The Daily 202: Evidence of Climate Change Abounds Amid Extreme Weather in the Pacific Northwest

 

This city known for its rain just went a record-breaking 55 days without any.

The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had not measured any precipitation since June 18 until the wee hours of Sunday morning, when it drizzled. Barely. Some sprinkles also allowed Portland to break its own 57-day dry streak.

Climate change is leading to more extreme weather, and no other region has experienced that so much over the last year as the Pacific Northwest. Seattle got 44.9 inches of rain between Oct. 1 and April 30, the wettest such period ever. That means, even with the record dry streak, 2017 remains above normal for rainfall.

America faces many grave challenges. The horrifying events in Charlottesville this weekend highlighted several, including racism and the enduring stain of America’s original sin. (Much more on that below.) Climate change is another.

For long stretches last week, I had no cell service as I hiked around some of the most beautiful places in the world on vacation — from Mount Hood to Mount St. Helens. That meant that I missed real-time updates on President Trump’s brinkmanship with North Korea and his suggestion that “a military option” is on the table to deal with Venezuela. But while Trump was threatening to unleash “fire and fury” against Pyongyang, I was adjusting my planned route to avoid real fires in central Oregon.

Burn bans are in effect, and signs warn of extreme fire danger. Local TV stations are extensively covering the poor air quality. And there are widespread concerns that wildfires around the region might lead to smoky skies during next week’s solar eclipse.

— Fires happen every summer, but they’ve been getting worse in these parts. “Wildfires in the western half of the United States, including Oregon, have been burning hotter, faster and twice as large over the last 30 years and a good heap of the blame belongs to climate change brought on by humans,” The Oregonian reported last October, citing a study by the University of Idaho and Columbia University. The researchers found that “rising temperatures due to climate change have increased fire activity and burned an additional 16,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Maryland, that otherwise would have gone unscorched.”

“Since 1984, about 4 percent of the land in Oregon has burned per decade. The changing climate is likely to more than double the area in the Northwest burned by forest fires during an average year by the end of the 21st century,” the Environmental Protection Agency said in a report published last summer. “Higher temperatures and a lack of water can also make trees more susceptible to pests and disease, and trees damaged or killed burn more readily than living trees. For example, climate change is likely to increase the area of pine forests in the Northwest infested with mountain pine beetles in the next few decades. Pine beetles and wildfires are each likely to decrease timber harvests. … The combination of more fires and drier conditions may expand deserts and otherwise change the landscape… Many plants and animals living in arid lands are already near the limits of what they can tolerate. Warmer temperatures and a drier climate would generally extend the geographic range of the Great Basin desert.”

— The Pacific Northwest has also been experiencing record heat this month. “Salem, Oregon, topped its previous record streak of 90-degree-plus highs of 10 days set in 1967 and 1938 by reaching 13 days in a row. Oregon’s capital city averages just 17 such days in a year, but has already recorded 23 this year,” notes Jonathan Erdman, a senior meteorologist for the Weather Channel. “Spokane, Washington, has broken its record 90-degree-plus high streak of 14 days that stood since 1894, when Grover Cleveland was president. … The first nine days of August were the hottest such period on record in Seattle, Portland … Eugene, Oregon, and Yakima, Washington, according to data compiled by the Southeast Regional Climate Center.”

Ironically, it would have been a few degrees hotter over the past few weeks if not for all the smoke from the forest fires, including some big ones in British Columbia. The haze reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere.

— This is all happening as the Trump administration moves to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and rolls back Obama-era environmental rules. “A climate report based on work conducted by scientists in 13 federal agencies is under active review at the White House, and its conclusions about the far-reaching damage already occurring from global warming are at odds with the Trump administration’s views,” Steven Mufson reported last week. “The report, known as the Climate Science Special Report, finds it is ‘extremely likely’ that more than half of the rise in temperatures over the past four decades has been caused by human activity — in contrast to Trump Cabinet members’ views that the magnitude of that contribution is uncertain. The draft report, which has undergone extensive review, estimates that human impact was responsible for an increase in global temperatures of 1.1 to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit from 1951 to 2010.” (Read the draft here.)

In Washington State, Oregon and Idaho specifically, the government report says that the average annual temperature has already gone up 1.51 degrees since 1901-1960 and is projected to rise another 4.67 degrees by midcentury and 8.51 degrees by the end of the century if carbon pollution continues unabated. “Extreme rainfall has increased 3 percent since the first half of the 20th century and is projected to go up 19 percent by the end of the century if carbon pollution continues unabated,” the AP reported last week in its story on the draft. “If carbon emissions are somewhat reduced it would be 10 percent.”

— Almost every day, there are alarming new data points about the effects of climate change. Often these stories get short shrift because of whatever Trump tweeted that morning. Here are three examples that have appeared in The Post since just the start of this month:

— Tim Craig has an important story from Montana on the front page of this morning’s paper about conservative ranchers trying to get federal help after the state’s largest wildfire in nearly three decades: “Hundreds of miles of meadows and scrub grass that feed tens of thousands of beef cattle are gone, replaced by the charred soil and smoldering prairie dog burrows … But after the massive multimillion-dollar firefight, another battle has emerged in the wide open spaces where there is often distrust of the government: What should the federal role be in helping Montana’s livestock industry respond to, and recover from, the blaze. … After a lightning storm sparked the blaze July 19, FEMA’s initial denial of the state’s general request for disaster assistance while the fire was raging angered local officials … Montana’s congressional delegation pressured FEMA to reverse its decision, and the agency says it agreed to compensate the state through its Fire Management Assistance Program four days later. …

“Local officials across the United States worry that it is becoming more difficult to secure help from FEMA for all sorts of natural disasters. Since January, members of Congress and state officials have protested initial FEMA denials following a tornado outbreak in Louisiana, flooding in North Carolina, and snowstorms in Pennsylvania and Oregon. … The Trump administration has been hinting that it might limit federal spending on disaster relief and preparation, and FEMA is considering whether to draft regulations to shift more responsibility for rebuilding to the states.”

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