Climate Change Is Affecting Oregon Right Now

Emily York, head of Oregon’s Climate and Health Program, told Oregon Public Broadcasting, “It becomes more and more crystal clear that climate change is not just affecting polar bears on some distant iceberg. It’s affecting people, and it’s affecting our communities’ and our children’s health.” 

Dr. Erica Fleishman of Oregon State University, also the Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, oversaw the OCCRI’s fifth bienniel report on the effects of global warming on the state, which was recently released. Of the report, she told OPB, “A lot of what we report on here is consistent with what has been understood and expected for a decade or, in some cases, several decades.” 

It’s long been the scientific consensus that the burning of fossil carbon increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere faster than plants can remove it. This understanding goes all the way back to Svante Arrhenius in the 19th Century. As a result, the atmosphere traps more heat, raising the global temperature, causing more precipitation in the winter, which falls more often as rain than snow, so it washes down the rivers as floods rather than sticking in the mountains. The summers are hotter and dryer, and the rivers are lower because there is no snowmelt from the mountains. That leads to more wildfires, and there is no water to put them out. Instead of a winter of snowfall followed by a summer with snowcapped mountains filling our rivers, we have rainy winters and summer wildfires. Life is becoming more uncertain and chaotic and costly. 

“Those changes in the snowpack are likely to have pretty strong ramifications for a lot of the economic and social structures in the state,” Fleishman told OPB. 

Fleishman determined that “because Oregon still has it pretty good compared to a lot of parts of the country and the world,” the state is in a position to lead the way toward a carbon-neutral future. According to the report, in Oregon, as elsewhere, wildfires will continue to become more frequent – consider 2020 when several people died and thousands lost their homes, and the area burned annually could double by the middle of the century, and the size of the fires may increase. 

“Although there is a projection that the size of fires will increase in Oregon, it’s difficult to say whether that will translate into very costly and very disruptive losses for tens of thousands of Oregonians,” Fleishman said to OPB. 

Compared with the 1940s, there are on average about 20 more days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Medford. In Portland and Pendleton, there are about eight more days a year above 90. Oregon isn’t prepared for this – a third of our single-family homes have no form of air conditioning, and most of our multi-family dwellings don’t. Air conditioning isn’t just a status item or a luxury, it’s becoming a necessity. York said to OPB: “We have the data that shows that when we have these extreme heat events, we have a spike in those seeking help in emergency department rooms across Oregon.” 

“Coastal communities along the Oregon Coast should expect that issues associated with various coastal hazards of erosion and flooding will get worse,” said Peter Ruggiero to OPB, a professor of coastal geomorphology at Oregon State and co-author of the climate assessment’s coastal hazards chapter. 

Depending on how well we control CO2 emissions, sea levels could rise by as little as 0.1 foot or as much as 2.4 feet at Astoria, and by as little as 0.5 foot or as much as 2.9 feet at Newport. Oddly enough, in some places, rising sea levels could have an upside in a more actual sense. Portions of the Oregon Coast are literally rising higher due to the movement of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Land which would be higher if the seas were not rising. 

Ruggiero told OPB, “If we are thinking about ways of managing for sea level rise, we might also be doing ourselves a favor in terms of managing for reducing the potential negative impact of the earthquake and tsunami.”