Five Unexpected Ways Climate Change Will Impact the Northwest

Nov 5, 2013

Read: What Climate Change Means For Northwest’s Rivers, Coasts and Forests

The main conclusions won't surprise anyone who follows climate science, or who reads EarthFix regularly. The greatest risks in the Northwest fall into three categories: risks caused by declining snowpack and water storage, risks due to rising sea levels and coastal ecosystems, and risks related to forest fires and forest health.

But the report highlights some less familiar research as well. Here are five projected impacts of climate change you may not be aware of:

Predictions of sea level rise in the Northwest are complicated by plate tectonics. For example, very little sea level rise has been observed on the Olympic Peninsula to date because the peninsula is uplifting at about the same rate that the sea level is rising. Scientists project that sea level rises will range from 4 inches to 4 feet along the Northwest coast. But that doesn’t take into account a major Cascadia subduction zone quake. OSU’s Philip Mote, one of the report’s editors, says when the big one hits, it could cause the entire coastline to drop by 3 feet, compounding the impact of rising seas.

Mote says the Northwest doesn’t have the kind of extreme weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes that tend to end with a high death toll. But rising temperatures are expected to make us more vulnerable to a whole range of troublesome and potentially fatal illnesses, from respiratory disorders to heat stroke to paralytic shellfish poisoning. If you want to learn more, check out EarthFix’s timely multimedia series, Symptoms of Climate Change: Will a Warming World Make Us Sick?

Projected changes in temperatures, carbon dioxide levels, and the availability of irrigation water make the impact of climate change on agricultural crops surprisingly complicated to predict. The yield of winter wheat, for example, is expected to increase by up to 25 percent.

Potato yields are expected to increase until the middle of the century and then begin to decline, in some places as much as 40 percent. Mote says one reason agricultural yields may increase in the short term is the higher levels of CO2 in the air. “Carbon dioxide is plant food. It’s one of the nutrients that plants take in to grow structures and fruits and vegetables. For most plants, having more food allows them to grow faster,” he says. However, for many crops that positive effect may be offset by the impact of longer summer droughts with less water available for irrigation.

Other ocean critters may fare better; sea grasses and northern elephant seals may find more habitat available in a warming ocean. Paul Williams, who studies climate science and shellfish management for the Suquamish Tribe, says that while the big trend is clear, far more research is needed to understand how marine life will respond to acidification.

“If you want to ask, are the crabs going to disappear in Puget Sound, it’s hard to be that specific. What’s very clear is that we’ve changed the fundamental chemistry of the ocean,” he says.

“The less we try to mitigate and the less we try to adapt, the more that plants, animals, and other humans will fare negatively,” Mote says.

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