Federal climate change report says more wildfires, droughts and extreme weather in store for Oregon

Outdoor recreation and Oregon’s natural beauty are already seeing effects from climate change, according to a new federal report. (Salem Reporter/File)

Extreme weather, severe wildfires, winter storms and droughts will all become more common as the effects of climate change in Oregon accelerate, according to a federal climate science report released last week.

Over the next decade, Oregon will see more years like 2015, where a record low snowpack and drought led to a wildfire season that burned more than 685,000 acres across the state, according to federal data.

The changes are affecting many of the industries that play a key role in Oregon’s economy, including agriculture, forestry and outdoor recreation and tourism, and increasingly affecting the health of residents.

“The intangible values and aspects of the Northwest’s natural environment that support a high quality of life for its residents—wildlife, habitat, and outdoor recreation—are at risk in a changing climate,” the report said.

Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, said the report drives home the day-to-day impacts average Oregonians are already seeing.

“Climate change is happening to us right now. It’s not a problem for the future,” he said.

Warmer ocean temperatures and ocean acidification water have hurt fisheries and salmon runs across the Northwest, effects that will worsen over time.

“This could lead to extensive fisheries closures across all of the region’s coastal fisheries, with severe economic and cultural effects on commercial and subsistence shellfish industries,” the report said.

Warmer oceans and waters are also to blame for an increase in algal blooms, the report said, such as the one that made Salem’s water unsafe to drink for nearly two months this year.

And salmon will have more difficulty spawning as water levels in streams rise during the winter and shrink during the summer.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which includes scientists and representatives from more than a dozen federal agencies, is required by Congress to publish a report on climate change projections every four years.

The findings come as Gov. Kate Brown is pursuing a more aggressive strategy to fight climate change in Oregon. Her budget proposal released this week include scrapping the state’s Department of Energy and Carbon Policy Office to create the Oregon Climate Authority, which would oversee state policy to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Heat-related illness and respiratory problems from wildfire smoke are among the health issues the report says will get worse. Drought and impacts on agriculture will also threaten access to water and food for some Oregonians, particularly low-income people and people living in rural areas.

“It really amplifies existing health threats and existing disparities,” said Emily York, who leads the Oregon Health Authority’s climate program and contributed to the federal report.

Oregon saw a spike in emergency room visits for asthma during the first week of September 2017, when wildfire smoke made air unhealthy to breathe in many parts of the state, according to a report from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.

That month, 223 school football and soccer games across the state were cancelled due to poor air quality.

The health authority tracks emergency room visits across the state and publishes a weekly report noting any spikes in visits related to “seasonal hazards” like frostbite, difficulty breathing and carbon monoxide exposure.

That system can help local public health agencies identify when environmental problems like wildfire smoke or drought are causing widespread health issues.

York said efforts like that put Oregon ahead of many states in their planning efforts, but most local health departments still don’t have the staffing or technology they need to make good use of that data.

“We currently don’t have the necessary capacity to address the climate hazards that are coming down the pipe,” she said.

Farmworkers’ health will be particularly affected by climate change as nighttime heat waves and hazardous air become more common, according to the federal report.

Marion County is home to about 13,000 migrant farmworkers, according to state report for 2018.

Farmworkers typically have poor health from the demands of their work, lack healthy food and face exposure to pesticides and other chemicals on the job, said Maria Guerra, executive director of the Farmworker Housing Development Corp. in Woodburn.

Stress from wildfire smoke only exacerbate those issues.

“We can close our windows, we can put an air filter in our offices but people working in the fields don’t have that,” Guerra said.

More wildfires mean more lost timber for foresters, which is a concern for the industry, said Sara Duncan, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Forest and Industries Council, which represents private foresters.

The majority of acres burned in Oregon in 2017 were on federal land. Duncan said efforts to mitigate wildfire damage should start by looking at federal forest management.

“Thinking about ways that we can actually reduce fuel loads on federally owned forests should be a prime concern,” she said.

Reed said it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed by apocalyptic forecasts and the scale of the problem. That can lead to inaction.

“All of these climate reports are scaring the bejesus out of people, rightfully so,” he said. But, “we also need to talk about the solution or people don’t see a way forward. They don’t see how they can help.”

Renew Oregon is a coalition of non-profits and businesses advocating for clean energy policy and reductions in carbon emissions.

The coalition has been working to pass a cap and trade law which would limit carbon emissions from major polluters and generate revenue from the sale of pollution permits. That money would be used to fund clean energy projects.

“We have the technology today. Clean energy. Electric vehicles. Mass transit. Better irrigation. Buildings that create their own energy. We don’t need to invent anything new. We just need the policies in place to get these things done faster,” Reed said.

This article was updated to add comments from Emily York.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.