Time to get a new thermostat

Climate change is the new normal in the Northwest. Adapt or broil (and get wet).
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Sunset over the Arctic. (Jeremy Harbeck, NASA)

Climate change is the new normal in the Northwest. Adapt or broil (and get wet).

There were a few days this past summer when I questioned if I had died in my sleep and awakened in hell. Only hell, in this case, was an alternate universe where Seattle'ꀙs famously cool weather report sounded more like Phoenix. On July 29, after a weeklong heat wave, the National Weather Service reported the hottest day in Seattle'ꀙs recorded history. That day I learned the limitations of my thermostat: It can only report temperatures inside my house up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

The thermostat may deny triple-digit temps, but they happened just the same — in my living room and across the Pacific Northwest. My lawn died, my water bill spiked, and I found myself staring at empty store shelves when I went looking for a portable AC unit. I cursed myself for buying a house with westerly Phinney Ridge views as the sun pounded in through my single-pane windows, and I found myself, like many other Seattleites, wondering whether this record-breaking heat wave was a fluke or a sign of things to come.

Are we seeing the effects of global warming and global climate change right here in our region? Is this the new normal? The short answer, not surprisingly, is yes.

This summer'ꀙs triple-digit heat led to some bizarre complications: flash-flood warnings, urgent air-stagnation warnings, power outages and lightning fires, including one in central Washington that forced 140 families to flee their homes. Seattle experienced not one but two notable dry spells, with no measurable rain for 29 days in May and June, and again for 26 days in July through early August.

Stranger still is that this all came after a winter full of weather records on the other end of the spectrum. In December, Seattle had the coldest morning on record for the past 44 years, while Spokane was hit by a record six feet of snow, breaking a record set in 1950.

'ꀜThe question so many are asking when we experience an extreme weather event is, 'ꀘIs this the smoking gun or not?'ꀙ That is the wrong question to ask,'ꀝ says KC Golden, policy director with Climate Solutions, a research and advocacy organization in Seattle. 'ꀜThis is not the smoking gun. This one event alone does not signal the arrival of global warming. It can never be linked exclusively to one event. However, you can say very conclusively that global warming is occurring and it will increase the frequency of certain extreme weather events, more Katrinas. It'ꀙs just that this one past Katrina — or one singular event — cannot alone signal the arrival of global warming. Climate determines the frequency and probability of a weather event. It does not exclusively determine any one particular weather event.'ꀝ

In June, the White House and the U.S. Global Change Research Program issued a report saying climate changes are clearly under way in the United States and projected to grow. The changes include rising temperatures, rising sea level, more heavy downpours, rapidly retreating glaciers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows.

Karin Bumbaco, an assistant state climatologist at the University of Washington, says that another report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, removes any doubt about the reality of global warming. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, the report says, as evident in rising global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average temperatures.

Furthermore, the panel'ꀙs 'ꀜFourth Assessment Report'ꀝ concludes, most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

'ꀜAnthropogenic is just a fancy word for 'ꀘhuman-caused'ꀙ,'ꀝ says Bumbaco. She further clarifies the IPCC report saying that, 'ꀜthe phrase 'ꀘvery likely'ꀙ in the IPCC report equates to greater than 90 percent certainty.'ꀝ

Simply put, there is a problem, and mankind is the cause.

While weather extremes may become the norm, however, the long, white winter we experienced last year should remain a rarity, according to Phil Mote, a respected longtime Washington state climate scientist who recently became director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and Oregon Climate Services in Corvallis. 'ꀜWe should expect that in a warming world a big, snowy winter will be less common,'ꀝ Mote says. 'ꀜLast winter was more of an aberration that anything else. As the global climate continues to warm it will become even more of an aberration, while hotter, drier summers will happen more often.'ꀝ

Golden explains the global warming trend and that of the more erratic short-term events as a rather simple visual diagram. 'ꀜIf I were to draw this out, I would draw a fairly straight line that is slowly on an upward incline. Over the first line I would place a second line that wiggles around more, going up and down at various annual intervals, as events like El Niño and La Niña affect individual seasons. The end result is that the primary line is still slowly moving upwards and that would demonstrate the global average climate.'ꀝ

The effects of this change are unavoidable, even for those of us who avoid the evening news. Mote outlines two key challenges we all face in trying to curb increasing global temperature. First, he says, we must learn to live with the changing climate and be prepared for what it will bring, such as changing flood risk. 'ꀜWe must become adaptive to the near-term changes. This is not an option, it is simply risk management. We cannot immediately stop global warming. Reductions in greenhouse gases will take a while to take effect, so the tradeoffs between near-term sacrifice and long-term benefit will be hard for people with a short-term focus to accept. Even as we act, we will see continued warming and glacial decline. However, we will experience short-term benefits: reduced air pollution, reduced reliance on foreign oil. The wise thing to do now is both — be adaptive and be active.'ꀝ

Adaptive, but at what cost? As the climate continues to morph, all the experts I spoke to point toward the rapidly changing hydrology of the Pacific Northwest. The precipitation amount in our area has not significantly changed and may in fact increase (so Seattle will still continue to be known for its trademark rain). But the form in which we receive it is expected to change drastically over the next few decades, and that will greatly affect how we can store and use it.

April 1 snowpack is projected to decrease by 28 percent across the state by the 2020s, 40 percent by the 2040s, and 59 percent by the 2080s, relative to the 1916-2006 historical average. As a result, seasonal streamflow timing will accelerate. Rather than the blessing of mountains as a natural storage system for our snowpack, more watery water might require an expensive new storage system — think dams — with a price tag upwards of several billion dollars.

While 2008 was cooler on a global scale than the few previous years, it still was the seventh warmest year on record, and Mote warns that 'ꀜWe are not in a long-term global cooling period. In fact, this year with the El Niño we will likely see a higher global average than before and above-average temperatures around this region.'ꀝ In June the world'ꀙs ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record, according to a preliminary analysis by NOAA'ꀙs National Climatic Data Center, and the combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for June was the second warmest.

Bumbaco says modeling studies conducted by the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group predict warmer and drier summers for Washington with climate change, so conditions like those seen this summer may become more typical. Changes in winter precipitation are less certain. What about 2010? With the El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean, we might expect a warmer and drier winter than usual this year, assuming the El Niño continues to strengthen as forecast, she says.

Each of the experts I spoke with was optimistic that the effects of climate change can be mitigated, but not without hard work and a commitment to change.

'ꀜPeople imagine that there is a great global tipping point where we have gone too far to recover,'ꀝ Mote says. 'ꀜThere may be some areas where that will be true, like with the Arctic, but there's not a point beyond which everything falls apart. It's like being on a bus — every few blocks the bus passes another bus stop. For each stop we go by, we miss the opportunity to get off, but we can still get off at the next stop. It's never too late to change the future.'ꀝ

'ꀜI am definitely an optimist when it comes to climate change. We can effect change,'ꀝ Bumbaco said. 'ꀜWe can'ꀙt eliminate global warming, but we can take actions to alleviate its effects.'ꀝ


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