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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Inland Northwest climatologists sound off on U.N. report: ‘We definitely need to worry about snowpack’

Inland Northwest communities have been struck this year with drought, high temperatures and wildfires. The U.N. released a climate change report Monday.  (Christopher Anderson)
Inland Northwest communities have been struck this year with drought, high temperatures and wildfires. The U.N. released a climate change report Monday. (Christopher Anderson)

Communities across the Inland Northwest have experienced some of their hottest days on record this summer, contributing to historic levels of drought and wildfires across the region.

And while a United Nations report released Monday doesn’t conclude this is the new normal, regional climatologists say these patterns will become more and more likely if change does not happen soon.

The report, released Monday by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was coauthored by more than 230 scientists and includes more than 14,000 research citations, with forecasts regarded as more confident than the last iteration released in 2013. Described as a “code red for humanity” by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the report states climate change is clearly human-caused and “an established fact.”

The patterns seen this summer were not included in the report given the timing of its release, said Brian Henning, director of Gonzaga University’s Center for Climate Society and the Environment.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve been experiencing this summer will become more and more common unless and until we make deep reductions in the kind of pollution from burning coal, oil and gas,” Henning said.

Henning said changing patterns could also contribute to more precipitation over fewer weather events, such as a couple months’ worth of rain all in one storm, “which doesn’t do agriculture or ecosystems much good.”

“In our area in particular, what we’re going to have trouble with is probably not necessarily less precipitation overall,” he said. “It’s more likely in our area, we’re projected to increasingly shift from a snowpack watershed to a rain-based watershed over the course of this century if we don’t take pretty significant action quickly.”

With climate change projections showing wetter winters and earlier springs, climatologists say mountain snowbanks could melt faster as a result.

“That water’s going to be moved down the hill before we really need it during the dry period in summer, ” said Nick Bond, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington and the state’s climatologist. “The natural ecosystem and human system are based on the past climate when we had a lot of snow coming out of winter that would last quite a while into early summer to get us through that dry season.”

It’s inconclusive at this point, Henning said, on what impact that could have on Palouse farming.

More certain is the potential impact on ecosystems, as warmer temperatures could make streams, rivers and lakes uninhabitable for certain species of fish, such as redband trout, resulting in shifts to warmwater fish species, he said. Recreationally, low-elevation mountains could become unsuitable for wintertime activities by the middle of the century.

Hugh Lefcort, a biology professor at Gonzaga who reviewed the IPCC report, said snowpack is particularly important for irrigation purposes in the summer to melt slowly in order to feed streams and the soil. He said the aquifer could also experience lower flows later in the summer.

“So far, we know the winter is getting wetter, but if that falls as snow in the mountains, that’s great. If it falls as rain in the mountains, that’s not good,” Lefcort said. “Our winters are getting wetter, our summers are getting drier and we definitely need to worry about snowpack. What it means is we’re going to have to somehow use our lakes as reservoirs. If that snowpack is going to melt quickly, we have to store that before it goes into the Spokane River, out to the Columbia and into the ocean.”

Bond said unirrigated parts of the state, particularly at low elevations in Eastern Washington, have seen drought conditions this summer “as extreme as we’ve ever seen.”

“The warming climate has stacked the deck for these kinds of conditions that we’ve gotten this summer,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that each summer, you’re going to be dealt that hand, but it just means that there’s more of those cards that make for extreme heat and/or drought.”

Bond said the actions global society takes will decide how the situation plays out over the coming decades.

The report’s worst-case scenario indicated that the world could be around 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit hotter by the end of the century, but that looks increasingly unlikely, report coauthor and climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, climate change director of the Breakthrough Institute, told The Associated Press.

While there is “basically no stopping” occurrences such as rising sea levels, Bond said he appreciated that the report “was not all doom and gloom,” as authors indicated how “aggressive” policies limiting greenhouse gas emissions could reduce warming later in the century.

“Regardless of the cause, we need to do things like build seawalls, harden our cities and build reservoirs,” Lefcort said. “All of that we can totally agree on … those are good regardless. Reducing (carbon dioxide) output is much more political, but hardening ourselves against the effects of (carbon dioxide) is much more doable.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wa., said in a statement that while the Senate is close to passing an approximately $1 trillion infrastructure bill that includes provisions to address climate change, “we must do more in the coming months to further accelerate our transition to clean energy by making additional investments and pricing carbon pollution.”

Locally, the Spokane City Council’s Sustainability Subcommittee has worked over the last two years to develop a Sustainability Action Plan. City officials hope to approve a final version by October.

“The good news is that we have the tools and vision to take meaningful action today,” Kara Odegard, manager of sustainability initiatives, said in a statement. “Thousands of voices from our community have contributed to a plan that will help ensure Spokane stays strong in the face of future challenges. Exciting opportunities exist, and I have a lot of hope for our future.”

The subcommittee is seeking public input on the plan. To take the survey, visit my.spokanecity.org.

Bill Smith, director of the Martin Institute and Program in International Studies at the University of Idaho, said most of the regional response will be “more about adaptation than it is about prevention” relative to the global scale of the issues.

“Because of the percentage of humankind that lives in cities, urban centers setting up similar policies does make a difference,” Smith said. “If you have enough of them, that changes behavior – not just on the part of the individuals in them.”

In doing so, Smith said there are five chief issues regional leaders need to keep in mind: water availability, biodiversity, food security, human health and the economy. Local, state and federal policymakers can set policies that tie funding with certain priorities, he said.

“So the question in the Northwest region is do you set up policies that will encourage people to act or do you set up laws that will require people to follow certain kinds of behavior?” Smith said. “A lot of our civil society is actually a policymaking, regulating sort of approach that will come out of county boards, port districts, city councils.”

The U.N. report, Smith said, is not binding. Any action that takes place out of the report is up to localities and countries.

One of the biggest challenges, then, may be the willingness to act, he added.

“There are lots of people who are interested in acting and, in certain localities, there are actions taking place, but in others, there’s still kind of that denial that humans can impact the environment,” Smith said. “No matter how urgent the report indicates things are, that doesn’t mean that’s how it’s seen always on the ground.”

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