Rising temperatures in the 11 Western states from global warming will cause more pervasive droughts, a four-fold increase in wildfires and extensive die-offs in regional plant, fish and game habitats, according to a report Thursday by 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 avoid the consequences of climate change, the 1 million-member wildlife organization urged national limits, following those recently adopted in California, on the greenhouse gases responsible for rising temperatures, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
The national appetite for energy, fed by carbon-rich coal, oil and natural gas, imposes a double penalty on the ecological health of the West, the group said.
The search for fossil fuels – drilling permits on public lands have tripled in six years – disrupts fragile habitats, even as the rising levels of carbon dioxide alter 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, academic reports and science journals.
The researchers offered growing evidence that rising regional temperatures already have had an effect, causing warmer winters, earlier springs, less snow and more rain. That, in turn, has raised the risk of floods in winter and the likelihood of diminished water supplies in summer.
The winter snowpack, the source of 75 percent of the water supply in the West, has declined by almost a third in the northern Rocky Mountain region and more than 50 percent in the Cascades since 1950, the federation reported.
As the Western landscape becomes ever more desiccated, wildfires consequently become more common, more widespread and harder to control, experts said.
This past wildfire season was the most severe on record, said ecologist Steven Running at the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation.
During the past summer, more than 9.6 million acres burned – twice the seasonal average – and firefighters spent a record $1.5 billion to control them.
“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.”