Madison Valley, looking toward the Madison Range. Photograph courtesy of Scott Bischke.


Cathy Whitlock, Wyatt Cross, Bruce Maxwell, Nick Silverman, and Alisa A. Wade

Montanans need to fill many gaps in our knowledge if we are to better understand and thrive under a changing climate. Below, we list research that is needed to achieve better understanding of direct effects, indirect effects, and general effects of climate change in Montana. These suggestions are included in each sector chapter of this assessment, and are compiled here for easy reference.


  • Additional climate variables.—Our analysis provides a critical local look at changes for two important climate variables, precipitation and temperature. However, Montana’s climate and its impacts go beyond these. A more in depth downscaling effort that involves physics based models will be required to evaluate two additional important variables, evapotranspiration and drought.
  • Land use and land cover change.—Most climate analyses do not account for changes in land cover with climatic trends. However, interactions between climate, vegetation cover, and land use quality are tightly coupled. For example, with changes in temperature and precipitation, ecosystems within Montana may shift to drier conditions resulting in changes to vegetation types. This would contribute to a difference in evapotranspiration rates and aridity.
  • Precipitation timing and form.—We took a first look at changes in Montana’s precipitation. However, it is well known that the timing (winter versus spring and summer) and form (rain versus snow) of Montana’s precipitation is critical for areas such as water, forests, and agriculture resources. More work that incorporates physically based, distributed hydrological models is required to understand how our precipitation distribution will change in both space (low elevations to mountaintops) and time.



  • Water demand and management in the context of a changing climate.—Although the direct influences of climate change on water supply have received substantial attention (as evidenced by this assessment), much less is known about the intersection between changes in climate and water demand and/or water management. New solutions are needed that balance the multiple, and sometimes competing, demands for water in the context of changing or shifting water supplies. Communication and collaboration among multiple stakeholders, including universities, agencies, non-governmental organizations, and citizen groups will be paramount. The regional basin water plans in Montana represent a bold and critical first step, but there is much work to be done.
  • Improving the accuracy of models in Montana.—Many of the downscaled climate-hydrology projections are not yet calibrated for specific basins across Montana. Thus, when the models agree, we have relatively high confidence in the direction of projected changes, but much less confidence in the magnitude of future changes for specific river basins. The collaboration between MT DNRC and the Bureau of Reclamation and other ongoing efforts associated with the Northwest Climate Science Center are helping to close this gap, but additional modeling and local hydrologic expertise will be needed.

    In addition, we know that groundwater-surface water interactions are central for projecting climate change impacts on water resources, particularly in snowmelt-dominated watersheds. These interactions are not typically integrated in hydrologic models, but such efforts will be necessary for improving our projections about climate change and water supply.

  • Maintain and expand our water monitoring network.—Our knowledge about current and future water supplies depends critically on our ability to monitor the water cycle across Montana and beyond. Our current network of weather stations, streamflow gages, groundwater wells, and snowpack monitoring sites must be maintained and expanded to better represent ongoing changes in the state. Current collaborations between USGS, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, and the Montana DNRC are helping to support this monitoring network, but additional investment in this area will serve as insurance for managing a sustainable water future.



  • Better understanding of direct climate change effects.—a) Improved understanding of adaptive genetic and phenotypic forest characteristics that would provide better guidance for breeding programs and management actions to maximize resilience to both direct and indirect climate impacts to forests; b) Long-term studies to better understand effects of CO2 fertilization in Montana’s forests; c) Improved models of climate and vegetative effects on evapotranspiration and water balances throughout forested systems.
  • Better understanding of indirect climate change effects.—a) Improved fire models and projections directly related to Montana’s forests; b) Long-term monitoring of forest insect and pathogen response to recent climate changes and improved projections of future likely impacts; c) Better understanding of disturbance effects on microclimates and refugia and implications for forest productivity, mortality, and adaptation.
  • General effects and adaptation options.—a) Forest models that account for changes in both climate and resulting vegetation distribution and patterns; b) Models that account for interactions and feedbacks in climate-related impacts to forests (e.g., changes in mortality from both direct increases in warming and increased fire risk as a result of warming); c) Systems thinking and modeling regarding climate effects on understory vegetation and interactions with forest trees; d) Discussion of climate effects on urban forests and impacts to cityscapes and livability; e) Monitoring and time-series data to inform adaptive management efforts (i.e., to determine outcome of a management action and, based on that outcome, chart future course of action); f) Detailed decision support systems to provide guidance for managing for adaptation.



  • Precipitation.—With the high certainty of warming and the low certainty of trends in precipitation, how do we develop resilient agricultural practices that prepare for divergent futures?
  • Crop and livestock models.—a) How can crop and forage production models linked with climate models provide useful projections to inform agricultural decisions? b) Which models best inform management of livestock under predicted new climates? c) What mechanisms for data acquisition and accessibility allow appropriate climate and production model parameterization? 
  • Water.—a) When and where will irrigation be most disrupted as temperatures rise and water storage declines? b) How can we modify our methods for water retention, allocation, and efficiency to increase crop and livestock resilience to climate variability?
  • Soil carbon.—a) In which systems and regions can improving soil organic matter help build resilience under volatile climate conditions, including severe drought? b) How can grassland protection and restoration help increase resilience to climate changes, as well as be integrated into food production? c) Which agricultural practices will build soil carbon reserves and serve as viable greenhouse gas mitigation strategies? 
  • Input practices.—a) Can inputs continue to be used as insurance to protect against variation? b) Does dependence on inputs contribute to creating less resilient agricultural systems? c) Can some inputs increase resilience? 
  • Commodity markets.—a) How can increased value-added production practices reduce dependence on volatile commodity pricing and thereby build resilience? b) When and where do traditional methods for farmer and consumer protection (e.g., crop insurance, government reserves) need revision to more effectively respond to climate-change uncertainty? c) How can revision of commodity market practices and expectations help develop resilience in anticipation of climate-change induced volatility? d) What improvements in enterprise-level financial and risk management strategies are needed to better manage market and production risks? 
  • Crop and livestock diversity.—a) How can introduction of diversity to cropping and livestock selections and systems help build resilience to climate change? b) In which current homogeneous production systems can diversity be reintroduced without economic loss? c) How may increased agricultural diversity impact quantity and quality of goods produced in agriculture? 
  • Policy—a) Which state and national policies influence producer’s ability to adopt more resilient practices to climate change? b) What role can Montana seed providers, food processors and distributors play to increase agricultural resilience in the face of the uncertainty presented by climate change?
  • Rural Sustainability—a) How will agricultural communities be maintained and need to change in response to climate change? b) How will decisions at all spatial and temporal scales need to change to increase resilience to climate change?

New research into these areas will improve our understanding and knowledge of how climate change will impact Montana in the future. Along with scientific investigations, Montanans need to work together to effectively:

  • consider multiple sources of information, including indigenous knowledge and historical observations, which can complement and enrich empirically-based studies and modeling approaches;
  • build a community of scientists and practitioners that can better create a research agenda on the highest priority topics and needs of decision makers; this collaboration will produce actionable science and tangible outcomes; and
  • improve education and communication activities related to climate science across the state so that adaptation plans reach the most relevant and most impacted sectors of our communities.