The signs may be subtle so far, but the science is conclusive: Climate change is upon us. Even in the Pacific Northwest — this mythologized place of swirling ocean mists, moss-soft rainforests, crystalline rivers jumping with trout, reedy lakes teeming with waterfowl, juniper-perfumed grasslands bounding with pronghorns, shining cities wedded to sustainability — elevated levels of carbon dioxide are altering natural ecosystems and affecting human well-being year by year.
Globally, the science has been mounting for decades. A panel of more than 1,300 scientists worldwide has forecast a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. The effects on individual regions will vary over time, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
To better understand those effects on Oregon, the Legislature charged the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) in 2007 with making a biological, physical and sociological survey of existing climate-change research from Oregon’s coastal oceans to the Cascade Mountains to the high desert. The evidence was unequivocal.
“We are already experiencing the impacts of climate change in Oregon,” concludes the Oregon Climate Assessment Report (OCAR), edited by OSU researcher Kathie Dello and OCCRI Director Philip Mote, and presented to the Legislature in December 2010.
Since 1920, Oregon’s average temperature has gone up 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, says OCCRI, a network of more than 100 researchers across the Oregon University System, housed at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (formerly COAS). That may not sound like much. But for ecosystems and organisms that have adapted to distinct niches over countless millennia, it can be huge.
“Small changes in temperature correspond to enormous changes in the environment,” explains NASA on its climate change website. “For example, at the end of the last Ice Age, when the Northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.”
And temperatures will keep rising through the end of the century — faster if carbon emissions continue unabated, slower if significant cutbacks are made, the researchers say. As the thermometer climbs, summers will get hotter and drier, snowpack will shrink, wildfires will spark up, rising seas and coastal floods will speed erosion. Plant and animal populations will shift across the landscape as they struggle to adjust. Pathogens will find new niches. Novel diseases will emerge.
Regions and communities that take active measures to adapt will fare best, the IPCC counsels.
Hearts and Minds
The iconic image of global climate change is a polar bear poised on a shrinking scrap of ice. This symbol of Earth’s fragility and life’s vulnerability — a floe adrift in the ocean, disintegrating under great white paws — works because it embodies a maddening complexity in a single, searing picture. You can wrap your heart around it, as well as your mind. It helps, too, that the basic science is easy: Heat melts ice. You don’t need a physics degree to grasp cause and effect.
Unfortunately for the scientists and environmentalists sounding the alarm for climate change, clear-cut images are hard to find. That’s because threats to human survival suggested by long-term data and projected by computer models are as complex as the systems they attempt to characterize. Rarely can they be reduced to a picture as stark, or as haunting.
Neither can clarity be found in America’s popular media. Images with the power to persuade — say, villagers being inundated by seawater in low-lying places like Madagascar and the Maldives Islands — rarely make the evening news. And when catastrophes of nature are reported, coverage lurches from natural disaster to natural disaster, offering little insight into the forces that connect and drive them. Monstrous storms crush small towns in Hurricane Alley. Heat waves sizzle across the Rust Belt. Wildfires blacken homes in California and the Southwest. Drought bakes the ranches and rangelands of Texas. People who rely on cable or network news for their information may perceive such events as random and unrelated — as short-term weather dynamics rather than long-term climate indicators.
Tropical fungi, asthma and heat islands will challenge local agencies.
In the Pacific Northwest — this temperate corner of the country where extremes of heat, cold, wind, flood and fire are uncommon — the signs of change are less evident than in some other regions. Oregon’s relatively benign climate presents a predicament for planners and policymakers, according to public health expert Kari Lyons-Eubanks.
“We’re not in Chicago, where people are dying from heat,” notes Lyons-Eubanks, a policy analyst for the Multnomah County Health Department. “We’re not in Florida, where people are suffering from dengue fever. When dengue is happening, people pay attention to the issue.
Architects and engineers envision a triple-net-zero tower in the city.
“In Oregon, we don’t have a destructive hazard that’s causing a big problem right now. With slow, creeping climate change, it’s a little bit more challenging.” But it also presents an opening — if communities have the foresight to walk through it.
“We’re lucky in the Pacific Northwest because we have more time to figure this out,” she says. “We have an opportunity to do this really well if we add some urgency to it. We can adapt if we pay attention now.”
All over Oregon, government agencies and private companies are doing just that. Using scientific data from OCCRI and elsewhere to craft policies and create plans to help people and ecosystems adapt to climatic shifts now and in the future.
“Prudent measures to adapt should be taken now,” Dello and Mote caution. “Resilience needs to be built into human communities and fostered in natural communities to deal with the adverse impacts of climate change.”
Click on the Terra Up Close sidebars on this page to read stories from stakeholders in a range of economic and environmental sectors. You will meet a wheat farmer in Eastern Oregon, a public-health professional and a green-construction expert in Portland, a sustainability official in Salem, an ornithologist in Ashland, a city planner in Florence and a forest geneticist in Bend.