Scientists Want Montana Climate Office Reopened To Help Farmers

February 19, 2013

State officials should approve and provide money to reopen a state climate office because new technologies could help crop producers track global competition as well as offer other advantages, scientists at the University of Montana say.

A team of UM scientists led by Regents Professor of Ecology Steve Running has developed a satellite-sensed global drought severity index. Running said satellite technology makes it possible to accurately identify droughts. About 34 percent of Montana is currently experiencing a drought.

“When we can do this by satellite, you can literally look at every square mile of the state,” Running told the Missoulian. “We like to think this is a breakthrough for complete coverage of the state, as opposed to simple calculations from local weather stations.”

The method also factors in information from past droughts over the last decade.

“We have a lot of capacity to do some really great things, especially given the expertise here at UM,” state climatologist Kelsey Jencso said. “It’s important for a farmer who needs to know how much wheat he’ll produce that year, or for an agency that needs to measure greenness over a landscape based on new satellite imagery.”

The technology would also help producers predict good years and bad years well in advance, experts said. Ranchers could get a glimpse of future grazing conditions, and farmers could look at a particular field and track the growth of a single crop.

“If the competitors on the other end of the world are having a good year or bad year, it makes a tangible difference on what your crop here is worth,” Running said. “In today’s global markets, it gives our Montana farmers and ag people another information stream on how other competitors are doing.”

The previous state climate office ceased operating in 1994 when former state climatologist Joe Caprio retired. Climate science has had advances over the years, making reopening the state climate office a good idea, Running said.

“We’re about the only state in the union with no climate office,” Running said. “I’ve made the inquiry to state government. We got authorized by the governor’s office, but with no funding.”

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