Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ramifications of warming start to sink in

John Eminger, owner of 49 Degrees North ski area, remains a bit skeptical over exactly how much influence man has on the planet’s changing climate.

But just to be safe, he made sure his newest set of chairlifts was installed 300 feet higher up the mountainside. This might insulate his business from one extra degree of increased temperature, which is about how fast the Earth is expected to warm over the next 20 years, according to climate scientists.

“All the other chairlifts I propose to build – they each sit a little bit higher,” Eminger said. “You have to try to take these things into account. To ignore global warming would be foolish.”

Signs of a changing climate in the Inland Northwest are mounting: The snow is melting earlier each year, winters are warmer and rainier, and summers are drier, hotter and increasingly filled with forest fire smoke. Even though we might live and work in climate-controlled environments, the changes outside will have profound impacts on our region, scientists say.

There’s growing discussion about how to deal with the changes, but not much action, according to scientists and watchdog groups. Experts at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group say now is the time to get ready.

“It’s really important that decisions being made now take those changes into account,” said Amy Snover, a research scientist at CIG. “If you know these changes are coming, you should prepare for them. … We very strongly argue that now is the time.”

Since the dawn of the industrial age, humans have burned enough coal, natural gas and oil to release 250 million metric tons of carbon. This means there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than any time in the last 650,000 years.

There’s some uncertainty over whether this changing climate will mean more or less rain for the Northwest, but there’s little debate among scientists over one major outcome. “It’s going to be warmer,” Snover said. “We’re very certain of that.”

Since the 1920s, the average temperature for the Inland Northwest has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to data from the Climate Impacts Group. Climate models analyzed by the group’s scientists are pointing to another 2 degree rise by the 2020s.

Many of the models are predicting more weather extremes. A recent study by the Climate Impacts Group predicts a rise of intense winter storms – not unlike the wet weather that’s been lashing the region for most of the past month.

Basically, the Northwest can expect “more of the big dumps” because of a stronger low pressure system that sets up each winter near the Aleutian Islands, said Eric Salathe, a research scientist at the group who conducted the study.

Policymakers, especially in coastal parts of the state, are keeping a close watch on this research. The city of Seattle and King County are funding a new research position at the Climate Impacts Groups to conduct more precise analysis of how climate change will affect the Seattle area.

Scientists say the warming is expected to have profound effects for the region, especially in the following areas:

“Water supplies – Even a small amount of warming is expected to take a huge bite out of snowpack across the region, especially in lower elevations. The slow, gradual melt of snow is what keeps reservoirs full through summer. Over the next three decades, experts predict much of our winter snowpack will vanish and be replaced by rain, which quickly washes downstream.

“We already have problems meeting the need of fish and irrigators and hydropower,” Snover said. “Those conflicts aren’t going to go away. They’re going to be worse.”

“Forests – The growing season is expected to lengthen for forests across the region, but these gains could be offset by increased insect outbreaks and forest fires brought on by hotter summers. Recent warm winters are already being blamed for a massive bark beetle outbreak in British Columbia.

Insurance companies are growing nervous over how climate change is fueling more intense forest fires in the Inland Northwest. Many of the forested parts of the region are increasingly dotted with new, expensive homes. “We’re going to continue to see an increase in forest fires,” said Jim Swegle, vice president of the Seattle-based insurance company Safeco. “Communities and vacation homes – they’re going to be more and more at risk.”

“Hydropower – Wetter, rainier winters are expected to boost power production during this time of year, according to the latest long-range plan put forth by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. But the winter gains could be chewed away by summer hardship, according to the report. The council is expecting less water for power generation in summer and higher demand for air conditioning.

“City services – Everything from zoning laws to sewage treatment plants will be affected by climate change, experts say. With more intense storms, particularly during winter, more land will be prone to flooding. Wastewater treatment plants will need to be designed to handle larger surges of storm runoff. Even bridges will need to have an extra margin of strength if they cross rivers. Salathe, with the Climate Impacts Group, said places like Seattle and Portland are already scrambling to figure out how to plan for the changes now, rather than face costly retrofits. “Better to build it now to withstand this sort of thing,” he said.

Although an informal group of officials from Washington state agencies has recently begun meeting to discuss climate change, the Washington Department of Ecology appears to be the only state agency with an employee dedicated to analyzing the issue. Janice Adair, who works as special assistant to the agency’s director, has been researching how climate change could affect everything from air pollution to water supplies in the Columbia River Basin.

“What we need to do is keep on top of what the science is telling us,” Adair said. “It seems critically important.”

Not nearly enough, however, is being done to prepare for the coming change, especially in the area of how water is managed and valued, according to Rachael Paschal Osborn, a Spokane attorney with the Columbia Institute for Water Policy. “I can say almost unequivocally that almost no one is planning for climate change around here,” Osborn said. “The climate models just look disastrous. What we need to do locally is understand what this means.”

At least one local group of citizens has begun meeting to look at climate change. The group doesn’t have a name or a mission statement yet, but Sagle, Idaho, resident Nancy Gilliam said the main thrust will likely be public education and pushing local decision-makers to take the issue seriously. About 40 people from Bonners Ferry to Coeur d’Alene to Spokane are involved. Gilliam said many participants are discouraged by the federal government’s lack of action on the issue.

“It truly involves every aspect of our lives and we need to know how to wake people up to that,” said Gilliam, co-director of the Model Forest Policy Program. “It’s just too urgent. I don’t think we have time for the federal government to figure it out.”