Confronting Climate Change in Oregon

Current Impacts and Future Risks

Published Mar 13, 2015


Oregon residents, like people across the nation and world, are experiencing impacts from global warming. With the Pacific Northwest having warmed at least 1.5°F since the first half of the 20th century, climate change is already being felt in the Beaver State.

Record-breaking wildfires are destroying forests and communities, and declining mountain snowpack and earlier snowmelt in the mountains are jeopardizing summer water supplies, and an acidifying ocean is devastating production at shellfish hatcheries.

Unless Oregon – and the broader global community – makes deep and swift cuts in heat-trapping emissions, future changes to our climate could be even more dramatic. Climate models project Pacific Northwest temperatures to increase a further 5°F to 8.5°F above today’s levels by the end of the century, with the rise depending on the rate at which we continue generating heat-trapping gases.

Greater risk of wildfires and forest damage

    Wildfires in Oregon are also becoming more frequent and intense, and the costs to fight them are growing. In 2018, the price tag reached more than $514 million, breaking the previous record, set in 2017, of $447 million. The costs to residents are also increasing, as real estate development proceeds in or near high-risk areas. More than 132,000 Oregon homes were at high or extreme risk of damage from wildfire in 2018.

    Changes in forest type, fire-suppression strategies, and land management will significantly influence the future of fire in the Pacific Northwest. However, 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.

    Climate change also alters Pacific Northwest forests by af­fecting outbreaks of insect pests and the incidence of tree dis­eases.

    Diminishing and uncertain water supplies

    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 1955, parts of Oregon have experienced a decrease in average snowpack on April 1 of more than 70 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 decrease opportunities for electricity generation from hydroelectric dams—the source of more than 60 percent of Oregon’s electricity in 2017—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.

    The changing ocean

    More than 7,700 Oregonians live in areas at risk of chronic inundation by the end of the century as sea levels rise. Different parts of the state could experi­ence sea level rise of less than one foot to as much as 10 feet above 2000 levels by the end of the century, depending on our emissions choices and the stability of polar ice sheets.

    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, where it reacts chemically to make seawater more acidic and corrosive. Many types of shellfish are very sensitive to the effects of ocean acidification, posing potential risks to the fishing industry. For example, altered ocean chemistry contributed 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 Pacific salmon and other culturally and commercially significant marine species.

    Climate solutions for Oregon

    Global warming represents a severe challenge to Oregon’s way of life, but the challenge can be addressed if policymakers, businesses, and residents take swift action and work togeth­er—both in reducing emissions and responding to the changes already occurring.

    Efforts by Oregon state and local governments are under way to identify actions that can assist communities in adapt­ing to a changing climate by becoming more resilient. At the same time, the emissions choices made 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 emerge. Oregon has made a start on such strategies, 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 contribute to national and global efforts to limit the worst consequences of climate change, the state should:

    • Fund a transition to a clean energy economy that improves livelihoods in underserved communities, including communities of color, tribal communities, and rural and low-income communities.
    • Establish a cap and price on carbon pollution for the companies responsible for a majority of the state’s emissions.
    • Continue increasing the use of clean fuels, such as sustainable biofuels and electricity, to reduce oil use and the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels.
    • Grow the market for electric vehicles with stronger consumer purchase incentives and policies to expand the charging infrastructure.
    • Decarbonize the electricity sector by increasing the use of renewable sources of electricity, reducing reliance on polluting sources such as coal and natural gas, and modernizing the electricity grid.
    • Improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings, agriculture, and industry.

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