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Terry Woster: Be concerned about climate change, but try not to go Chicken Little

Some years back, when the term “global warming’’ was just beginning to be thrown about, I reported on a meeting about climate change and the Missouri River Basin.

The climatologist there stressed “climate change’’ rather than “global warming.’’ He soft-pedaled the extent to which any climate change may be due to man-made factors. I think he believed in the connection. He just didn’t push it at the meeting.

The term “climate change’’ made sense to me. Like many candidates running for major office these days, I’m no scientist. Unlike some of those candidates, I try not to ignore science. I don’t know enough to go nuts about climate change. But if it is happening, and if we’re part of the cause, I don’t mind listening to people who study it.

If I were a scientist who had devoted my life to studying climate change, I might despair at the lack of concern of many. The doubters, on a minus-10 degree day with a foot of snow after a long string of especially warm months, fill social media sites with images of bundled-up guys saying, “What global warming?’’ It’s good for a laugh, and isn’t that what social media is about? One freeze, however, does not an Ice Age make.

I digress. (Probably happened because I mentioned candidates.) The point is, the climatologist at the river session tried to be neutral on the issue of climate change and the part humankind plays in it. He neither pooh-poohed the notion nor did a Chicken Little. He did say, if I recall correctly, the snowpack in the northern Rocky Mountains seemed to be melting faster and earlier in the season than in the past.

That concerned me, in part because the snowpack that melts from that stretch of the Rockies feeds the Missouri River that runs through my town and my state and on down to St. Louis. I don’t have any idea how an earlier, faster snow melt in the Rockies would affect the river basin long-term in South Dakota. It sure seems worth more than a casual study, though, whether the river is running high or low in a particular summer.

Sure, I know the river has cycles, drought and flood stages and all that. Records from the Corps of Engineers site show that 1997 was a high-water year while 2001 was a low-water year. We all know 2011 was the flood year. Information from the Corps indicates the current mountain snowpack is below normal. The graph I looked at this morning showed about 90 percent of normal snowpack in the stretch of the river above Fort Peck in Montana and about 75 percent of normal in the stretch between Fort Peck and Garrison in North Dakota. That suggests to me, other factors being average through the spring and summer, that we’re setting up for a lower than average year of river flows. (I say suggests, because much could change, and quickly.)

The way I look at it, those wet and dry cycles are short-term deals, even if a drought seems to last forever. My mom talked of a dry spell when she was a kid in the 1930s, too. Climate change is a much longer-term thing. It’s a concept that reaches beyond one or two drought cycles, even beyond a presidential campaign. It’s a long time, but so are the normal life expectancies of my granddaughters and their granddaughters, if we take care of things.

A few years ago, when I worked with the folks in the state Office of Emergency Management, I read a study of climate change. I didn’t understand half of what I read, but I got the idea that climate change wasn’t so much about Ice Ages or soaring temperature as about more frequent, more severe and more unusual weather events – 20 inches of snow instead of four, or eight inches of rain instead of 30-hundredths, or half a dozen tornadoes in a week instead of one in a month.

I don’t know if the people who authored that study got it right, but if they’re even in the ballpark, the topic demands attention – not to go all Chicken Little.