Salem suffered a “hundred-year flood” in 1996. It suffered another “hundred-year flood” in 2012. We have snow in February, and then we have snow in March. The thought of climate change, which can feel remote and abstract, nags at us.
Are the high winds, drought and flooding experienced by most of the nation truly indications of climate change? Should three feet of hail in April in Texas concern us? Or are these just normal temperature fluctuations of a planet that has passed through at least five major ice ages? And if climate change is real – what will our lives in the Willamette Valley look like in the next 20 years? The next 100 years?

Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU, says no genuine doubt remains in the legitimate scientific community that climate change is real and already occurring. “I’m unaware of any credible scientist that doubts that humans are causing climate change,” she says. “The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees about this, and it’s been explored through careful research, which has to withstand a rigorous peer review process. There is no other plausible explanation for the recent rapid warming of the last few decades, and it shows by declines in snowpack and ice, increasing global temperature and sea level rise.”

Dello coordinated the first Oregon Climate Assessment Report at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at OSU. Peer-reviewed and published in December 2010, its first conclusion is, “The human race is profoundly altering the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, chiefly by burning fossil fuels, and there is strong evidence that these changes are responsible for much of the global increase in temperature since the mid-20th century.”

Stacy Vynne, Program Director of Climate Leadership Initiative at Eugene’s The Resource Innovation Group (TRIG), says that the Willamette Valley is not immune to climate change.

“The Willamette Valley is already beginning to experience the effects of climate change, and is projected to see even more severe impacts over the coming decades.”

Vynne says the Willamette Valley is vulnerable firstly because of the way we get our water. We rely on winter rain and then on the heavy snowpack that gives us water in summer. In a warming climate, lower elevation snowpack is unreliable; only a few degrees of warming will turn it to rain, which will make water resources less predictable, particularly in summer. Second, our energy comes from hydropower, a cheap source we will not be able to count on during parts of the year forecasted to have less water. And in periods of severe flooding – also projected – we face losing key infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, child and adult care centers, schools and food banks that are already located on floodplains.

Models and projections exist that describe how we may expect climate change to alter our Willamette Valley communities and landscape.

Vynne says, “An analysis of global climate models for the Pacific Northwest show a warming of 0.2° -1.0˚F per decade. Models also suggest an annual warming ranging from 3˚F to 10˚F.”

We should expect drier summers. Our commercial tree species will change to suit the new climate. The productivity of our cereal grains will decrease and the quality of premium grape varieties will decrease. Valley residents will experience more extreme heat events, and, according to Vynne, “increased severity and frequency of flooding and drought, severe loss of mountain snowpack and increased risk of wildfire.”

In May 2011 Steve Adams of TRIG wrote an overview of conclusions drawn from a series of workshops on the Climate Adaption Knowledge Exchange website. Adams reported that participants identified an altered Willamette region which a business-as-usual attitude (no adjustment to climate change) may result.

The following can be added to the list:

– A mismatch in the life history of many species, which may
lead  to population decline
– A decline in efficiency of public works and transportation
– Increased numbers of invasive non-native plants and
– Extended “peak” watert demands
– Increased heat illnesses and water-borne disease
– Diminished or total loss of some agricultural commodities,
but also potential for new crops
– Loss of cultural resources such as covered bridges,
century-old barns and natural features

Vynne adds another twist: human population may increase here “due to an influx of ‘climate migrants’ from more highly impacted domestic and overseas geographic areas.” These new residents would present challenges to human society as well as impact fish and wildlife.

Some Willamette Valley communities are already developing strategies to adapt to a changed world. The City of Eugene published a Climate and Energy Action Plan in 2010 and the City of Portland and Multnomah County are working to develop something similar. TRIG is working with cities and counties to develop a Willamette Valley Resilience Compact to address the shifts we know are coming.

This is for the good, says Bill Bradbury, former Secretary of State for Oregon and currently with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. “What’s so amazing is that we have more localized climate impact information than a lot of other areas. They don’t paint a very pretty picture, but hopefully they can inspire us to change.