The Effects of Climate Change

The Effects of Climate Change

Although Black Hills Audubon members are nearly unanimous in believing that global warming is real, and are deeply concerned about it, not all our friends and neighbors agree. Data gathered by researchers at Yale University indicated that in 2016 only 73%, 68%, and 62% of Thurston, Mason, and Lewis County residents, respectively, accepted the truth of climate change; somewhat more than half the residents were worried about it. The PEW Foundation reported similar statistics last year, concluding that fewer than 2/3 of Americans are worried about global warming and that only 57% perceive it as a serious threat. Too many individuals persist in believing that climate change isn’t important and won’t directly affect them.

With the hope that some locally-relevant information can be used as talking points with the climate change
skeptics in your life, let me reflect on the many ways global warming might personally affect us in the South Sound. Since not all regions of the globe will be equally or even similarly affected, it seems prudent to begin by describing how the Puget Sound area’s climate is expected to change in the next 50-60 years. Although numerous climate models have been developed by different organizations and they anticipate varying amounts of additional atmospheric carbon – the driver of global warming – there is widespread, even unanimous, agreement as to how several key aspects of our area’s climate will transform.

The bullet points below are largely adapted from the University of Washington’s Climate Impact Group 2015 Report.

  • First, the Puget Sound region is expected to become significantly warmer. By the middle of this century,
    we will likely experience average annual temperatures 4.2-5.5°F warmer than those in 1970-1999. By 2080, the increase is projected to be 5.5-9.1° F. All seasons, especially summer, are expected to become warmer.
  • Second, we will experience more extremely hot days, though we won’t see as many heat waves as most other parts of the U.S. We will also have significantly fewer extremely cold days.
  • Third, although total yearly precipitation is expected to remain at current levels, all models predict that we will encounter more frequent and more severe summer droughts as well as more frequent heavy winter and spring downpours.
  • Fourth, our weather will continue to regularly fluctuate over years and decades. This is because this region is greatly influenced by atmospheric conditions over the Pacific Ocean, such as El Niño and La Niña, whose cyclical variations profoundly affect our weather. Exceedingly strong “super” El Niños are expected to become more frequent, exacerbating summer droughts and heat waves.

These changes are not only anticipated but have already begun. Washington’s annual temperature has already risen 1.3°F since 1895, and 31 of the last 37 years saw temperatures above the 20th-century average. We have also already started to experience more frequent heavy rainstorms: as of 2009, the Pacific Northwest at large experienced 16% more extremely heavy precipitation events than in the previous 50 years. These changes matter and have real consequences. Climate disruption will impact our forests, prairies, wetlands, coastline, and oceans. It will affect our ability to generate electricity and will change the plants we can grow. It will pose hardships to birds and other wildlife. However, since nothing hits closer to home than health, consider some of the effects that climate change will have on our physical well-being.

The hotter, dryer summers will increase surface-level ozone concentrations and, because of more frequent air inversions (which are heat driven), more particulates in the air as well. Our air quality will degrade, directly affecting those with asthma or lung disease. (The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that by 2020 medical costs from ozone pollution alone will increase nationally by $5.5 billion.) People with pollen allergies will also notice a change for the worse: since plants produce more pollen when it is warm, pollen levels are projected to increase—in fact, to double by 2060 compared to 1900 levels. And the pollen season will be longer, extending the misery. The number of extremely hot days will surge as well; hospitalizations and heat related mortality both increase greatly during severe heat waves, and children, the elderly, diabetics, those with heart and kidney diseases, and people who work outdoors are especially at risk.

With higher temperatures and less summer rainfall, wildfires will become more frequent, destroying more habitat, killing more wildlife, and contributing to air pollution as well. Once again, this is particularly difficult on those with allergies or asthma. Finally, as water levels drop in the hot, dry summers, bacterial and chemical contaminants in water supplies become more concentrated and are more likely to cause harm. A reduction in the number of extremely cold winter days is not associated with increased hospitalization or mortality, but with higher winter temperatures, cold weather flooding becomes more likely as snowfall shifts to rain. Although (fortunately) few persons drown in Washington floods, the high water levels pose other health risks. Drinking and recreational waters are more likely to become contaminated during floods (and hence so do those who drink, wade or swim in them). In addition, the resultant dampness encourages mold growth in water-logged residences. Respiratory symptoms can be expected to rise in vulnerable populations, then, in the winter as well as the summer.

And we haven’t even considered the increasing spread of insect-born diseases, such as West Nile virus….

I know this information is bleak, but I hope it encourages you to act. Talk to friends and neighbors about climate change. Decrease your own carbon footprint. Vote for candidates who make this issue a priority. Provide water and shelter for wildlife. Although we can take some comfort that we Puget-Sound residents are sheltered from many of the worst health effects of unchecked global warming, we will not be completely immune from them. (by Kim Adelson)