Important articles published by national and regional news outlets related to wild salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
By Lynda V. Mapes
September 7, 2021
PASCO — With a steady hiss, a fog of water misted from a center-pivot irrigation machine as it crawled around a field of crops, drenching the leafy tops of potatoes reaching for summer sunshine.
It’s some of the most valuable farmland in the West, in an agricultural paradise converted from desert and sagebrush with water drawn out of pools behind hydropower dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers.
While historic drought has dropped reservoirs and aquifers in California, Colorado and Oregon to historic levels, and irrigators mine groundwater and watch crops go dry, these southeast Washington farms have access to abundant water.
They also have a huge stake in the future of the four Lower Snake dams, embroiled in a dam-removal controversy for decades. It’s no abstract debate here, amid the wheat, potatoes, hay, onions, wine grapes and corn. The tumbleweeds snagged in the wire fences along thousands of irrigated acres are reminders of just how fragile an abundance this is.
So irrigators have newly engaged in the ongoing debate over dam removal as another court battle over salmon survival heats up. Farmers and irrigators on the Snake are split over the dams that sustain their businesses, with a growing chorus supporting a solution of some kind. They oppose dam removal, but they also say change is coming, and it’s time for a solution crafted with agriculture interests at the table — not by a judge in a courtroom.
What they propose is a drawdown, or lowering of water levels, in two Lower Snake reservoirs to provide more water for migrating salmon. The proposed drawdown would allow them to keep pumping water with current infrastructure and deflect change upstream.
The agricultural empire built here is entirely dependent on pipes, pumps, wells and other equipment, configured to work with a river dialed to engineered flow rates and reservoir levels. It’s a finely tuned delivery system that relies on dams that have converted two of the wildest rivers of the West to regulated reservoirs.
This water supply has allowed productivity, employment and investment to flourish.
The ground near the river is mostly frost-free — allowing producers to harvest in the most profitable weeks of the market, early and late in the season. The value of the natural gifts of this place, irrigators here will tell you, is irreplaceable.
“It’s the last firm water in the West,” said Darryll Olsen, board representative and spokesman for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association in Kennewick. He counts more than 90,000 acres worth $1.5 billion in farmland watered either by direct pumping or ground water from the upper McNary Dam pool on the Columbia and the reservoir impounded by the Snake’s Ice Harbor dam.
He calls this the “impact area” if dam removal on the Lower Snake leaves irrigators’ pumps high and dry.
Oh, and don’t call them farmers.
“It’s like the difference between pilots and Navy aviators,” Olsen said. “We are not a bunch of yeoman farmers. We shot the mule. We are done with that. Forty acres and a mule?
“It’s more like 17,000 acres and a pump.”
Make that a big pump — and lots of them.
Irrigators’ pitch for change
Stephen Paget, area manager of land and livestock for J.R. Simplot, was dwarfed by the size of the 68-inch diameter pipe he walked past on a maintenance check of this pumping station. This equipment moves irrigation water directly from the upper McNary reservoir, where it joins the Snake. Pumps churned and hummed, boosting the flow to 15,000 acres of potatoes and other crops.
With processors nearby in Pasco, Simplot, an international food and agriculture company based in Boise, Idaho, feeds the world, and is a regional agricultural job hub.
Simplot is just one of the operators on large commodity farms here with corporate owners from out of the state, or out of the country, growing food for processing and export.
The largest single owner irrigating from the Ice Harbor pool is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church, in Salt Lake City. Other big owners include the Hancock Natural Resource Group, based in Boston; The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, in Toronto; International Farming, based in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Nuveen Alternatives Advisors LLC, based in Champaign, Illinois, according to an analysis by American Rivers.
But whether the owner is a church, foreign investment firm or local family — there are small operators irrigating from the river, too — any significant change in dam operations is a threat.
So the irrigators association has decided to take a let’s-make-a-deal approach.
Their first proposal was to form a united front with ports and agricultural interests to seek an exemption from the federal government for river operations from Endangered Species Act requirements. That got no takers. So next, the irrigators association broke off on their own, with a proposal to draw down two upstream dam reservoirs on the Lower Snake to boost salmon survival.
The drawdown, they argued, could help fish along their downstream migration while allowing irrigators to keep pumping. It would, however, end barge transportation to Lewiston, Idaho, served by locks at the dams. Some ports would be beached. Wheat growers using the river would have to turn to trucks and rail.
To these irrigators, their latest proposal is not apostasy, but a sensible business decision to protect their investment as a federal judge once again is set to decide a lawsuit brought by the state of Oregon and other plaintiffs against the status quo in dam operations on the Columbia and Snake.
In a first round of filings, plaintiffs are calling for a change in dam operations to better protect salmon and steelhead threatened with extinction.
Dam breaching — if it comes to that — for irrigators would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to extend pipes and modify pumps to keep some of the most valuable ground in Washington in agriculture.
“We have very productive soil, we have very secure sources of water and adequate water, and we are north of the 45th parallel and [in summer] have 16 hours of daylight,” said Dewey Holliday, president of the irrigators association. In his day job he manages some 7,000 acres of tree fruit crops and 13,000 acres of row crops irrigated from the Columbia and Snake owned by the Hancock Natural Resource Group, a global manager of timber and agricultural land usually on behalf of retirement funds or pensions.
Holliday said he and others in the irrigators association just want to keep farming — and fishing.
“I’ve earned my living most of my life from agriculture. I love fly-fishing for steelhead on the Grande Ronde River in Eastern Washington, and I want my grandkids to be able to do that, and I want to be sure my kids and grandkids will be able to farm, too,” Holliday said.
“We need to have a balance here. It can’t just be, ‘to hell with it.’”
Wheat growers resist
This was a desperate season for Washington dryland wheat growers. Farmers expect to bring in the smallest wheat crop since the 1970s, due to a punishing drought. For Michelle Hennings, who grew up in Ritzville, Adams County, and grows wheat on her family’s ranch, the ongoing debate over the dams is just one more uncertainty growers face, along with weather and markets.
Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said ending barge transportation to Lewiston would be a gut punch for wheat growers who use the river to get their crop to market.
She doesn’t appreciate the irrigators association peeling off to fight for themselves.
“We need to stick together,” Hennings said. “I am confused, disappointed and frustrated.”
Like Hennings, Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, said what’s needed is a regional solution that looks at all the challenges facing salmon, instead of fixating on the four Lower Snake dams.
He noted that Seattle Public Utilities, just for instance, could take a lesson from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which unlike the Seattle utility provides fish passage at its dams on the Columbia and Snake. As much as 97% of salmon survive passage at each dam, he noted.
There are eight hydropower dams on the main stem Columbia and Snake. And even in the best-case scenario, that only 3% of juvenile salmon are killed at each of the dams, that’s nearly a quarter of every year’s migration. Then there’s the toll taken by slow-moving reservoirs that heat to lethal temperatures for weeks at a time in summer. Or the still unquantified factor of “delayed mortality” — salmon that die because of stress or other factors due to the hydropower system, even though they make it past the dams alive.
Salmon returning to the Snake Basin have it the worst. Most of the spring and summer Chinook runs are nearly extinct. Adult steelhead returns are at their lowest this migration season since 1943.
Dam opponents, including tribes, are more united and determined than ever. For the first time, tribes from the interior of Idaho all the way to saltwater have come together to support breaching the Lower Snake dams to boost salmon survival.
They were galvanized in part by Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, and his proposal to put billions of dollars into replacing the benefits of the dams, and breaching them to save salmon.
Simpson’s proposal has not gained the traction he hoped in an infrastructure bill moving through Congress. But it isn’t dead, either.
Washington’s senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray, has joined with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in calling for a new look at salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin that keeps all options on the table, including dam removal.
“I think there is zero probability of nothing happening,” Olsen said.
Wheat growers, ports and others “have their heads stuck in the sand,” he said. “We are not going to PR our way out of this.”
What’s the solution?
Katie Nelson would really rather grow wine grapes and cherries at her family’s place than talk about dams. Her father, Jeff Gordon, transformed the sagebrush ground he purchased in 1978 into an estate vineyard that today is home to some of the oldest vines in the state. The family owns and manages 260 acres, including 15 acres of cherries, 85 acres of alfalfa and 105 acres of grapes — all of it irrigated from the Snake.
Nelson is no fan of removing the dams. But she grew up with the debate, it’s been going on so long. So in a way, she hands it to Simpson and his pitch.
“I admire that someone put something fairly comprehensive on the table,” Nelson said. “No one else did.”
She and her husband, Marc, are managing the farm, and built their house not far from her dad’s. There’s even a pen for the pigs her son is raising for 4-H, a rare pigpen with a riverfront view.
Midsummer brought bins of sweet cherries. The grapes on the vines were fattening on sunshine, good ground and water, gaining the right flavor balance, the gift of hot sunny days and cool nights just right for a vineyard.
“We’ve got the right crop, the right place and the right water. Right here,” Nelson said, with a sweep of her hand to vines heavy with fruit, overlooking the Snake.
The value of her family’s land is based on the availability of water, Nelson said. And theirs is an estate vineyard, meaning the wine they make must be made from grapes grown on their land.
By now, Nelson said, she’s ready for a solution, and tired of all the drama.
“Nothing frustrates me more than when people dig in their heels and aren’t willing to hammer something out.
“Can we just come up with a solution, so we don’t have to talk about this forever?”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or email@example.com; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes. Lynda specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history, and Native American tribes.
By Eric Barker
Aug 24, 2021
This year’s summer steelhead run into Idaho is shaping up to be one of the worst on record.
It’s early, but fisheries managers are concerned.
The 2021 summer steelhead run on the Columbia and Snake rivers started July 1 and thus far is one of the worst on record. Through Monday, 21,892 steelhead had been counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and just 494 at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
The count on the Columbia is second worst only to 1943 when 20,293 had been recorded passing the dam as of Aug. 16.
“Back then they harvested a large percentage of the steelhead before they hit the dams. One could argue at least for this date, this is the worst steelhead run past the Bonneville area ever,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.
DuPont said the agency is continuing to monitor counts but not yet ready to change regulations in response to the low numbers. He noted there have been years such as 2017 when the department reacted to low numbers with regulation changes only to have numbers rise within a matter of days.
“I don’t want to repeat that,” he said. “Likely we will make a decision in mid-August, and the (Idaho Fish and Game) Commission has a meeting in September, and we will present the run data to them.”
The number of steelhead over Lower Granite Dam is so low that making a change to open catch-and-release or harvest seasons now would have little effect. DuPont said, if necessary, Idaho Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever can issue emergency closures before the September meeting.
According to a fact sheet published by fisheries managers from Oregon, Washington and Columbia River Indian tribes, the steelhead run at Bonneville Dam through Aug. 10 was just 19 percent of the 10-year average for that date.
“That is low, and I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s not going to be good,” said DuPont. “We are just hoping it’s good enough to provide a fishery and maintain the wild runs.”
Anglers are allowed to catch and keep hatchery steelhead during open harvest seasons. Wild Snake River steelhead are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and can not be harvested.
Typically, 43 percent of the steelhead run, as measured from July 1 to Oct. 31, passes Bonneville Dam by Aug. 10. DuPont said he hopes this run is late and not just low.
“Things are so hot. We have that in the back of our mind — maybe these fish can sense that and are holding back,” he said.
The Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers are open to catch-and-release fishing. A short section of the Clearwater, from its mouth to Memorial Bridge at Lewiston opened to hatchery steelhead harvest on Aug. 1.
The Snake and Salmon rivers open to harvest on Sept. 1. The Clearwater River upstream of Memorial Bridge opens to harvest on Oct. 15.
The preseason steelhead forecast called for a return of about 96,800 steelhead to Bonneville Dam, including 89,200 A-run and 7,600 B-run fish. The A-run is forecast to include about 27,500 wild fish and the B-run is predicted to include only about 1,000 wild fish.
In 2020, 75,392 A-run, and 32,199 B-run steelhead returned at least as far as a Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. The return was 112 percent of the preseason forecast and 49 percent of the 10-year average. Last year, 59,126 steelhead were counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. That included 20,453 B-run fish and 38,673 A-run fish.
This year regional agencies recorded one of the smallest counts of spring Chinook salmon in a generation in the Snake and Columbia river basin
By Sarah Trent
Aug. 21, 2021
RIGGINS, Idaho—Beneath the vacancy sign at the Salmon River Motel, a black and white placard reads “Salmon Lives Matter, Give a Dam.” For years the motel has been a profitable business in this canyon town of 400 three hours north of Boise, with a mile-long Main Street that swells each summer with visiting sport fishermen.
Now the motel and other businesses here are at risk, as the fish that drive the local economy shrink in both number and size.
This year, regional fish and wildlife agencies recorded one of the smallest counts of adult spring Chinook salmon in a generation in the Snake and Columbia river basin. Last year was worse. A wide body of research connects their decline to rising temperatures and climate change, which have compounded the damage done to fish populations by hydroelectric dams.
The impact of this decline ripples along this species’ entire migratory route, from the tourist economies and tribal communities of the inland Northwest to the $2 billion commercial fishing industry in ocean waters as far as Alaska, where state fisheries report total harvest weight has dropped by half since the 1960s.
Across the inland Pacific Northwest, dwindling salmon runs have emptied motel rooms, tackle shops and restaurants. Business in Riggins this summer beat expectations as pandemic fears eased, but the continuing decline of the sought-after Chinook—the largest of all Pacific salmon—threatens to devastate economies and tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
If salmon continue to decline, “it will hurt this town,” said Salmon River Motel owner Jerry Walker, whose family of loggers suffered when the town’s sawmill burned down in 1982. Without the fish that helped Riggins rebuild its economy, he said, “there’s nothing else here.”
Outdoor-resource tourism economies like Riggins “are really fragile things,” said Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. The decline of one resource can cause a cascading effect, he said. “When you don’t have fish runs, you don’t have people coming, the entire economy is crippled.”
Reports by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game show that salmon in the connected Columbia and Snake river basins in Idaho, Washington and Oregon first plummeted after the midcentury construction of eight hydroelectric dams that blocked or slowed migration. Fish must swim hundreds of miles downstream as finger-sized juveniles heading to sea, then return upstream again several years later to spawn.
State, federal and tribal governments developed a national hatchery system to mitigate these losses by releasing tens of millions of juvenile fish each year. By the early 2000s, it seemed those efforts were working: State data showed returning adults peaked around 2001. Riggins locals recall streets lined with RVs and great fishing for weeks on end. A state-commissioned economic analysis showed salmon fishing alone that year brought $10 million to Riggins, accounting for a quarter of the town’s annual revenue.
Since then, research and fisheries data show spring Chinook runs are getting smaller and individual fish weigh less, too. Lower snowpack, warmer nights, and heat waves like those that have blasted this region all summer have caused lower flows and warmer conditions inhospitable to these cold-water fish.
This spring, researchers at the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management said 42% of wild Chinook populations in the Snake River Basin had reached “quasi-extinction levels” and predicted 77% of populations would fall to that level by 2025.
Hatcheries throughout the region still collect enough of their own returning fish to spawn and meet their production mandate, said Ralph Steiner, who manages the Rapid River National Hatchery near Riggins, but there are fewer left in the river for fishing. Because of rising water temperatures and earlier migrations associated with climate change, he said, their operations also face new challenges and increasing costs to replenish the fish vital to commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries.
This May, facing fewer salmon and tighter state restrictions, Riggins outfitter and guide Roy Akins canceled half his salmon bookings, returning a total of $15,000 to 60 fishermen he said were frustrated and disappointed. “Nobody wants to hear that the day they’ve been looking forward to is going to be taken away from them,” Mr. Akins said.
As fishermen rethought travel plans, the Salmon River Motel saw normally booked-solid rooms sit empty, said Sharon Walker, referencing records from before she and her husband bought the property in August. John Belton, owner of Seven Devils Steak House at the center of town, said slow spring salmon years can cut their May and June income in half.
Debbie Swift, who works at liquor and tackle store Hook Line & Sinker, said that tackle sales have decreased over the years, and that slow seasons and cancellations complicate inventory decisions.
The salmon decline also leaves recreational fishermen and tribal communities, which by law split the available harvest, “fighting over scraps,” Mr. Akins said.
Tribal communities say it isn’t just their economic health, but their very existence that is at stake. For these traditionally subsistence communities, salmon are a sacred source of food and connection with the Earth, and are at the root of tribes’ cultures, languages and songs, said Aja DeCoteau, interim director of the Intertribal Fish Commission coordinating management efforts of four tribes in the Columbia Basin.
Ms. DeCoteau, a Yakama Tribe member, said lately there are years when there aren’t enough fish to sell, let alone fill her community’s freezers for the year. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “We have to adapt.”
Her organization has contributed research, a salmon recovery plan, and invested federal grants totaling $27 million toward watershed restoration. Mr. Akins said that without the tribes’ efforts, he believes salmon here would already be extinct.
This year, Mr. Akins, Nez Perce leaders and conservation groups backed a proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson (R., Idaho) calling for redeveloping energy infrastructure and breaching the Snake River dams, citing the increasing threat of climate change and the enormous cost of salmon extinction to his state.
Mr. Akins said he was hopeful, but less so than as a young man advocating for these precious fish. Now, he said, he and his wife, Karen Akins, want to diversify their income. They would like to buy a self-storage facility, Ms. Akins said: It is less risky than fishing.
By Lynda V. Mapes
August 18, 2021
Skinny southern resident killer whales are two to three times more likely to die in the next year than whales in a healthy condition, new research shows.
In a paper titled, “Survival of the Fattest,” scientists used drone images taken between 2008 and 2019 of the J, K and L pods of endangered southern resident killer whales to explore the link between food and survival.
They found a clear connection: poor body condition in living whales is a good predictor of dead ones.
Published Wednesday in the scientific journal Ecosphere, the paper also documented that the Fraser River in B.C. and Puget Sound salmon runs are very important to J pod. In years when those river systems were producing Chinook — the orcas’ preferred food, especially in summer — J pod whales looked better. Surprisingly, L pod whales also had better body condition when Puget Sound rivers were pumping out fish.
That was not expected because L pod is rarely seen in Puget Sound. But L pod orcas clearly have learned to target fish homing to Puget Sound rivers while those adult Chinook are shimmering out at sea.
The paper vindicated the work of scientists who have been pioneering drone imagery as a noninvasive method to gather body-condition data, said John Durban, senior scientist with Southhall Environmental Associates.
He and Holly Fearnbach, of the nonprofit SR3, who led the image analysis for the paper, want to grow the data by imaging the whales during the rest of the year, to learn which rivers are sustaining them during the rest of their seasonal round.
The research definitively shows that imaging can detect relatively subtle conditions in body condition and link that directly to increased chance of mortality. “It’s an early warning system,” Durban said. “If we see early on we have large numbers of animals in poor condition, hopefully that could trigger a management response.
“Body condition relates to mortality and condition relates to Chinook salmon. We needed to establish that link in order to support a management response.”
The team did not draw any conclusions about K pod and river systems from this round of data.
The data also shows the orcas can’t be considered as one entity, Durban said; the J, K and L pods have their particular foraging patterns, and they change. Like any skilled fisherman, the southern residents know where, and when, the fishing is good — cultural knowledge passed on generation to generation and season to season.
The southern residents have long used the San Juan Islands as a primary summer foraging ground, but in recent years poor Fraser River runs have changed that. The orcas have barely been in the islands this summer.
For the southern residents, both salmon abundance and access to hunt them matter.
Orcas use sound to hunt and especially when fish are scarce, providing quieter water could be a near-term quick assist. Area closures to fishing and other uses could help the whales forage without disturbance by vessels and boats.
The data also could help managers change fishing regulations to respond if the orcas are in urgent need.
“The new research findings may also help fisheries managers find ways to increase the availability and accessibility of Chinook salmon,” said Lynne Barre, director of killer whale recovery for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. “The goal is to increase availability in places and at times of the year when the whales most need them, while still providing fishing opportunity.” She said the research provides “a level of detail we did not have before.”
Abundance is also pivotal for orca survival.
That takes improvement in salmon habitat, from the rivers where salmon spawn and rear to the estuaries and the ocean where they put on nearly all of their body size and weight. Water temperature increases in the sea surface and in the rivers to which salmon return are threatening their survival. For some highly imperiled salmon, such as spring summer Chinook in the Snake River, scientists say urgent action is needed across all life stages to prevent extinction.
NOAA, in cooperation with states and tribes, also is increasing hatchery production by tens of millions of fish in what may be the world’s largest-ever attempted wildlife feeding effort. How many of those young fish ever return as adults and wind up as live orca chow is yet to be seen.
But with only 74 southern resident orcas left, knowledge is power to make a difference, said Joshua Stewart, lead author on the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
“The thing we didn’t know was just how big of a deal it was if a whale was skinny,” Stewart said. “The thing we now know is just how big a deal it is, understanding that when you pass that critical risk tolerance threshold that something has to be done.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes. Lynda specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history, and Native American tribes.
In early July, the Idaho Fish and Game transported 201 sockeye salmon from the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River because rising water temperatures have made the journey home more difficult.
By Steve Dent
Aug 15, 2021
EAGLE, Idaho — In early July, the Idaho Fish and Game transported 201 sockeye salmon from the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River because rising water temperatures have made the journey home more difficult.
This happened after the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries helped trap the fish then the Idaho Fish and Game brought the sockeye to the Eagle Fish Hatchery.
"Obviously in a normal year we would prefer that these fish complete that last leg of their journey and their full ocean-going life cycle," said John Powell of the Idaho Fish & Game. "But in a year like this, we had to give them that assistance and increase migratory survival because of those extreme conditions."
The Idaho Fish & Game started a broodstock program in 1991 after zero sockeyes returned the previous year, this effort helps ensure the survival of the sockeye in Idaho.
So far this year only two sockeyes have made it back to Red Fish Lake and 629 have made it to Lower Granite Dam, one of the four dams Representative Mike Simpson has proposed breaching in a $33.5 billion dollar plan he unveiled in the spring.
"Dams make it so the water is hotter which is really important on a year like this," said Rachel Brinkley of the Idaho Conservation League who we ran into during a flotilla to raise awareness for Simpson's plan. "There is more exposure to predators, it means that less juvenile salmon are going to the ocean and less adults are coming back."
No matter where you stand on the controversial dam issue, the Idaho Fish and Game work in another way to ensure the survival of sockeye salmon.
"When fish get here they go through a full biological workup, we look at their length, their weight, we determine their sex, we take a scale and sometimes we will use that scale to age the fish," said Powell. "We can determine how to conserve the genetic diversity."
Once the Idaho Fish & Game figure out which of the 201 sockeyes came from Red Fish Lake or from their hatchery program the next step is either to spawn them at the hatchery or release them back into the lake.
"The fish released into Red Fish Lake will spawn the next generation of fish that will go to the ocean," said Powell.
The heat and drought conditions aren't just affecting the salmon, all over Idaho reservoirs are dropping because of the drought.
Last week the Idaho Fish & Game issued a salvage order for the Lost Valley Reservoir west of McCall, until November anglers have the opportunity to catch as many trout and perch with no limits because as the water drops the fish will die anyway.
‘Every fraction of a degree matters,’ UW scientist says
By Evan Bush
August 10, 2021
SEATTLE — In the Pacific Northwest, shrinking glaciers, extreme heat waves, worsening droughts and acidifying oceans are all symptoms of climate change, which is affecting every corner of the globe and intensifying as emissions rise.
That’s according to a blunt assessment of our warming world, which says that it is “unequivocal” that humans are heating up the planet and doing so at a rate not seen in at least 2,000 years.
Many of the stark takeaways in this report — the sixth time researchers have assessed the physical science of climate change for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — are now familiar. But the numbers are more specific, the scientists are more confident, and the warnings are even more direct.
The last decade’s global temperatures were likely the hottest it’s been on Earth in 125,000 years. Carbon dioxide emissions were higher in 2019 than at any time in at least 2 million years, the report says.
“Climate change is really widespread and intensifying, and many of the changes are unprecedented in thousands of years,” said Kyle Armour, an associate professor and climate scientist at the University of Washington, who served as a lead author on the report. He added that climate change was affecting every region on Earth.
“Humans are responsible for all the warming we’ve seen in the last 100 years,” Armour said.
Some of climate change’s impacts — such as ocean acidification and surface temperatures — could be blunted or gradually reversed if humanity removes carbon from the atmosphere, the report says, but others, such as rising sea levels, will continue for centuries even if we draw net greenhouse-gas emissions down to zero, it says.
“There’s so much we are committing to over centuries and millenia that can’t simply be undone, and that’s the grim reality,” said Kim Cobb, the director of the global change program at Georgia Tech and a lead author of the report.
The world already has warmed by more than a degree Celsius since the 19th century. In each of the emissions scenarios the scientists considered, global temperatures reached at least 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than in preindustrial times, with some projections sending them far higher.
The report is broad, with little analysis specifically tailored to the Pacific Northwest. Still, its implications for the Pacific Northwest are myriad, and they foretell a landscape and ecology forever shifted.
Karin Bumbaco, the assistant state climatologist for Washington, said it was “sobering” to read that heat waves once expected every 50 years were projected to be 14 times more likely if the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial times.
At least 129 Washingtonians suffered heat-related deaths this summer, most of them in the wake of a record-breaking heat wave in late June.
“Heat is still on my mind,” said Bumbaco, who was not part of the IPCC report process.
Bumbaco noted also that the IPCC report authors — with high confidence — projected that marine heat waves, such as the 2015 “blob” that upended marine ecosystems and killed millions of marine animals, would become more frequent.
Fire weather is becoming more frequent in many regions of the world, including across the Western United States.
“The fire season is hotter, and it’s also lasting longer,” said Paola Andrea Arias Gómez, an IPCC author and associate professor at the School of the Environment at the University of Antioquia in Colombia.
Even if emissions are rapidly reduced, Washington’s shrinking glaciers will show climate change’s effects for decades.
“Even though we could potentially stabilize global climate by reducing emissions rapidly, there are some things in the climate system that are particularly slow to respond,” Armour said. “The glaciers would continue to melt for decades.”
Global seas are projected to rise for centuries, giving coastal communities, including those in Washington, headaches.
“Regardless of how quickly we get our emissions down, we’re likely looking at … about 6 to 12 inches of global average sea-level rise through the middle of the century,” said Bob Kopp, a lead author of the report and a climate scientist at Rutgers University. “But beyond 2050, sea-level projections become increasingly sensitive to the emission choices we are making today.”
For those bracing against climate shifts in their communities, the report felt heavy.
“Seeing it in print kind of changes the urgency,” said Alana Quintasket, a Swinomish Indian Tribal Community senator. The Swinomish reservation sits on Fidalgo Island and along Skagit Bay.
Quintasket worries about climate change’s effects on declining salmon essential to tribal life, impacts to an ancient clam garden that tribal members are reviving and changes to the reservation’s coastline.
“It’s daunting. I think about it every day. I experience it every day,” Quintasket said. “We have an enormous fight ahead of us.”
With aggressive action, surface temperatures could rebound faster, though the science suggests it could take decades.
“If we could magically turn off greenhouse-gas emissions tomorrow, we wouldn’t see temperatures fall the next day,” said Guillaume Mauger of UW’s Climate Impacts Group, adding that the report is clear about saying it could take 20 to 30 years to see temperatures fall. “We’re going to have to plan for changes.”
Armour said the world should understand by now what must be done: Emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane must drop rapidly.
“Every fraction of a degree matters. … Our future is up to us,” he said.