Oregon residents, like people across the country, are seeing impacts from global warming. With the Pacific Northwest having warmed at least 1.3°F since 1895, climate change is already being felt in the Beaver State.
Shellfish hatcheries are failing because of an acidifying ocean, record-breaking wildfires are destroying forests and communities, and declining snowpack and earlier snowmelt in the mountains are jeopardizing summer water supplies.
Unless we make deep and swift cuts in heat-trapping emissions, future changes to our climate could be dramatic. Climate models project Pacific Northwest temperatures to increase between 3°F and 9°F by the end of the century compared with the end of the twentieth century.
The actual warming—and the magnitude of its resulting impacts—will depend on whether we reduce or continue to increase our global emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other heat-trapping gases.
Greater risk of wildfires and forest damage
Scientific evidence shows that climate change is producing hotter, drier conditions that contribute to worsening risks of wildfires in the American West. Photo: Kevin Abel/BLM
Climate change is already altering Northwest forests by increasing outbreaks of insect pests and the incidence of tree diseases. For example, higher temperatures and drought stress are contributing to outbreaks of mountain pine beetles that can cause widespread forest mortality. With ongoing warming, these increases in pest and disease problems are projected to continue.
Wildfires are also becoming more frequent and intense, and the costs to fight them are growing. The cost to residents of Oregon wildfires is also increasing, as real estate development proceeds in or near high-risk areas. Currently, 107,000 homes—8 percent of total residential properties—valued at $12.7 billion are at high risk of damage from wildfire.
Wildfires plaguing Oregon are likely to become increasingly destructive. Due to warmer and drier summer conditions, the typical annual area burned by fire in the Northwest is projected to double by the 2040s and quadruple by the 2080s relative to the past century.
Diminishing and uncertain water supplies
Oregon's natural resources support timber production, agriculture, and commercial fisheries, and a vibrant tourism industry that contributes nearly $10 billion annually to the state's economy. Global warming will affect all of them. Photo: Darrell Wyatt/Flickr
Higher temperatures and changes in precipitation are already having significant impacts on water resources in the Northwest. Winter snow accumulation in the mountains is a natural water storage system on which Oregon relies during its drier summer months, most critically for agriculture.
Since 1950, the average snowpack on April 1 in the Cascade Mountains has decreased by about 20 percent. Snowpack decline is projected to continue as more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow throughout much of the Pacific Northwest.
Snow is already melting as many as 30 days earlier than in the mid-twentieth century, reducing summer stream flows in many Northwest snow-fed rivers. This means less water is available during the hotter months when water demand tends to be highest.
A change in the timing of water supplies will also reduce opportunities for electricity generation from hydroelectric dams—responsible for 45 percent of the state’s electricity—in the late spring and summer when stream flows are reduced. These changes can complicate reservoir and irrigation management and stress freshwater fish, particularly salmon and trout.
Climate-driven changes in sea level and ocean acidity pose major threats to Oregon's ocean habitats and infrastructure. Rising seas, warmer ocean temperatures, and changes in the timing of freshwater flows from rivers may contribute to significant changes in Washington’s estuaries, an important habitat for salmon.
The increasing acidity of ocean surface waters is also adversely affecting marine life. The ocean absorbs much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Altered ocean chemistry has been definitively linked to declines in hatchery production at oyster farms near Oregon’s Netart’s Bay, due to the softening of oyster shells, and could pose risks to the industry.
Increased ocean acidification is projected to continue altering the marine food web by decreasing the abundance of shell-forming species, which in turn threatens other culturally and commercially significant marine species such as Pacific salmon.
Climate solutions in Oregon
The emissions choices we make today—in Oregon and throughout the world—will shape the climate our children and grandchildren inherit. Other states and regions have pioneered successful strategies for reducing emissions as their economies grow and new industries are created. Oregon has made a start, but must do more to meet this important challenge.
The state has set goals of reducing heat-trapping emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and to at least 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. To achieve those goals and avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the state should:
- Establish a price on carbon pollution for the companies responsible for a majority of the state’s emissions.
- Increase the use of clean fuels, such as biofuels and electricity, to reduce oil use and the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels.
- Expand the market for electric vehicles by establishing a consumer purchase incentive and policies to expand charging infrastructure.
- Improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings, agriculture, and industry.
- Increase the use of renewable sources of electricity and reduce reliance on polluting sources such as coal and natural gas.