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The Future Is Now in the Northwest



Having started my annual summer trip to see family in the Pacific Northwest, it’s incredibly depressing to see what’s happening to the climate and thus the ecology of the place I grew up. Basically, this year has seen the California drought spread all the way up the Pacific coast into Alaska. Some of this is a lack of precipitation, but a lot of it is only slightly below average participation amounts backed with sky-high temperatures that meant no snow pack. Record heat throughout the region throughout the entirety of 2015 has stressed what little water supplies exist To add to this, with the arrival of El Niño, the winter rains should go a long way to solving the drought in southern California, but will devastate Washington and points north, with Oregon probably dryish but not terrible. All of this has combined in a single year to create what will likely be an unprecedented fire season except that it will probably be dwarfed by next year. The salmon are dying in huge numbers because water temperatures are 5-7 and even up to 13 degrees above average–a shockingly large number considering the lack of normal variation in water temperatures. This not only is an ecological disaster but an enormous cultural disasters with huge implications for regional identity, foodways, and Native American heritage.

Yes, some of this is a confluence of unique events. Drought happens. Unprecedented heat however does not happen, not when the world set its all-time heat record in 2014 and is on the way to breaking that again in 2015. This hasn’t received the attention it should in the U.S. because one of the only parts of the globe that has been colder than normal in 2015 is the northeast of the United States. But whether the Northwest is specifically fated to see vastly higher temperatures than other parts of the world or not, if this is the climate change future, it’s a grim one indeed. There will be cool years and the rain and snows will come again. But if this is the new norm for the Northwest more years than not, the cherished forests and streams and snows and rains of the region will be radically transformed in awful ways.

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  • howard

    people in the northwest tell me that they have to water their trees, which seems inconceivable and yet….

  • Barry Freed

    “I grew up always having salmon,” said Lorraine Loomis, fisheries director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, whose culture is so intertwined with the migrating fish that they’re called the “People of the Salmon.”

    Relation of yours?

  • Linnaeus

    Back around February,I saw a talk by Cliff Mass at UW about Northwest weather now and in the future, which I thought was pretty well done and accessible for most people. His view was that the 2014-15 winter in the Northwest will likely become the norm by about 2070 or so. His caveat to all this was that the weather we’ve seen in the past few years is probably more attributable to natural variation rather than climate change (as the term is commonly understood).

    • Yeah, I mean clearly some of it is a unfortunate confluence of unique factors. But not all of it.

      • tsam

        Certainly not all of it. I spent my whole life here. I spent a lot of time out in the woods and on the water. The changes just in the last 20 years are deep and seriously disturbing.

        The fires this year started in early June. The forests shouldn’t be very flammable until late July. When the September winds hit, things are going to get UGLY.

  • thebewilderness

    It is the loss of native vegetation that brings home the fact that there is long term permanent change coming to the Puget Sound and the entire Pacific Northwest. It is very frightening.

    • What really hits me hard about this is not only that I love the region and spend as much time in the forests on my visits as possible, but that Northwest weather always seemed so stable. No tornadoes, no earthquakes, no extreme heat, very predictable seasons. To see that change with incredibly rapidity is hard for me.

      • No earthquakes?

        You mean no massive ones w/in historical memory; there are plenty of faults, volcanoes & the like ready to go.

        My karmic hope is that the Cascade subduction doesn’t go until the P.N.W. is already sinking under the weight of refugees from the desert that was Calif.

        • Earthquakes aren’t climate.

          • Peterr

            By themselves, no.

            But an earthquake in Alaska that shakes the permafrost is one thing, and I suspect that an earthquake that shakes the sortafrost is quite another.

            Shishmaref is already worrying about falling into the ocean, and the combination of an earthquake and melting permafrost has to be their worst nightmare.

          • Just reacting to your statement.

          • Thom

            Not climate, but I assume you saw the NYer piece about the expected 9.0 earthquake in the PNW.

      • thebewilderness

        We have had a few famous windstorms. Columbus Day storm, Turkey Day storm, Inauguration Day storm, the ice storm. We play “where were you when” with storms. We don’t worry too much about earthquakes cuz living on a fault they are unavoidable and St Helens reminded us that we live in a very young region.

        Nonetheless you are right. Never too much hot, never too much cold; something dramatic every ten years or so, just a generally temperate climate with astonishing amounts of food growing wild all over the place. Fragile, though. Very fragile.

        • Katya

          Another PNW native, and I feel the same way. We remember the extremes precisely because they are so rare. When I find out that it’s hotter in the Idaho panhandle than in swampy Washington, DC, and that this is happening with unprecedented frequency this summer, I worry, and I miss the PNW of my childhood.

        • joe from Lowell

          Columbus Day storm, Turkey Day storm, Inauguration Day storm, the ice storm. We play “where were you when” with storms.

          The timing of the storms would appear to make the game much easier.

  • c u n d gulag

    I’m old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter, wearing a sweater, told Americans to turn our thermostats because we were too reliant on fossil fuels from foreign countries.

    And then, after talking that talk, he walked that walk.
    He had solar panels installed on the White House roof.

    And then, soon after he was inaugurated, Reagan had those panels taken down.

    And now, after almost 4 years, our conservatives are still against using renewable energies.
    Short-sighted douche-canoe’s!

    • thebewilderness

      My grandpa used to leave the porch light on all the time. He said that it cost less to let it burn than it did to turn it off and on. Oh grandpa.
      My kids came home from school with stickers to put on the switch plates to remind them to turn off the light when they left the room. A Carter presidential effort. To this day they are very conscientious about energy usage.
      Reagan’s contribution was to start daylight savings time earlier and empty the energy department of staff.

      • Dennis Orphen

        If people had to put money in a slot to prepay for their utilities instead of purchasing on credit (your monthly bill) energy use would tumble.

    • UserGoogol

      I can’t help but feel like people massively overmythologize the petty symbolic gestures Carter made towards energy efficiency. Bully Pulpit, Leading with Leadership, and so on. Which isn’t to say the Carter Administration didn’t engage in substantive energy policy as well, but I mean jeez, telling people to wear a sweater wouldn’t have stopped global warming.

  • Gregor Sansa

    We are now essentially locked in to at least 2 degrees celsius warming; stopping before that has large economic costs that, though they are utterly dwarfed by the long-term damage of warming, happen sooner to richer people, and are really at the outer edge of what human societies have ever done voluntarily (ie, “wartime rations”).

    And it turns out that that probably means multi-meter sea level rise this century. That is, hundreds of millions of climate refugees within my 10-year-old daughter’s lifetime. The place I’m sitting right now (cape cod), the school I attend (Harvard), etc., will be below sea level. Harvard might manage dikes but Bangladesh and Miami and many many other places will not.

    • Brett

      Miami’s an interesting one. I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to dike/seawall/land barrier the entire eastern seaboard and Gulf, considering how valuable the real estate is. But if they don’t, then they’ll probably allow Miami to effectively turn into an island surrounded by defenses while the rest of southern Florida starts flooding.

      I envy your daughter, in a way. I’ll be an old man when the worst of this is happening in the second half of the 21st century. I’d much rather face those difficult times as a younger man.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Seawalling Miami wont work because it’s built on such a permeable foundation – they’re already having regular flooding of some streets due to seepage of water from beneath, and thats with the miniscule rise in sea level we’ve currently had. (Sorry, cant recall where I saw this, maybe the Atlantic?

        • GFW

          Yeah, it’s the limestone. It’s been mentioned a number of different places. I don’t know what the seepage rate through limestone is – maybe they could keep going for a while with pumps (they just installed a big system IIRC). OTOH, there’s a big difference between pumps used periodically, and pumps that have to work all the time.

        • Lee Rudolph

          (Sorry, cant recall where I saw this, maybe the Atlantic?

          It would have to have been the Atlantic; Miami’s not on the Gulf.

      • Redwood Rhiadra

        There was an article several months ago about the sea level rising in Miami.

        Miami’s going to be underwater in 30 years, all the city officials know it, and there’s fuck-all they can do about it. They already called in the Dutch engineers to see about dikes; the Dutch basically said “you’re next to a swamp, dikes aren’t going to do you any good.” And if anyone knows about building dikes…

  • trollhattan

    It’s not just the PNW, the entire Pacific coast from Alaska through California is hot, dry and on fire. And maybe someone can explain to me how Portland came to be over a hundred consecutive days last week. Amazing. Distressing.

  • Eli Rabett

    It’s not so much the water temperature as the lack of oxygen desorbed from the warm water that is killing the salmon

    • Dennis Orphen

      Reminds me of an old joke about falling and landing. Not that any of this is funny. It’s not.

  • DrDick

    Here in western Montana, most of our rivers have been closed to fishing from 2:00pm-midnight because low water are stressing the fish.

    • thebewilderness

      Clearcutting right down to the streams and rivers has had a dramatic effect on salmon. Over harvesting the ecosystem reduces its ability to sustain itself when a bad year comes.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Last Call at 1:45pm? Happy hour hasn’t even started yet!!!!

  • YosemiteSemite

    In the phrase “slightly below average participation amounts,” shouldn’t that be “precipitation amounts?” The Cupertino effect?

  • Dennis Orphen

    Here in Nevada County, CA it’s been so hot and dry for so long we have water groupies, man.

  • Nick never Nick

    Here is an article about an unprecedented forest fire in the Olympic rain forest:


  • Funkhauser

    Contrary to one of the statements Loomis notes above, this El Nino will probably not end CA’s drought. Will need 2+ rainy and snow-packed winters, preferably in a row. (Think I read this from Dennis M at the Vane.)

    • I did not claim it would end the drought, but it will help in southern California at least.

    • Brett

      That’s if it pulls through. I think there are El Ninos that disappointed on the rainfall before.

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