Warming takes toll on Montanans’ health — study

Source: By Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2020

Montana prides itself as a vibrant outdoorsy state, a place where ranchers, lumberjacks, hikers and miners toil under the summer sun, then take refuge for months during long brutal winters.

But Big Sky Country is taking a health hit from climate change, challenging its reputation for hardiness and vitality, experts say in a new study.

Among other things, the state’s nearly 1.1 million residents — including its sizable Native American population — will become more vulnerable to the physical and mental health strains associated with heat, fire, floods and other “climate surprises,” where weather conditions change rapidly and with little warning.

“The most vulnerable individuals to the combined effects of heat, smoke, and climate surprises will be those with existing chronic physical and mental health conditions, as well as individuals who are very young, very old, or pregnant,” the report found. “Montana’s at-risk populations include those exposed to prolonged heat and smoke, living in poverty, having limited access to health services, and/or lacking adequate health insurance.”

Montana, the nation’s ninth least-populated state, has recorded more than 73,000 COVID-19 cases since early this year. Infection and death rates soared through mid-November, following a trend in many other states. As of yesterday, the state had recorded 818 deaths, or 107 deaths per 100,000 people.

“We have learned from the current pandemic that advance planning for health emergencies is essential to reduce the economic impacts of unexpected events,” said Cathy Whitlock, a report co-author and a professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. The assessment “fills an important gap by providing critical information that can help Montanans prepare for climate surprises ahead.”

The special report, following the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment that examined impacts to the state’s natural resources-based economy, speaks directly to the state’s public health vulnerabilities from climate change.

Data on climate conditions shows Montana has warmed between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, and that could rise by nearly 10 F over the 1971-2000 average by the end of the century. Seasonally, warming has been greatest in winter (3.9 F) and spring (2.6 F), but Montana has also seen an increase in the number and frequency of 90 F days.

Like other Western states, Montana is also highly susceptible to wildfire, including seven major fires so far this year. While fires strike thinly populated areas, several have posed an increasing risk to reservations in the state, home to roughly 67,000 Native Americans.

“Wildfires have caused hazardous air quality conditions, and extreme weather events create dangerous conditions and limit access to health care and other critical services,” Mike Durglo, representing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, said in a statement.

“The climate crisis and the ecological changes that it brings threaten traditional customs, including our access to first foods through hunting, fishing and gathering, and our ability to conduct ceremonies and spiritual practices.”