Hurricane Sandy and other recent natural disasters have put climate change back into the national discussion even though it was ignored throughout most of the presidential campaign.
Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine went beyond the scientific consensus linking the storm to the trend with this months cover story headline Its Global Warming, Stupid. But hydrologists, biologists and foresters in Idaho have been documenting the reality of climate change for the past two decades.
They are seeing warmer winters with earlier, larger spring runoffs, hotter summers, reduced snowpack, longer growing seasons and later frosts. These climatic changes are triggering bigger fires and longer fire seasons like this year, when 1.7 million acres burned in Idaho.
With more fires come cascading ecological effects that reach the front door of Treasure Valley residents. From 1992 to 2003, 45 percent of the Middle Fork of the Boise River watershed burned, increasing runoff by 5 percent or 50,000 acre feet annually, says USFS hydrologist Charles Luce.
Scientists have been talking among themselves about these changes, but managers of federal lands, rivers and wildlife as well as the public have had a hard time keeping up.
Thats because so much data has been generated in the past decade, said Jerod Blades, a University of Idaho social scientist.
That integration of that (new research) into management has been rather slow, he said.
Blades and a team of U of I scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation, are holding a series of workshops across the Northern Rockies region to help expand the conversation. They were at the Foothills Environmental Education Center in Boise on Thursday.
Getting the science into the hands of the people who are making decisions can help policy makers and the public begin to adapt to accelerating changes. Small group meetings that allow people to share their own experiences also help the scientific community learn to communicate better, said Troy Hall, a U of I social science professor.
IN THE FIELD
Randy Hayman, a planner on the Boise National Forest presented to the Idaho Roadless Commission this week a proposal to replant an area that burned north of Warm Lake in 2007. The trees that were burned in the area, mostly Douglas fir, germinated when the climate was wetter and cooler.
Hes seen changes in the structure of the forest that his education and experience dont explain. So he talked to the U of Is Penny Morgan, a fire ecologist working with the climate team, about what trees to plant anticipating a drier, warmer future.
The suitable habitat for ponderosa pine and Douglas fir may move to higher elevations, Ecologist Kerry Kemp said. But more projects like Haymans may be necessary because the seed sources may not be there.
This year, hundreds of thousands of acres of the Boise watershed burned and the Forest Services Luce expects runoff from the watershed to rise even more. But even as the fires increase the runoff, climatic change has reduced the runoff in the Boise watershed by 250,000 acre-feet annually since 1950, just below the capacity of Lucky Peak, Luce said.
Along with that measurable change has come increasing variability in the timing of precipitation and extreme events such as floods and droughts that have raised the uncertainty for managers, said Zion Klos, a U of I hydrologist.
CLIMATE SCIENCE 101
Klos gave a basic presentation on the cause of global warming, including the basics that everyone at the workshop knew. Levels of carbon dioxide and other gases released by the burning of fossil fuels are at levels unseen in human history.
These gases trap more heat in the atmosphere as the suns radiation is captured by the Earth and sea the concept known as the greenhouse effect. Its not all bad, Klos said.
We need it to be able to live on Earth, he said.
At 391 parts per million, carbon dioxide is at levels higher than any time in the past 140,000 years. This has led to rapid warming about 2 degrees in the Pacific Northwest since early in the 20th century.
Yet the latest poll by the Rasmussen Report shows that while 68 percent of likely voters now believe in climate change, a record, only 41 percent attribute it to human activity.
Future conditions depend on how much we reduce greenhouse gases and stabilize the population, Klos said. The uncertainty about the future keeps society from acting today, he said.
He compared it to a doctor telling patients they have to reduce their cholesterol and exercise more.
Would anybody tell their doctor, If you cant tell me precisely when I am going to have a heart attack, why should I change my lifestyle? he said.
THE KEY TO CONSENSUS
Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood said addressing adaptation to climate change is the key to forging a consensus.
We got high-centered on the causes of climate change, Wood told the Idaho Statesman in a telephone interview. But there are direct actions the administration can take to address the effects of climate change.
Still, Forest Service entomologist Dwight Scarbrough said outreach only goes so far.
Its a discussion weve been having for quite a long time, but some people choose not to participate, he said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484