A report on climate change from a United Nations environmental panel suggests serious impacts could occur sooner than expected, which may cause problems for Oregon’s low-elevation forests.
“We know that global change means that the Pacific Northwest would be affected, as well,” said Kathie Dello, associate director of Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.
The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was released to the public Sunday evening, detailed the global impact of human-caused climate change at 1.5 degrees Celsius — about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The report states that human activity warmed the planet by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and could reach the 2.7-degree mark as soon as 2040.
Globally, this could mean warmer temperatures, grain shortages and the loss of coral reefs. In Central Oregon, experts agree that the hotter, drier weather stands to make wildfires larger, more common, and have a higher intensity if the projections from the study come to fruition. Those outcomes could fundamentally change the complexion of forests on both sides of the Cascade Mountains.
“The role of fire in the west Cascades is going to change,” said Ryan Haugo, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Oregon chapter.
Daniel Gavin, professor with the University of Oregon’s geography department, said fire seasons in recent years have been gradually getting more destructive across the Western United States.
He cited a 2016 study from the University of Idaho that used computer models to demonstrate the effects of climate change. More than half of the increase in dry fuels from 1979 through 2015 across the Western United States was due to human-caused climate change.
Dello said climate projections call for hotter, drier summers and warm, wet winters in Oregon, which each combine to exacerbate the state’s wildfire season.
Gavin added that Oregon’s snowpack is more susceptible than most to small fluctuations in temperature. With a slight uptick in temperature, Gavin said Oregon could be in for more years like 2015, where a very low snowpack was a harbinger of an above-average wildfire season.
“The year 2015 is a great test case for what a warmer world looks like,” he said. “Having a series of those would be even more devastating.”
Haugo said less snow and longer periods of hot, dry weather will lead to drier vegetation, making it easier for a forest fire to start from lightning, sparks from a car, or any common ignition source.
In addition, Gavin said he expects wildfires to burn at a higher intensity, a transition that he says is taking place. Rather than low-intensity fires, which can skip over portions of the forest, Gavin said walls of blackened trees may become the norm.
“Fires have always burned in a very, very patchy way,” he said. “I fear that the fires are becoming more contiguous.”
Gavin added that the impacts could be most visible in areas of the state that are less accustomed to wildfire, including north-facing and high-elevation portions of Central and Eastern Oregon. Wildfires in these areas, which have seen less fire than other portions of the forest, could affect biodiversity, Gavin said.
Haugo added that forests on the west side of the Cascades aren’t immune. While large fires had once been a relatively uncommon occurrence on the west side of the state, Haugo said he expects them to become more frequent. He added that there’s less consensus in the scientific community about how best to accommodate fire in the area.
Haugo stressed the need for additional research on how plants and animals may fit within a changing climate. He said that work would accompany ongoing efforts, like forest thinning and reforestation after severe wildfires, that could minimize the effects of large fires.
Despite the discouraging report, Dello said it isn’t too late to make changes that could keep the temperature rise below the threshold that the report anticipates.
“If you miss your bus stop, you don’t stay on the bus forever,” Dello said. “You get off at the next stop.”
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