Rising temperatures in the 11 Western states due to global warming will cause more prolonged droughts, more widespread wildfires, and extensive die-offs in regional plant, fish and game habitats, according to a report Thursday from the National Wildlife Federation.
“The American West is truly on the front line,” said Patty Glick, the federation’s global warming specialist. “The latest science is painting a bleak picture.”
To address climate change, the organization urged national limits on the greenhouse gases responsible for rising temperatures, such as carbon dioxide and methane. California recently adopted such limits.
The national appetite for energy, fed by carbon-rich coal, oil and natural gas, imposes a double penalty on the ecological well-being of the West, said the group, which has 1 million members. The search for more fossil fuels -- drilling permits on public lands have tripled in six years -- disrupts fragile habitats even as increasing carbon dioxide alters the regional climate in ways that will make it impossible for many species to survive.
The federation report, called “Fueling the Fire,” brings a regional focus to climate research findings from federal agencies, academia and science journals.
The researchers cited growing evidence that rising regional temperatures had already caused warmer winters, earlier springs and less snow -- increasing the likelihood of winter flooding and of diminished summer water supplies.
All told, the winter snowpack, which is the source of 75% of the West’s water, has declined by up to a third in the northern Rocky Mountain region and more than 50% in parts of the Cascades since 1950, the federation reported.
Indeed, the West is in the middle of a prolonged drought that may be the worst since record-keeping began more than a century ago -- the direct consequence of altered weather patterns caused by warmer temperatures in the Pacific and Indian oceans, other research groups have reported.
As the Western landscape becomes more desiccated, wildfires become more common, more widespread and harder to control, experts said.
This past wildfire season was the most severe on record, said ecologist Steven W. Running at the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation.
More than 9.6 million acres burned over the summer -- twice the seasonal average -- and at $1.5 billion, the expense to fight them was the greatest ever.
“The warming trend we are under is clearly accelerating and expanding the wildfire activity,” Running said.
“There is no reason we can see that it will reverse anytime soon.”