If current climate trends continue, the Pacific Northwest will have more summer wildfires, less winter snowpack and smaller numbers of the salmon for which our region is famous.
The skiing could get worse, too. But on the bright side, warm-weather grape varieties may produce better Northwest wine for drowning our sorrows.
Those are just some of the projections contained in the latest edition of the National Climate Assessment, an encyclopedic rundown of the expected region-by-region impacts of climate change on the United States.
The assessment from scientists and 13 federal agencies and took years to compile and runs more than 1,000 pages in its printed version. Like other assessments, it finds that the impacts of human-caused climate change, primarily from industrial emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, are already taking hold.
“Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the report says.
Those views run counter to President Donald Trump’s oft-stated skepticism about climate impacts.
Trump has called worries about global warming a “hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese, and just this week he sent out a tweet noting that the East Coast’s winter chill “could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” (Scientists say that climate change’s impact can lead to deeper extremes in weather, including heightened winter storms, and that warmer average temperatures on a long-term scale can still leave room for colder-than-average, short-term variability.)
This year the president pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords, which called for measures aimed to ameliorating the worsening climate outlook.
Some suspected that the release of the National Climate Assessment was timed to bury the news in the middle of the long Thanksgiving weekend and the Black Friday holiday shopping rush. Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein was among those taking note of the chill:
Federal officials refused to answer my questions on climate report in press conference about timing of report & why it contradicts President Trump? Other reports try again, they still dodge those questions. NOAA pr person not allowing experts to talk
— seth borenstein (@borenbears) November 23, 2018
The report noted that mean temperatures in the 48 contiguous states have already warmed 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since 1900, with 1.2 degrees of that rise coming over the past few decades.
“Additional increases in annual average temperature of about 2.5 degrees F (1.4 degrees C) are expected over the next few decades regardless of future emissions, and increases
ranging from 3 degrees F to 12 degrees F (1.6–6.6 degrees C) are expected by the end of century,” the report said.
The variations in the forecast depend on whether the world follows a scenario for lower carbon emissions or higher carbon emissions.
Climate impacts could vary significantly depending on region. For example, higher temperatures are expected to contribute to more extreme hurricanes in the Southeast, and lower snowpack levels in the Northwest.
Warmer and drier conditions are already leading to an elevated threat of wildfires in interior Alaska and the western United States, as illustrated by the fires that have degraded air quality in Washington state for the past two summers and devastated California this month.
“There’s real concern about how the West will be able to manage this increasing occurrence,” report co-author Kristie Ebi, a University of Washington public health professor, told The Associated Press. She said global warming is already harming people’s health and will only get worse.
Warmer temperatures could also hasten the expansion of the range of the mountain pine beetle, a pest that has dealt a crippling blow to forests in the Western interior.
Salmon runs could be affected by rising river temperatures, resulting in fish kills of migrating and spawning salmon. “These fish kills have consequences several years in the future,” the assessment said.
Climate projections point to a 22 percent reduction in salmon habitat by the late 21st century, under a high-emissions scenario for climate trends. That would equate to more than $3 billion in economic losses.
Northwest leisure activities and tourist attractions could also be affected.
“Decreases in low- and mid-elevation snowpack and accompanying decreases in summer streamflow are projected to impact snow- and water-based recreation, such as downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, boating, rafting and fishing,” the report said. “Climate change could decrease snow-based recreation revenue by more than 70 percent annually in the Northwest under a higher scenario.”
The assessment noted that some climate impacts won’t be as damaging to the Northwest as they will be to other regions of the country. For example, livestock producers may have an advantage over those in other U.S. regions where the impacts are likely to be more severe.
“Northwest wine producers may see the potential for growing higher-quality and higher-value wine grape varietals,” the report said.
That may sound like good news for the Washington wine industry, but there’s a downside: Shifts in the hydrological cycle are likely to lead to limited water supplies for irrigation, requiring more facilities for water storage or alternative sources of water to maintain productivity. And that’s not all: Washington state vintners’ day in the sun could well be short-lived.
“Over the longer term, changes to average growing season temperatures and the number of severe hot days are projected to reduce premium wine grape production in the Northwest, potentially shifting prime growing areas further north,” the report said.