Letters from the West

Higher, more acidic ocean, less snow and forest fires are Northwest's top climate risks

When climate scientists like Philip Mote speak about the last 60 years they are talking about observations, not models.

Since the 1950s the polar ice has receded. There are fewer glaciers. Sea level has risen. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer on the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade.

Since the 1950s, many of the changes in ecosystems across the Earth are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The central period of all of our lives, from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30 year period in the last 1400 years in the northern hemisphere where the data is available.

These are not predictions. These are facts agreed upon by all but a handful of the scientific community worldwide.

“Warming is unequivocal,” Mote said in Boise Monday. “Warming since the mid 20th Century is clearly tied to human influence.”

Mote, the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and Oregon Climate Services, spoke to the Idaho Environmental Forum. I interviewed the Oregon State University professor afterwards.

You hear a lot of skeptics throw around temperatures and talk about warming pauses and other pieces of data politicians use to dismiss the ramifications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that Mote has served on since 2005. An Idaho House member summed it up to me the other day There’s no warming and the only people who think there is are the scientists who get all the research money.

Mote points to one of the data sets of his University of Idaho colleague John Abatzoglou . “When he looked at the coldest day of the year a lot of the stations have temperatures 10 degrees warmer than they were in the early part of the 20th Century,” Mote said.

As the lead author of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the 2013 US National Climate Assessment, he led a group of scientists from Idaho, Oregon and Washington who examined the risks this rapid climate change presents over the next 100 years. The IPPC recently reiterated its predications that greenhouse gases, now at a high for tens of thousands of years, present severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems.

Even if we do the substantial and sustained reduction of greenhouse gases worldwide these scientists say is necessary, we can’t prevent many of these effects, Mote said. What are the biggest risks for us in the Pacific Northwest?

The first is that we won’t get as much of our precipitation as snow, which stores our water for both natural ecosystems and our use. This will mean runoffs will continue to come earlier and there will be less water available to use and the natural ecosystems in late summer and fall.

The second is the effects of the rising ocean on coastal areas in the form of erosion. It also shows up in the acidification of the Pacific itself, already 26 percent more acidic than it was early in the 20th Century, with impacts on reefs mollusks and other sea life already. Finally, the dramatic rise in forest mortality from fire, beetles and disease, is an impact obvious to us in Idaho.

“The transformation of many forests is undeniable,” Mote said.

Adapting to other risks appear to be easier. Agriculture, for instance will see both positive and negative effects, Mote said. The longer growing season and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will help crops.

We’ve already seen the Pacific Northwest’s wine growers benefit. Farmers are able to adjust their crops and growing systems over a one to five year period,” Mote said.

Watching greenhouse gas levels rise so much during the last 20 years when scientists first laid out the case for major reductions has be difficult for people like Mote. The high trajectory of carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuel burning has come mostly from China and India as they have rapidly developed.

The West, including the United States has made progress but lack of action in the developing world continues to present the biggest threat.

“Their gains have erased all of our improvements,” Mote said.

That’s why he was happy to see a climate pact between President Obama and China, even though it doesn’t go far enough. Now, he said it is a political problem. Developing countries point to the high levels of greenhouse gases already placed in the atmosphere by the U.S.

He points out they will have matched that by 2025 if they don’t stop now, causing potentially catastrophic impacts.

“In a sense both points of view are reasonable,” Mote said.

That’s why both sides need to sit together and develop a plan that protects both of their interests.

“Having an agreement is a first step,” he said.