Friday, October 16, 2015

Did the Pacific Northwest Pass the Global Warming Stress Test?

Is the Pacific Northwest ready to take on the impacts of global warming?

And amazingly because of the freakish conditions this summer, we know the answer.

Last summer, the Pacific Northwest experienced environmental conditions that are very similar to those human-forced global warming may well produce around 2070, based on the latest climate simulations.

Specifically, we endured substantially (2-4C) warmer than normal conditions, record low snowpacks in our mountains, record low streamflows, and slightly below normal precipitation--very much like anthropogenic global warming will probably produce in our region during typical summers in 60-70 years.  Keep in mind that the best science indicates that the CAUSE of the warming this year was not from increasing greenhouse gases but from natural variability, variability that produced a high amplitude, persistent ridge of high pressure over the eastern Pacific.  But the net effects are similar and thus we have a valid test.  A climate stress test.

So, with virtually no preparation, how did our State and region make out during this unexpected climate stress test?

Being well into autumn, the results are in.    And I will give a detailed scorecard for you to consider.

Here are the scores by major test areas:

Agricultural productivity and robustness:  B
Water supplies for urban populations:   A-
Energy supplies:  A-
Air quality:  C
Wildfires and forests:  D-

OVERALL Grade:  Passed with a B-, but there are major issues we need to deal with.
Let's analyze this grades more carefully.


Washington State agriculture last year (2014)  provided an income of about 10.5 billion dollars.  A few months ago, the WA State Dept of Agriculture estimated a drought loss of 1.2 billion dollars in 2015, or about a ten percent loss.  Think about it.   The warmest summer on record with the lowest streamflows and snowpack on record and our State Ag folks believe that our agriculture was 90% of expected.  Amazing.   They may have even been too pessimistic.  Why do I say that?

The apple crop was the third largest and prices are up.

The pear crop was the fifth largest on record.
The hops harvest was up 13 percent!

The wine grape harvest is excellent.
And the marijuana harvest is off the charts.
 For those looking to do some hunting to put game on the table, the herds are huge because of the mild weather

There were some agriculture interests that have been hurt, such as the dryland wheat farmers (poor spring wheat crop) and the ranchers in NE Washington (the effects of the wildfires).  But much of the irrigated farmland east of the Cascade crest survived as a result of careful management of reservoirs (like the five in the Yakima system), conservation and trading of water, use of wells, and other approaches.   Furthermore, the Columbia River had decent flows this summer, providing sufficient water for  the substantial irrigated acreage dependent on that river. The WA State Dept of Ecology worked hard to foster the best use of limited water supplies.

So a solid B seems in order:  no major agriculture disaster for our state, with continued large output of major crops.   Can you imagine you well WA agriculture could do with proper preparations, such as increasing use of drip irrigation, planting less water intensive crops, fixing the leaky distribution system, and adding more reservoir capacity?   Or replacing the crazy system of senior and junior rights, with the former guaranteed their full amounts and often not using it wisely?  With some smart decisions WA State agriculture could be ready for 2070!

Water supplies for urban populations

No major urban area has had a significant water problem during summer 2015 mainly because precipitation this year was just slightly below normal (this is what we expect in 2070). A lot of wise decisions were made when it became clear that the snowpack would be low, like Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) storing extra water last winter and spring (see graphic).  Letting lawns go dormant became an accepted societal norm.

There was adequate water supplier for Spokane, which draws its water from an aquifer.

And there were completely adequate supplies for Bellingham, Tacoma, the Tri-Cities, Vancouver, and Olympia. Even cities on the drought-stricken Olympic Peninsula (e.g., Port Townsend, Sequim, Port Angeles, Forks) had sufficient water, although some put voluntary restrictions in place.

There are some folks with wells in vulnerable areas that have had problems and some of the local municipalities may have waited a bit too long to ask for voluntary restrictions, but overall the drinking water supply was quite robust.   An A- seems reasonable.  Of course, population will increase in 2070, but there is much more we can do, from increased water efficiency for showers and toilets, more reservoir capacity, and encouraging folks to let their lawns go brown during the summer (or replacing the lawns with drought-tolerant plants).  And if all else fails, there is plenty of potential for more wells in the west.

Energy Supplies

The main source of electricity in our state is from hydropower, and the news was good in that arena, mainly because the Columbia River flows were decent this year (as we would expect in the future).  To quote from an official from Bonneville Power Administration:

"December-early April generation was quite a bit above the median, while not surprisingly, well below median from late April through late August (we’re back to near normal now).  That all averaged out to slightly below median generation for the water year."

Not too shabby for such an extraordinarily warm, record low snowpack year!  City Light was 

similarly affected, making more money in the winter and less during summer, resulted in a modest loss compared to a normal years.   But not enough to influence rates. In addition,  City Light lost several million dollars as a result of turning off power generation at their Skagit facility when a wildfire threatened the power lines.

On the other hand, it was a banner year for solar energy generation, probably the best in 50 years, and wind energy was modestly below normal due to lowered wind speed associated with persistent high pressure in the west, which is something that is not expected under global warming.  On the other hand, warm temperatures last winter resulted in lower-than normal heating costs.

Overall, no serious energy issues and an A- seems appropriate.

Air Quality

There have been a number of groups suggesting that global warming would bring poor air quality to our region.  Some proposed that warmer temperatures would enhance the probability of ozone and smog, since the associated chemical reactions are sped up by higher temps. Others talk about smoke from wildfires.  There are really two distinct stories here, as illustrated by the air quality charts from May 15 through Sept 15 shown below.

The ozone values in Seattle , even with consistently warm temperatures, were quite low (hourly values in parts per billion, ppb, are shown, with values needed to get to 80 ppb for 8h in row to trigger alarms).    Why no problem?  Ozone and smog pollution require high values of nitrogen oxides, but values are dropping due to cleaner gas cars and increased use of hybrids and electric vehicles.   Ozone is also enhanced by volatile organic chemicals, but those are being reduced as well (you can thank local and state agencies, such as Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for this).

But the story is not as good for small particulates (PM2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns in size).  As shown by the plot in Seattle, for most of the summer the levels were low, but there were some big spikes (to 80 micrograms per cubic meter, which is unhealthy for vulnerable populations).   These smoky periods were caused by smoke from some of the eastern WA fires being wafted over the Cascades.

But if you want a real air quality problem, consider the situation in eastern WA.  At Spokane, the early summer was generally ok, but when the big fires broke out in August, the PM2.5 levels jumped to nearly 300.  We are talking about Beijing air quality.  And things were even worse in areas of the Okanogan region of NE Washington.

So, we had a situation with air quality being decent during much of the early summer on both sides of the Cascades, but then some real smoke issues during several weeks in August. And then major improvements in September.  A serious, but limited, problem.   A solid C seems appropriate.

Wildfires and forests

During the spring, there was all kinds of talk about an early start to the wildfire season, with the suggestion that low snowpack would lead to early infernos.  That did not occur for several reasons, including relatively moist conditions of forests and range lands after near normal precipitation and the suppression of lightning by the persistent high pressure over the region (which caused the warmth in the first place).   With very warm temperatures during the summer, grasslands and forests dried out, and when serious lightning hit during August, the wildfires exploded.   In a short period, we went from a much lower than normal wildfire season to one of the most extensive (see graphic from the National Interagency Coordination Center of cumulative acres burned over the Northwest).

Over a million acres burned, several people were killed (including 3 firefighters), hundreds of buildings were lost, and substantial economic damage was done, mainly over NE Washington.

Clearly, the massive fires over our rangelands and eastern-side forests showed that this region was not well prepared for a warm summer, the kind of summer that will be typical in 2070.  And much of the blame can be laid on poor forest management.   As noted by a number of forest experts, our state has allowed the eastern slope forests to degrade terribly.   For thousands of years, eastern WA forests were characterized by relatively widely spaced Ponderosa pines with native grasses between them.  Fires occurred frequently, helping to maintain this ecology.   But during the early part of the 20th century, forest managers, following regionally inappropriate European practices, began suppressing the fires.  The result was a dense forest, with understory trees that helped fires reach the crowns of big trees.  Dense fuel loads enhanced by slash of occasional timber harvests.  Forests ready to explode.   Unhealthy forests that encouraged the spread of bark beetles.

Those managing these forests have not been responsible stewards of the land.  It it well known what needs to be done:  thinning the forest, removing the debris, and initiating controlled burns to bring things back to a natural state.  In such a state, the forests burn far less intensely and with less smoke. But, as noted in a recent article in the Seattle Times, our state government, and particularly the Dept of Natural Resources (headed by Peter Goldmark) have dragged their heals on this, irresponsibly delaying forest restoration.   

If our forests are to be ready for 2070, the investment must be made by the state and the Federal government to restore the eastern slope forests to a more natural, healthy condition.   Furthermore, steps must be taken to discourage people from building homes in areas that have historically burned frequently.  We are spending billions of dollars a year on fighting fires when we should be solving the problem by restoring the forests with this money.  Not smart.  This is not mainly a global warming problem; it is a forest and range management problem.  Some state officials love to talk about the influence of global warming on our forests; it is ironic how little they are doing to restore our forests so that they can deal with current conditions and warming conditions later in this century.

Consider last year's fires and what they reveal about the poor state of eastern Washington forests, a grade of D for this portion of the stress test is probably generous.  An F might be more appropriate.


So, our summer global warming stress test for Washington State is complete.   one major failure mode has been revealed:  the deplorable state of our east-side forests that are ready to explode under sustained warm temperatures.    The other test areas were encouraging, with our agriculture, water and energy supplies, and air quality holding up quite well under 2070 conditions.  So an overall grade of B- is not unreasonable.  I did not talk about the salmon fishery, which is economically very small.   And besides, our society has already made the decision to savage our salmon runs when we put in the hydro dams.

There is much we can do to get ready for 2070, and if we plan carefully and make the necessary investments, our region can be prepared to weather the substantially warmer climate of the latter part of this century.

 Keep in mind this was mainly a summer global warming stress test.  Winter brings other challenges, mainly heavier rains during atmospheric rivers.  But that is a story for another blog.

Added section:  Salmon

The salmon returns have NOT been a disaster this year, with many runs being good or excellent.  Some examples:

I support the Carbon Tax initiative and I hope you will as well.  CarbonWashington need signatures for the initiative and financial support.  


andrew said...

Cliff, don't you think one of the problems is that in 2070 this new state of affairs is likely to be permanent, while this region got good grades in many areas for one summer, the region may not do as well if it's like this summer after summer. Our ability to be ready for one summer of drought doesn't mean we'll do as well with twenty summers of drought.

Cliff Mass said...

Andrew...that is a good question. I suspect that wont be an issue. Our precipitation will be even greater than today and we reset each winter. No reason to think that multiple summers will be a problem....can you provide something specific?..cliff

andrew said...

Sure, take agriculture, I guess if we actually do reset every winter that's great but I'm curious if we have the capability of managing low reservoirs summer after summer, same with water supplies, especially if we expect much lower snowpacks every winter. Maybe I'm showing my ignorance on this.

David Seater said...

Will we reset each winter? Compare the water storage level for this October to last October: it's noticeably lower. If we capture as much as last winter then we'll be behind going into next summer. Is there enough surplus (water we intentionally didn't capture) to make up the difference? What about the next year?

mel said...

You didn't talk about how the salmon did with this hot summer.

RLL said...

Courts typically hold government responsible for controlled blazes going out of control, and damages can be 'damagingly high'. Government is not responsible when a 'natural' fire goes out of control. And those living in forests expect government to solve the unsolvable, and have been known to successfully protest the smoke from controlled blazes.

Cliff Mass said...

You are right. I didn't talk about salmon. The salmon fishery in our state is very small and economically unimportant. Unfortunately, when we decided to put in all the hydro dams we also decided to destroy most of our state's salmon runs. Since the Columbia River did ok, several of the major salmon runs on it did very well. Small runs on Olympic streams were not so lucky. But no real economic impacts..cliff

The Outfield said...

Cliff, NOAA just released a new winter outlook and they now say it's supposed to be warmer and DRYER this year. It seems that the forecast used to be warmer and WETTER. Has anything changed from your point of view? I was really hoping it would be wetter even if it's warmer.

Detonate said...

With the rising ocean water temperature our strong off shore flow, that brings us our cold wet weather, will sees to exist. We cant hoard the water in our water sheds year after year. The life downstream from our reservoirs depend on this excess water being released. A dead Lake Washington, deserves a passing grade? Ocean creatures from all over the globe come here to feed. The fish not being deposited into the sound from our rivers, is not a good thing. The warmer than normal temperatures in the sound is already killing creatures at an alarming rate, and causing bacteria and Algae growth, which is completely decimating some creatures, and can be seen as far north as Alaska. This is hurting a lot of local business who rely on the eco system of the sound. A continuation of this warm weather, will eventually lead to the sound becoming stagnate, and the creatures coming here who depend on the sustenance.
The rise in temperature and lack of cold winters we use to get, is rolling out the red carpet for invasive species to thrive, in areas that were previously too cold for survival. Our forests are being invaded and devoured at an alarming rate from Colorado to Canada, including thousands of acres in eastern Washington. These trees pull water from the ground, and throw it back into our atmosphere threw a process called transpiration. These trees, that are dying, clean our polluted air and turn carbon dioxide and many other harmful gasses into breathable air. The water they transpire gets added to the air which aids in rain fall over the Cascades and Olympics, and helps retain water in the climate system for its trip east.

Just because your car didn't completely break when the radiator was low on water, doesn't mean you can continue to drive it this way.

Alex . said...


As always, thank you for a very insightful post. I'd like to offer a minor correction (as a craft beer enthusiast) - hops yield seems to be actually down from 2014. While it's true that the harvest is up 13%, more acreage was dedicated to hops in 2015. From the article you quoted:

"That sounds good, except hops growers in the Pacific Northwest—by far the biggest growing region in the U.S.—put in 16 percent more acres this year, so overall yields are actually down, and the drought and heat are to blame."

Ian Johnson said...

Hi Cliff,

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the "high amplitude, persistent ridge of high pressure over the eastern Pacific" which is the likely cause for the this year's abnormal weather pattern.

Doesn't logic as well as recent scientific inquiry point to an increased likelihood of these 'blocking highs' under global warming conditions: specifically, decreased equatorial-polar temperature gradient causing stagnant weather patterns. The science on these types of blocking patterns is not definitive by any means, but it seems foolish to dismiss climate change out of hand as contributing to this. Could you link to some of the research which discredits a climate change link to this weather?

Second, a grading system would be more useful if based on sustainability. As mentioned by David Seater above, active storage in the reservoir system is ~33% lower this year than last year. So either, the region is faced with a)holding more water this fall to the detriment of ecological systems downstream, or b) accepting the risk of compromised water levels next year if similar conditions persist.

Praise for good hunting conditions contradicts your criticism of forest management practices. Warmer weather leads to larger herds which then leads to overgrazing and poorer forest health. The same forests being stressed by higher temperatures and at risk of fire.

Cliff Mass said...

Ian... no, the recent literature suggests that blocking highs will be LESS likely under global warming. My group has done considerable work in this area, including looking at climate models that show DEAMPLIFICATION....cliff

Cliff Mass said...

Alex...that is true...yield was down a bit, but that was overwhelmed by greater acreage. Hops production is thus in pretty good shape..cliff

Cliff Mass said...

Detonate...much of what you suggest is speculative and unsupported in the literature..including you predictions of a "dead lake washington."....cliff

Zorro91 said...

Very interesting post, and encouraging to see that the state can deal with average conditions expected for 2070. I think the more worrying question is what happens when we get outlier summers in 2070? If the baseline moves up, won't the exceptional years (like this summer) be much more stressful? In terms of biodiversity impacts (admittedly, not the main focus of this post) I suspect that a few extreme years will have greater effect than the average conditions - a tree takes many years to grow, and only one summer to die.

Brian said...

There is already ongoing work in the Yakima River Basin to make the basin more drought tolerant. See the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan at:

MacD said...

Carbon dioxide emissions are making the Earth greener and more fertile, a United Nations (UN) climate scientist has said.

In a paper for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Dr Indur Goklany, who has previously represented the United States on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that the rising level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere “is currently net beneficial for both humanity and the biosphere generally”.

The benefits are real, whereas the costs of warming are uncertain,” he adds.

“Carbon dioxide fertilises plants, and emissions from fossil fuels have already had a hugely beneficial effect on crops, increasing yields by at least 10-15 per cent,” Dr Golkany argues.

“This has not only been good for humankind but for the natural world too, because an acre of land that is not used for crops is an acre of land that is left for nature.”

Increasing crops yields has helped reduce hunger and improved human well being, as well as generating around $140 billion a year.

As well as crops, the “wild places of the Earth” have seen an improvement, becoming greener in recent decades. Dr Golkany attributes this to carbon dioxide, saying it can also increase their water-use efficiency, thus making them more resistant to drought.

“Unlike the claims of future global warming disasters,” Dr Golkany says, “These benefits are firmly established and are being felt now.

Scott Porad said...

Two thoughts:

1. It seems like your scorecard needs a section for "Fish and Wildlife". How were the non-human beings affected in the stress test? Can you comment on that.

2. I agree with some of the other commenters ... for a single year, this was a good stress test, but I think we will also need to consider the compounding effects of multiple years. Perhaps places, like California, which have sustained multi-year droughts can help us understand how our region would respond to a multi-year stress test.

Would you elaborate on these things?

Detonate said...

algae killing creature on the west coast, linked to warm ocean water. "The West Coast is in the midst of the most prolific toxic algal outbreak ever recorded", said Vera Trainer, manager of the Marine Biotoxin Program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Forth largest lake in the world dies from feeding rivers used for irrigation and reservoirs. Dubbed "one of the planet's worst environmental disasters".

Trees dying in US at alarming rate, linked to climate change.,8599,1873352,00.html

Trees dying due to invasive species in Washington and other west coast states, linked to climate change, says USDA.

I like to see the results of the last years weather, ran threw a climate model, to show what it would do to the area over a given time.

Your conclusion states we would be just fine with this weather forever, with only one years worth of data that you cherry picked. Any you say my statements are speculative?

tracksdc89 said...

I just have to comment on today's weather, which should have been clear, sunny skies all day.

Today being my birthday, I was so looking forward to spending the afternoon sitting in the sun. It had been sunny, quite literally, until the time I was finally able to go outside (at 1pm). However, I was greeted with no sun at all, not even enough to cast a shadow, despite the vast majority of the sky being perfectly blue. There was one high, thick cloud blocking the sun. One cloud, in an otherwise perfect sky, that would not move. Then, more of these high, thick clouds materialized out of nowhere and expanded to cover the pathway of the sun.

Normally, high clouds like these at least let a little sunlight through. However, these clouds, for some reason, are stubbornly thick and are completely blocking out the sun altogether. Despite the ubiquitous blue in the sky today, the resulting weather was identical to our having a full, low overcast.

I realize this comment is not related to today's post, but it is about today's weather, and I cannot possibly be the only person who has noticed this most unwelcome phenomenon.

So far, these clouds have completely blocked the sun for nearly 2 hours (the exact time when the sun should be at its highest and warmest.)

What are these clouds? Why did they appear? Why are they so stubbornly thick and slow? And, are we just "unlucky" that they have continuously, nearly uninterruptely, remained DIRECTLY in front of the sun?

It's maddening to look at this mainly blue sky, and continue to have no sunshine. By all measures, this afternoon should have been delightful, sunny and warm - all the atmospheric ingredients are in place - and, I dont have to remind anyone that this could have been our last such day until next spring. Despite all that, the normally warmest time of the afternoon has wound up being sunless and chilly (I cannot even use the word "overcast" because there is blue everywhere in the sky; everywhere, that is, EXCEPT where the sun happens to be.)

And, those of you who are thinking "welcome to Seattle" (meaning that a hallmark of this climate is sunny days quickly turning cloudy), this afternoon's weather is not indicative at all of Seattle's climate. This city, as well as the rest of the world, is not known for its "clear" daytime skies yielding no sunshine!

As the sun continues to move, unbelievably so do the clouds - squarely in front of the sun.

It's almost 3pm, and the hours of 1 to 3 have been completely sunless on this "clear" day. For a few VERY brief intervals (not exceeding three minutes), the sun has managed to fight it's way through these clouds, teasing us with what we should be experiencing all this afternoon, only to return to being covered up.

Now it is a little after three, and these high thick clouds may FINALLY be allowing sun to filter through. The remainder of the afternoon may feature some limited sunshine; my birthday afternoon may get a little bit of sun. In fact, now at 3:21pm, the clouds seem to have moved away from the sun altogether. However, for the two hours when the sun was at its peak, it was continually and completely blocked.

What happened? And, how is it that these clouds remained directly in front of the sun for such an extended, uninterrupted period of time?

I would not care so much about this if it weren't my birthday. I'm now going to try to enjoy what little is left of it.

Detonate said...

tracksdc89. Happy Birthday!!
Sorry to tell you, but its been hot and sunny all day in Tacoma, exception being the occasional quick passing cloud.

Bill Reiswig said...

Hi Cliff...

While I do think looking at how the state responded is of value, I'm far less sure we'll score a B- when the time comes. There are whole areas of effects you either don't consider or seemingly won't consider. I would suggest these would include:

1) Decades of previous warm weather are going to result in a cumulative drying of forests on the east-side of the mountains that will make fires much worse than those who have just experienced a single extraordinary year. We won't experience the consistent soil erosion from a single year's fires that we would from decades of hot summers and resulting fires.

2) If our water supply remains constant, but no longer appears as snowpack, but intead comes as winter rains that much be collected and held in much larger reservior systems, what is the scale and size with which this will need to be done across the state. We did not need to spend that money in this one-off year, but it will certain cost many billions of dollars to build in the 2070's

3) there is no reason that any given year in the decade of the 2070's can't experience a year of unusual 2-4 C warming that will be ADDED to the "normal" 2-4 C warming. In other words natural variability will still exist and ultra-warm years could cause extraordinary damage.

4) we don't experience in a one-off variable year some long-term issues we will face in 2070. If climate change is as advertised, we will have large numbers of climate refugees from other parts of the country (Florida? California? Arizona?) who may find their conditions intolerable, water unavailable, etc. who will be putting REAL pressures on our cities, schools, and utilities.

5) Sea-level rise. While Washington does not face as much an issue as Florida, for example, Many cities in Washington will be looking at rebuilding waterfronts, moving port infrastructure and docks, reforming waterfronts, etc. IPCC estimates to this point have only considered the thermal expansion of water as oceans warm. They underestimate sea-level rise because they've not considered dramatic glacial and ice-cap melt.

6) I understand you are skeptical that we are yet to see any effects yet from ocean acidification, but are you sure that by 2070 we will see not see real economic and ecological effects to fisheries and our oceans from soured oceans?

7) I think this is something my daughter will need to forego, but how about the ski industry? :) How'd it do and how will it be after 10-straight summers in 2070? The summer river-raft industry? Recreational fishing?

8) On that note, your dismissal of how Salmon do because they are not a sizable economic part of our economics is odd to me. They are certainly a huge cultural icon for us. But not including them begs a larger category.... how will our ecosystems fair? Will our rainforests be the same in the west Olympics? will species disappear from our alpine meadows? mountain streams? I think many people would want to know how decades of temperatures like last year will effect our mix of species. Many will certainly go extinct. This will have an economic cost as ecosystems erode and change from the loss of keystone or significant species.

In short, I think the idea that you can take a one-off year of variability and make stress test conclusions about how our region will fare in 2070 when we will face temperatures like this on a permanent basis seems unwarranted and too sanguine.

Andy Cochrane said...

Prof. Mass, I'm admittedly an amateur, but I am amazed at what I see as a gross over-simplification in your analysis. You are looking at one year. Do you think the effects might possibly be exacerbated by multiple consecutive years like this?

JewelyaZ said...

I think one warm year probably does not allow us to draw robust conclusions about what a dozen years in a row of similar conditions would do to us, but it's good to think through the issues now. I do think we're in much better shape than, say, Phoenix or Charleston, or even Manhattan.

Our local critters are screwed and they are going to have to move north to survive. But maybe some of the beasties that now live 2-4C "south" of us will move in, so we will have new animals and birds. I hope the crows and raccoon stay, the bears and the big cats; I'd rather not get poisonous snakes on this side of the Cascades. The salmon are toast and while you say it's no big deal financially, culturally it feels like a devastating loss (and I say that as someone who has only been here 17 years). Also, don't many other species depend on the salmon for food? I guess most fish-eating bears are in Alaska, but still.

We're going to have to build more water storage, no question about it. I wonder if we can double-use this newly-flooded land by floating solar panels on it, potentially also slowing evaporation of the precious water underneath? We're going to have more sunshine, and when all those folks give up on the desert southwest, what we've got is going to look fantastic, and the places that seem relatively unfriendly and uninhabitable to us (much of the drylands from Kittitas to Yakima, say) are going to feel like home to them.

Wind power technology is coming along and the new "washing-machine-agitator" types that don't have big blades kill many fewer birds, so maybe we can install them in places like the peninsula, the Columbia Gorge, and other places that have resisted for now because of aesthetic concerns. I suspect tidal power will become commercially viable in the next 20 years, and the Columbia River. We're going to need that extra electricity for our cars and our air conditioners (though I will miss living without a/c, I almost caved and bought a portable unit this summer).

We can adapt. We are smart and have money and other resources in abundance. Some of the changes and losses will be tragic but I think on the whole, we are still going to be pretty fortunate. I don't care about lowland snow at but I hope the mountains keep getting it even 100 years from now.

Crazy question... will increasing sea level put different/increased pressure on the Cascadia fault system? I worry about "the big one" and hope that the extra weight of all that seawater won't push the fault to leap in a megaquake any time soon. I am guessing that probably nobody can really say on that one. I wonder also if the folks at the coast building tsunami shelters reinforced against those waves have considered that their baseline will be 5-15 meters higher than it is today? I doubt it, which means they are spending a lot of money on something that will make no difference at all in 25 years, if it would even help tomorrow.

Cliff Mass said...

Several folks have commented about salmon. Many of the salmon runs did quite well this year...some at high levels. Some small runs on snow fed streams without dams or reservoirs were challenged

Abe Jacobson said...

One of the best blog posts ever on this blog!

There are some aspects of CO2 buildup that this past year does not replicate, however, so we still don't have a good simulation of them.

Foremost is the lowering of ocean pH from increasing carbonic acid in the water. How does it affect the food webs in the ocean and estuaries? How will harvested species (salmon being only one of them) be affected? There is potential here for devastating loss of bioresources, but the buildup time is decadal and cannot be simulated by a freakish year such as the past one.

The Pacific NW derives quite a lot of economic support from these potentially threatened bioresources. In addition to their economic tangible benefits, these bioresources are an intangible part of our cultural heritage and especially for the Native peoples who came before us and who are still here.

So I'm not yet seeing a simulation of ocean acidification ca 2100 AD. Heat, yes; acidity, no.

Abe Jacobson

Jing said...

Hi Cliff, another great climate change related post. You mentioned that Washington had the same crazy senior/junior rights system that much of the West has, and judging by how things played out in California, inappropriate for times when water is scarce. What would you suggest replacing it with, and has any other jurisdiction done this?

mig said...

Sockeye salmon in the Columbia, Snake, and other tributaries had horrible rates of pre-spawn mortality. Also, watch what happens with Yakima Basin water storage if we have a back-to-back "snow drought," or even below average snowpack. Won't be pretty. Hence the need for the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan for both fish and farms.

Unknown said...

How long do you think it will be before scientists realize that it might actually take much less warming than earlier forecast to induce severe impacts (superstorms, maxi-el ninos, hurricanes, winter snow storms, torrential floods alternating with droughts etc).

Ian Johnson said...

Thanks for the reply Cliff. What is the technical term in the meteorological community for a 'blocking high'? I'm trying to dig up the most recent papers on the subject to alleviate some of my ignorance. Are there any seminal papers on the subject which you'd recommend?

John Bennett said...

If only the Pacific northwest economy was completely isolated from the rest of the entire world. But that's not the case at all and it's really ridiculous for you to completely ignore that the extreme economic consequences globally aren't going to be a major impact on us even if we can weather the conditions in the Pac nw.

Mark said...

The impression I get from Dr. Mass is that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW)is real but no big deal. The planet will warm a few degrees F. but it’s impact on Western Washington will be minimal. So why should I favor a carbon tax when the impact of AGW is no big deal? We passed the stress test without carbon mitigation.

Rod said...

Hi Cliff,

As I have told you many times I love your blog.

This latest article troubles me a bit.

It seems that you are basing your "preparedness report card" on one lousy year. If I recall, you constantly stress not to do anomalies, as you have said...


David B. said...

Even on the west side, by mid-August I was noticing a significant number of trees in evident distress from drought (some dying). And this after just one season* of weather like 50 years in the future is predicted to average. Our trees WILL NOT be able to survive year after year of this -- and by then they will be getting exceptional years that are far more warm and dry than this year. I do NOT feel reassured.

* A truncated one, in fact; the rain events starting in mid-August here put an end to the extreme drought stress the trees were experiencing.

sunsnow12 said...

For those of us seeking truth in this world – real, actual truth, not “be very, very afraid of what is going to happen to you unless you follow what we say” (you know, just like religion) - this post and comment section does absolutely nothing other than continue to whittle away my faith in the scientific community and/or the subject of climate change.

Is the scientific community concerned that they could be losing thinking, curious, liberally educated minds to the hype and fear-mongering constantly attached to this issue? When seasonal (or one year, or five year, or ten year) forecasts – too often with dire or visceral words attached - come and go proving to be inaccurate at best (or wildly off base), how is that reconciled among the majority of ethical scientists? Is there any accountability, and if not why not?

I’m asking you Cliff, because I’m really not sure I can deal with being belittled again, or called a “Denier”, or whatever the most recent slur is for people who, you know, ask reasonable questions about this subject. Maybe I just answered my own question.

John Franklin said...


As a member of the scientific community studying climate change I can tell you that it isn't the forecasts that have us fearful of what future climates might be like but the current reality of what we are observing. 2014 was the warmest year on record globally and 2015 is set to beat that record. 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000.

This increase in atmospheric temperature is causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt and now has the Arctic summer sea ice disappearing at an increasing rate, forcing polar bears to seek refuge on land, increasing sea surface temperatures for for marine organisms adapted to ice-covered seas, etc. These are just the more obvious of the changes currently occurring.

It would be irresponsible for scientists not to report on these matters (be they "liberally educated" or not) and it is natural for people to ask "if this is happening now what might happen next?".

You characterize as unethical those scientists who feel obligated to provide their peers and the public with information on how rapidly the climate is changing our world. You should be wary of your own use of "visceral words" in characterizing people with who you disagree. Those of us observing startling changes are trying to let the public know about our findings. One cannot really be a "Denier" of the observed changes and I encourage you to do a little research on what is being observed if you find the "Denier" label to be belittling.

Dean E Kurath said...

While its somewhat comforting that we passed a year 2070 climate stress test, it seems we need to be prepared for the kind of variability we had this last year, added to the normal climate of 2070. In other words, preparing for average is not good enough.

Unknown said...

Cliff, I have many issues with your latest post, not the least of which is that it's dangerously deceptive to discount cumulative effects in biological systems. I'm glad that you're a weatherman and not my doctor. You're comments regarding salmon are also off the mark. First of all, and probably most obviously, the returns we see this year are not a reflection of the this year's weather in Washington. Better to look at this year's spawning success or, even better, returns over the next several years. Additionally your attempts to trivialize the economic importance of salmon to this state are naive. It's certainly not trivial to the tribes. Remember them? You know, those folks we shoved onto reservations to build the UW? Also have you considered the economic impacts with regards to the recreational fishery? Anglers in the state of Washington spend over a billion dollars a year pursing their hobby.

sunsnow12 said...

I did not characterize as unethical anyone John. I asked how wildly inaccurate predictions were reconciled by the majority of ethical scientists. If anyone – media, politicians and yes, fellow scientists - make a wildly inaccurate prediction, are you saying they should not be held accountable? These apocalyptic scenarios thrown about do zero service to the discourse and are actually quite damaging.

And my sense is one of the reasons they are not speaking out is, as I noted, the prospect of being labeled a “denier”. That is flat out intimidation. If that is even a small fraction of the cause, then that should be very troubling to anyone, let alone the scientific community.

And btw, I am not a “denier”. But the fact I have to affirm that makes me really quite angry. It makes me very, very uncomfortable, that in a public discourse on science, one has to choose sides. Science is supposed to welcome – no, demand - questioning. It is the beauty of it. Even the remotest sense that anyone is thinking twice about asking a question on this subject because their credibility might be questioned (or worse) should send cold chills down us all.

John Franklin said...


I am somewhat confused by your feeling “uncomfortable, that in a public discourse on science, one has to choose sides.” And your question about how the “ethical” majority deals with inaccurate output from climate models shows a lack of appreciation for how the scientific process works. Advancements in science commonly occur when someone discovers or hypothesizes something and other scientists have to assess the validity of the claims. To the extent that some adopt the original finding or interpretation while others offer alternative findings or explanations there are two sides (at least) and hopefully further research will determine what side is correct. One hopes that individuals (and science) “choose” the side that has the most evidence in its favor. That sort of competition is what vets scientific findings for accuracy.

And as this past summer in Seattle and the last fifteen years globally show, we no longer need to consider climate models that we can either believe in or not when considering global warming. We can now simply monitor what is happening in real time and see what the preponderance of evidence is telling us.

George Winters said...

The idea of a "stress test" has two functions, how are things working and what can be improved. The blog post gives very nice broad look. One point to me highlights the limitations of that broad look.

"Those managing these forests have not been responsible stewards of the land. It it well known what needs to be done:thinning the forest, removing the debris, and initiating controlled burns"

With current air quality standards, and the expectations of residents, and the increasing home owners in the forest, it is not that easy to do controlled burns. In the 70's I lived in an area with regular seasonal controlled burns, and it sometimes got very smokey in the valleys. I doubt that would be acceptable now. I know that forest managers have restrictions that limit when they can try to do burns.

This is a good example of the fact that we have problems where it is not easy to resolve the entire issue and it starts to feel like a catch 22 kind of problem/solution. Addaptation is going to be complicated and will need lots of readjustments.

Trying to sum up forest management needs and possibilities in one or two paragraphs is no more realistsic than trying to sum up weather forecasting in one or two paragraphs.

As noted in other parts of this discussion, it is important to look at new ideas and new frames of reference. As many will note, it is not helpful to be perpetually and excessively alarmist, it is also not helpful to make it sound as if the solutions are easy, especially if the "solution" always and only involves expecting someone else to change.

If I go to the doctor's office to get a stress test and she says I have some problems and I need to make some changes, it is not going to do me any good if i walk out the door first of all blaming someone else, secondly deciding that someone else will have to make the changes, and finally deciding, oh well, maybe she's wrong and it is too expensive to change.

Thanks for lots of great discussion.

Ansel said...

My objection is that we are not focusing on the root cause of all of these problems: Overpopulation of the world.

Mark said...

Although interesting, The analysis lacks depth. For example:

How much mass volume did has the North Cascades glaciers suffer in 2014 and 2015? What can we expect the mass volumes for these glaciers to be in 2070? How many more decades can we reasonably expect these mountain glaciers to exist? How will the loss of ice volume impact summer-time water flow in the Columbia river.

Yes, water flow was good this summer but it was a record warm year and likely caused more ice melt than normal from the mountain glaciers and snow fields. Is it sustainable? Will the increase in precipitation translate into more mountain snow? Is the increase sufficient to stabilize the glaciers.

How much stress was placed on the natural flora such as the Douglas Fir and native ground covers and shrubs (ferns, huckleberry, elderberry).

Why are we faulting tax supported forest management for the poor state of Washington's forests? These forests were clear-cut by private companies for profit. What grew up following the clear-cutting is the problem. The timber industry is liable. The timber companies should hire the lumberjacks to thin out the forests not the tax payers.

Will warmer temperatures increase the number of forest pests (needle cast, bark beetles)

Of course, warm weather crops like grapes and tomatoes did well and wheat will grow from Texas to southern Canada. How did cool weather crops fare? such as carrots, peas and spinach. I see no analysis for cool weather crops.

I greatly appreciate Dr. Mass's blog and I understand it's a lot of work. His blogs make for good public discussion. But I find this entry regarding AGW to be misleading. Global warming is a serious, long term problem that will transform our world. There is no "Pass" or "Fail". It's a transformation.

Had I assigned this analysis for a class of university environmental students, I would grade this report a C-.

Lastly, as I understand, Dr. Mass assumes about a 3.5 degrees F warming by 2070 (not sure what that is relative to, 20th century? pre-industrial?. Given the current rapid rate of CO2 increase, some climatologists expect a 4 degree C (7.2 F) rise over pre-industrial by 2060. There are many variables such as the negative forcing from aerosols, ocean CO2 absorption rate, change in cloud cover, ice/snow cover, ocean currents, solar output and more that will influence future global temperatures.

Rick said...

Saying that our region's ability to pass a climate stress test today gives us confidence it will be ok in 2070 is like saying a 25-year old who took a fall today and survived can expect he will do as well when he's 80. What we got this year was a preview of 2070, a possible "new normal", and it is scary. What "natural variability" has in store then is even scarier.

Gary Kaufman said...

I tend to agree with those comments suggesting that 'winning' the stress test today, does not suggest all will maintain itself with minimal adjustments. What would be interesting if you were to repeat the EXACT same criteria again next year, and the next, and just one more after that. Obviously it still will be a 'weather' vs. climate snapshot, but adaptability is the core of your observations. 4 years might be a better adaptability snapshot than just the one. Were I gambler, unless there is a major return to weather normalcy between now and this time next year, I suspect the stress of 'repeated stress' will result in substantially less resiliency in all categories across the board.

Arielle said...

Mr Mass, the salmon industry might be smaller in dollar value relative to other industries in our state, but it's extremely unwise and inaccurate to dismiss the climate change damage to the salmon stocks as insignificant. Our state doesn't exist in an isolated bubble, protected and insulated from the damages and losses suffered by the rest of the planet. Salmon is a keystone species, and thus a very crucial part of the oceanic ecosystem. Their loss could conceivably cause the collapse of the entire marine food web, already stressed by increased ocean temperature and acidity. There have already been several unusual mortality events in the last year, where unprecedented large numbers of marine mammals have been found beached and dead/dying of starvation. Depleted salmon stocks means more starved and dead sea lions, seals, otters, walruses, dolphins, whales, penguins, sharks, other fish species, sea birds, bears, and many lake, river and land animals - all the way up to and including indigenous tribal peoples, first nations, and all the billions of villagers, islands-nations, and coastal communities around the world who are dependent on the seas for their livelihood and survival.

To say that losing the salmon is not important to WA - because of their relatively low economic worth - is like saying the suffering of poor people isn't worth considering, because they make less money for our economy than the rich!

All life on Earth is interconnected and mutually interdependent. We evolved to depend on other species in our ecosystems for our survival; we can't destroy so many species on Earth and hope to escape our own extinction.

Perhaps you should reconsider "For whom (doth the climate) bell tolls".

Or learn from John Denver:
"To live on the land we must learn from the sea."

Arielle D.