Talk about climate and climate change, and certain topics may quickly come to mind: record-setting warm temperatures, changing animal migration patterns, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, threats to shellfish industries, and forest fires.
These were among the topics addressed in the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute’s monthly newsletter issues for January and February.
The newsletter, called the Climate CIRCculator and named after the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium, is written by climate researchers and communicators from CIRC and OCCRI.
While CIRC and its researchers are headquartered at Oregon State University in Corvallis, climate news and information is something of interest to all Oregonians, including Science In Portland’s Portland-centered readership.
Here is a quick overview of the research and topics addressed in CIRC’s two most recent newsletter editions:
1. It’s becoming almost a clichéd refrain about climate: Last year was the warmest year on record for ______ [insert region of choice]. In this case, the region of choice was Oregon and Washington, and yep, 2015 was the warmest year to date. And along with the excessively warm temperatures came severe drought and forest fires.
2. Upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich ocean waters along the West Coast could intensify in relation to climate change, altering marine habitats and food webs in the process. On the upside, more upwelling of cool waters could counteract habitat warming and provide more nutrients to create more productive waters. On the downside, more acidic and low-oxygen conditions in the rising waters could harm ecosystems.
3. Ocean acidification, as CIRC describes it, “might just be the greatest threat to ocean life the planet is currently facing.” In the Pacific Northwest, it’s also been shown to be a significant threat to our shellfish industry. And just as alerted pH in the seas can interfere with how oysters and others grow and develop, so too can it threaten the growth rates of our ocean’s tiniest plants, phytoplankton, which form the base of marine food chains. However, predicting how phytoplankton’s growth may be altered is challenging, partly because we’re not talking about a single species of tiny aquatic plants here but thousands, each of which may react differently.
4. Ah, the Oregon coast — so lovely to visit, so much to think about if you ever plan to live there. Take climate change. Think it’s only sea-level rise that coastal dwellers have to fear? Wrong. Research suggests there are more climate processes to worry about. These can include storm surges, seasonal water-level oddities, and connections between erosion and El Niño versus La Niña cycles.
5. Speaking of the shellfish industry and ocean acidification (as in item 3 above), a survey by Oregon State University’s College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences found that shellfish producers are keenly aware of what OA is and how it may impact their industry in the future. How did this impact of climate change get so strongly on their radar? The study suggests that what got their attention was the hit to their pocketbooks that oyster growers and harvesters took between 2005 and 2009, when oyster larvae mortality in two hatcheries jumped to 80 percent. Since that time, producers have begun to make changes to their operations in an effort to adapt to OA and preserve their livelihoods and way of life.
1. Climate change is happening, and we know generally some of the impacts we can expect (or are already seeing): sea-level rise, ice loss at the poles (especially in the Arctic), coastal erosion, altered species ranges, ocean acidification and more extreme weather. Where scientific wrangling still occurs is around predicting how extreme the impacts will be. It involves creating models, collecting data and honing those models to improve accuracy. In the Pacific Northwest, climate models so far have forecast a wide range of how wet our winters may get due to climate change. New research on existing models and atmospheric conditions suggests the wettest projections given in current models may be overestimates. The winters may still get wetter, but it appears not to the most extreme of extremes.
2. Migrate or be maladapted. Those are the options ahead for ocean species that are closely adapted to specific climatic conditions. With climate change progressing and ocean temperatures projected to rise, researchers are investigating how species are responding.
3. We know sea levels likely will rise with climate change, but projections on the rise have remained focused on global means — not too helpful for engineers and ecologists who want to know what local conditions may be like to help create infrastructure to protect coastlines, property and natural resources. Now, a new paper has used global projections and local factors to explore how far off local sea-level rises may be compared to global mean forecasts.
4. Drought — it’s a scourge that killed trees and spawned massive wildfires in the West 2015. If wild land managers had, had a guide to the region’s most vulnerable areas ahead of time, could they have averted some of the catastrophes? Maybe. We don’t know, but to try to prevent climate-induced disasters in future, a project at Oregon State University is underway to create detailed regional maps showing which areas of Northwest forests are most vulnerable to drought and temperature stress. The hope is that by identifying these areas, conservation actions can be taken strategically and pre-emptively to protect forests from climate-induced destruction.