- Can Washington, Oregon and Idaho handle average temperatures
more than 5 degrees warmer, 5 percent more annual precipitation, one-third
less winter snowpack and a mountain snow line as much as 1,500 feet higher?
- Climate models show such changes are possible in the
three-state Columbia River Basin by the middle of the next century as a
result of human causes, primarily the spewing of greenhouse gases such
as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a broad panel of scientists and
policy analysts said today. But most institutions charged with preparing
for the future are ill prepared to respond effectively, the group warned.
- The Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington
released the most comprehensive-ever examination of past and future climate
change in the region. The report says that by 2050 the Northwest is likely
to have warmer temperatures; wetter winters with more flooding and landslides;
salmon struggling with lower streamflows and higher water temperatures
in the summer and fall; and drier summers that make native trees more vulnerable
to insects, fire and possible displacement by non-native species.
- Some of the most serious problems detailed in the report
relate to shrinking snowpack. Water supply systems are built with the expectation
that a reliable "water bank" in the form of snowpack will provide
adequate supply for the typically dry summer months. But winters just a
few degrees warmer than usual, such as 1991-92, can mean drastically lower
snowpack and summer water shortages. Climate scenarios for the future all
project substantial warming by the 2020s, and summer water shortages could
- In the face of such shortages, the report outlines three
main responses. One is to increase supply by steps such as developing new
storage capability, reusing whenever possible and finding new sources.
Another is to decrease demand through such steps as introducing a water
market system that determines water prices and rights of use, developing
technology to limit waste, reducing irrigation and cutting soil-moisture
loss. The third is to increase flexibility by developing a regional water
management database that could integrate federal, state and academic institutions
so that all have the same information. Currently, no institution is capable
of meeting all of those needs.
- "Climate is not a constant, but people plan for
the future as if it were," said Philip Mote, a UW research scientist
and lead author of the report. "Research about possible future climate
change is useless unless institutions actually use the results to guide
- The report is part of the U.S. National Assessment of
the Consequences of Climate Variability and Change and is the first regional
report to be completed. The Northwest assessment was compiled by 19 scientists
and policy analysts from the UW School of Marine Affairs, the Joint Institute
for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans at the UW, the Washington Department
of Ecology, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.;
the Battelle Memorial Institute in Seattle and the Portland (Ore.) Bureau
of Water Works.
- The scientists analyzed environmental changes in the
past and projections from climate models to gauge the Northwest's sensitivity
to climate variations such as El Niño.
- Because human activity is increasing the level of greenhouse
gases in the atmosphere, some of the changes expected in the next 30 years
would far exceed those observed in this century. In the last 100 years
the region has gotten an average of 1.5 degrees warmer and 10 percent wetter,
and computer models suggest those trends will continue. That will mean
higher snow lines in the mountains, earlier spring thaw, lower summer water
supplies, and increasing environmental stress for salmon and trees.
- The report does not address whether the changes can be
reversed, but rather advocates that institutions and government agencies
be retooled to respond to scientific information and make sufficient plans
to mitigate the effects of altered climate.
- Three years ago the UW surveyed 30 public agencies in
Idaho, Oregon and Washington that seemed most likely to use climate forecasts.
Only two of them actually did so and most of the others hadn't even considered
trying, said Edward Miles, a UW marine affairs professor who heads the
Climate Impacts Group. A federal study showed the same was true of the
- Helping agencies, businesses and citizens understand
and respond to climate variability and change became a key goal of the
Climate Impacts Group, starting with the strong El Niño event of
- "Awareness and responsiveness has increased each
year, but more of our institutions must become aware of the effects of
climate and climate variability on what they do," Miles said.
- For this effort, the group has received funding from
the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global
Programs and the UW Provost's office.
- Once planners and the public become aware of the impacts
of year-to-year climate variations and long-term change, Miles said, they
can make proper use of the forecasts and scenarios. Primarily that information
- * Short-term seasonal forecasts. These include expectations
for conditions such as precipitation, streamflow and snowpack that affect
specific sectors, such as agriculture or hydropower. "This would increase
the efficiency of their use of the natural environment," Miles said.
- * Longer-term decadal cycles. Planners would understand
and prepare for the effects of a long drought or prolonged periods of flooding,
brought about by changing phases of a climate phenomenon called the Pacific
Decadal Oscillation in concert with El Niño and La Niña.
- * Decade- to centennial-scale scenarios. These look at
probabilities of how climate might be altered on a century time scale by
the continued emission of greenhouse gases.
- Agencies and institutions need technical expertise to
understand the forecasts, Miles said, and will have to work with groups
such as his to understand probable impacts. Then they will need an organized
internal response capability to mitigate effects of events such as drought
- In the federal government, he added, strong consideration
is being given to organizing a national climate service within NOAA to
provide the necessary links between climate forecasts and response planning.
But planning for climate change won't be simple.
- "When flooding threatens, the Army Corps of Engineers
has clear authority to prevent it," the report states. "But droughts
are harder to prevent, and when droughts occur hundreds of entities, including
states, irrigation districts, fisheries managers and tribes, all assert
their rights to scarce water."
- Editor's Note: The original news release can be found
- Note: This story has been adapted from a news release
issued by University Of Washington for journalists and other members
of the public. If you wish to quote from any part of this story, please
credit University Of Washington as the original source. You may also
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