September 5, 2008

Local Ranchers and Farmers Learn About the Impact of Climate Change

By Michelle Dynes

By Michelle Dynes

[email protected]

CHEYENNE - Climate change is altering rangeland management.

Farmers and ranchers must adapt to longer droughts interrupted by heavier than normal rainstorms.

They also must contend with a longer growing season that allows harmful insects and invasive species to thrive.

Farmers and ranchers throughout the Rocky Mountain region gathered here to learn more about the impacts of erratic weather patterns during the symposium "Climate Change in Western Rangelands" at Little America on Thursday.

The scientific study of climate change also involves more than temperature measurements, said David Williams, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming's Department of Renewable Resources.

Researchers chart the cycles of carbon, water and land use in addition to the impacts on rangeland ecosystems.

The changes are often subtle, Williams said. Flowers bloom ahead of schedule. Birds and butterflies migrate earlier than usual. And springtime arrives a little sooner than expected.

The mixture makes Western states such as Wyoming even more vulnerable to drought, said Steve Gray, state climatologist and director of the UW's Water Resources Data System.

Wyoming ranks as the nation's fifth-driest state behind Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Warmer temperatures also increase evaporation while causing water yield in streams to plummet. Today, snow packs begin to melt four to eight weeks ahead of schedule.

Gray said this raises questions about whether rainfall can recharge underground aquifers as well as snowfall.

Changing precipitation patterns also could produce heavier springtime storms that intensify late-summer droughts.

"We are susceptible to climate change, no matter what the cause may be," Gray added.

The good news is that more carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth. The bad news is that crops may not have enough moisture.

"Water is a huge factor in how these plants respond to climate change," said Jack Morgan, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rangeland Resources Research Unit.

He added that experts do not know how rangeland ecosystems will react and adapt to a variable climate.

But improved weather forecasting and monitoring can help today's agriculturalists adapt to volatile changes.

Wyoming's farmers and ranchers also could learn something from farmers and ranchers within drier countries like Australia.

"(People will say) 'You don't know exactly what's going to happen,'" Morgan said. "And we don't.

"But we know enough that we need to do something."

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