“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt humans have affected the composition of the atmosphere and almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that global warming is related to that,” says Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI). In this election season, climate change didn’t come up until after the presidential debates, but superstorm Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath meant the topic hit the headlines before the election was over. Whether New York is doomed to become the next Atlantis or whether Florence, Ore., will sink beneath the sea is a little more complicated than just one storm.
“The bottom line,” Mote says, is that scientists know it’s human caused, know the Earth is warming, know that humans are linked to the warming, “but people lose sight of the solidity of those conclusions because there are fringes still hotly debated by scientists.”
Though Hurricane Sandy brought climate change back into public debate this year, Mote says 2011 actually was the near-record hurricane season, but that didn’t get attention because the storms churned out in the ocean. “We only care about the ones that hit the U.S.,” he says, “and sadly are not bothered by deaths in the Caribbean, Mexico and South America.” Also he says hurricanes out over the ocean are very important in global heat transport and carry a lot of moisture and heat from tropical areas.
Mote, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with other co-authors and researchers for their work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, points out that scientists don’t have a laboratory where there is a control planet Earth and an experimental planet Earth so scientists use modeling instead. On the West Coast, he says the models say storm tracks should be shifting northward, related to accelerated Arctic warming. Arctic sea ice hit a record low this summer.
The results so far are pretty ambiguous when it comes to the question of whether climate change means Oregon is due for bigger storms, Mote says. “Studies indicated that there’s been some increase in the intensity of storms out over the Pacific Ocean in the last 50 years and hints that extreme waves have gotten higher,” but he says the results depend on methods and approach you use.
OCCRI was established in 2007 to help Oregon better respond to climate change. Mote says in basins like the McKenzie, scientists have noted a decline in spring snow pack that can be statistically linked to warming. He says that the snowline has moved upward a little bit and snow is melting earlier with a higher runoff in early spring and late spring and summer.
Meanwhile on the Oregon Coast, sea levels are estimated to rise about 2 feet, and Mote says planning for waterfront developments such as ports should account for risk tolerance as well as for the capacity to update and change if the science changes. Some state and municipal management plans, he says, often account only for past conditions, and don’t use the best available science to plan for future conditions.