gas emissions.”
Carlson said Thursday that local data stretching back over the last century has shown a distinct trend toward warmer temperatures in the area.
“When you look at whole decades at a time, it has progressively gotten a little warmer in the summer and a little less cold in the winter,” he said.
Carlson believes people need to pay more attention to the effects they have on the environment, but he doesn't totally buy into the gloom-and-doom publicity over global warming studies. The last century, he said, is “just a blip on the scope as far as I'm concerned.”
“I think sometimes it's been getting carried away. There are natural processes that tend to dominate over these things,” he said. “One volcanic eruption probably does more for climate effects over a decade. ... But that doesn't mean we should turn our backs and willy-nilly pollute.
“We always need to pay attention to things we may be doing that are affecting our environment,” he added.
National Weather Service meteorologist David Williamson said Havre recorded an average temperature of 33.7 degrees in January, beating the old record of 31.2 degrees for the month, set in 1986. Records go back to 1880.
He said January was the warmest on record for the central region of the state.
Havre temperatures were about 19 degrees above normal for the month, he said.
“The temperatures were very close to what you'd expect in late March or early April,” he said.
In 2005, Havre was about 2 degrees below average for the month - data that was skewed by a cold snap in the early part of the month and higher temperatures in later weeks, Williamson said.
The previous January was about 3 degrees below average, but 2002 and 2003 saw January temperatures of more than 6 degrees above average.
Williamson said Havre hasn't had a really cold winter in nine years. The general trend has been below-average Januarys and above-average Februarys, he said. Last year, Havre was more than 6 degrees above average for February.
Cold spells have become shorter and warm spells have lasted longer in recent years, he said.
Williamson said global warming studies he's seen have shown that not all areas will immediately see climate-change effects.
“It's shown most of the warming was in the northern latitudes, whereas there was little change in equatorial latitudes,” he said.
Havre public works general foreman Jim Cook said city workers haven't run into any frozen soil since early December. In the past, workers have had to dig through as much as four feet of frozen soil when making repairs, Cook said. The warmer soils have meant workers have had fewer water main breaks to repair, he said.
“Knock on wood, we haven't had a lot,” he said.
Carlson said temperatures have not warmed enough yet to bring the area's winter wheat crop out of dormancy. Even though snow cover is largely nonexistent in Hill County, the crop shouldn't be damaged by a sudden plunge in temperatures, he said.
The main concern over the lack of snow cover, he said, is wind damage.
“Wind is hard on wheat. If you get really high winds, you're in a situation where soil particles are blowing. They serve as little razors and can sandblast the plants,” he said.
State Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist Al Rosgaard said local critters have benefitted from the mild winter.
“Normally, the cold temperatures and snow ... would either prevent them from getting at their food supply (or) require them to expend more energy getting at the food,” he said. “There should be good overwinter survival of the younger animals.”
The warmer conditions mean area ponds and lakes are not frozen, which allows for a good supply of oxygen, meaning there's more vegetation for fish to feed on, he said.
The lack of ice, however, meant that the Big Money Ice Fishing Tournament at Beaver Creek Lake, scheduled for this weekend, had to be canceled for the second year in a row.
“Two years in a row - I can't believe it,” derby co-chair Chuck Wimmer said. “To have to worry about ice in the middle of the winter is just unbelievable.”
Another primary concern for scientists: The increase in greenhouse gases seen around the globe could lead to an increase in severe drought in the coming decades.
“If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase rapidly, the model results suggest that severe drought (5% frequency today) will occur about 50% of the time by the 2050s,” Goddard Institute researchers wrote in a 1990 study. The study said the effects would likely become more apparent in the 1990s.
“If the forecast temperature changes come to pass, these conclusions suggest that drought conditions will increase dramatically,” the researchers also wrote.