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2002: It's the climate

The 2002 edition of Our Valley was titled “The Nature of Our Valley” and sought to outline its natural history, from the Rogue Valley’s geologic origins millions of years ago to our present surroundings: the plants, animals, mountains and unique weather. While all of these may sound like things that are steady and unchanging, there’s one that, in the ensuing 17 years, has shown plenty of change — and in unsettling ways. We call it “climate change,” a tame-sounding phrase that potentially packs a big punch.

One story, headlined “Don’t Like the Weather? Just Wait About 25 Years,” prosaically recited the wet-dry half-century cycles of cold, wetter La Nina and warm, drier El Nino patterns and, toward the end of the story mentioned global warming, with climatologist Roger Williams of Medford’s National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (now retired) saying the human contribution to warming is “much smaller than what nature has to offer.”

But the onslaught of heat waves, hurricanes, ocean rise and, especially for our region, drought, wildfire and smoke have spurred scientists to deeply research our climate and, more importantly, predict how it likely will behave in future decades.

“We have a much clearer idea that warming is because of trapped gases,” says Philip Mote, director of Oregon State University’s Oregon Climate Change Institute. “That (Our Valley) story 17 years ago missed it. It’s a formal science now called attribution that distinguishes between global and individual climate events. Since 1960, climate has departed from the way it behaved in previous history.

“The field of attribution has demonstrated that global warming can’t be attributed to natural causes. We put all this carbon in the atmosphere.”

Mote says temperatures have exceeded the global average year after year, and “for the Northwest, you can’t explain the past six decades with volcanoes or natural variability, and there’s no debate among practicing scientists in the field. The strength of evidence is overwhelming.”

Scientists can’t accurately set dates on what will happen when but, says Mote, “the higher the carbon dioxide, the more disruptive. My colleagues and I have demonstrated the link of fire to climate. With increased temperature, you get more fire. The speculation of 20 years ago is now an every-summer occurrence. The more greenhouse gases, the more climate surprises.”

What’s helpful, he adds, is to think of the process in terms of a bus — and “every time we pass a bus stop and don’t get off, we go farther down the road. Fire is happening now. The disappearance of Arctic sea ice is much more rapid than expected, and it’s irreversible. It will continue to get faster as long as we emit more greenhouse gases than nature can absorb. CO2 is now 410 parts per million. You have to go back 5 million years to find that level.”

Hydrologist Charles Lane, an environmental science professor at Southern Oregon University, says warming is changing the state’s characteristic winter precipitation, shifting it from snow to rain, reducing high-elevation snowpack that provides water during hot summer months. This means drier forests and more fire.

“It matters what form and what time the precipitation comes in,” Lane notes. “A lot of rain in winter does us relatively little good. Our water conveyance system here is built on snow, not rain. Hyatt and Howard (reservoirs) are not built to hold massive amounts of water a long time. They’re built to collect snow melt as it slowly melts over spring and summer.

“For water resource management, the real question is if climate change is driving more rain, relative to snow. If so, that’s a problem. The indicators are making people nervous, as we’re seeing more rain than snow.”

A big conversation in the American West now, adds Lane, is whether we should engage in a new round of reservoir building, because “if the current reservoirs aren’t big enough, that’s the obvious answer. I don’t know if that will happen, because the expense would be huge.”

Atmospheric scientist Karen Shell, a professor at OSU, operates computer models of Earth’s climate to predict what the climate will do next.

“We know a lot more about climate systems now (than when the 2002 Our Valley story was published),” says Shell. “The effects from increasing greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are becoming very clear. We can break it down for regions now,” with reports linked online.

A record low snowpack hit Oregon in 2015, she notes, “because it’s warmer and melts off in spring, with low storage and runoff in summer. Mountain streams go low and it ripples to agriculture. Water is scarce, forests dry out, there’s more fire.”

Should we be afraid?

“Good question,” says Shell. “These are serious impacts that greatly affect people’s lives. You don’t want to get paralyzed, though. There are things you can do individually and there are more technologies available. One of the big positive stories is the decline in the cost of solar, especially compared to building new coal plants. We can cut meat consumption, because we’re finding livestock produce a lot of greenhouse gases. You can still eat meat sometimes, but you can get a lot of protein from fish, chicken, vegetables without impacting the quality of your life.”

Is it going to get worse? “Yes, it’s going to get worse,” says Shell. “We’re going to see more summers like last summer, increased wildfire, stronger hurricanes because of warmer ocean temperatures.”

Is the public will changing? “I mostly talk with other scientists, but polls say more Americans believe the climate is changing because of human activity. Outside the U.S., most people believe that’s the case.”

It’s a serious problem, says Mote, but he points to reasons for optimism.

“It’s solvable if you imagine a better future and make it happen,” says Mote. “Polls over the last 15 years show a large majority of the public support renewable energy and other steps to reduce emissions. Opinion is polarized the voice of the vast middle is not as well represented in Congress as the fringes. The politics of climate is not reflecting what people actually want.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Fire retardant bombers and helicopters work a wildfire near Ashland. Mail Tribune / File Photo