OR-AMS April 16, 2007 Meeting Summary


Global Warming Impacts on Pacific Northwest River, Abrupt Climate Change, and the Fate of Greenland” by Kyle Dittmer, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission


  A large crowd of 60 showed up at OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry).  The topic of climate change has been common in the news.


   With everyone buzzing over the growing concern about climate change and global warming, few people have considered what impacts global warming have had on Indian Country.  So, in 2001, Kyle began a study to map out the impacts of observed climate change on tribal treaty lands here in the Pacific Northwest.


Impacts of Global Warming on Salmon


  Using temperature, precipitation, and stream flow data, Kyle (with the help of co-worker David Graves, a GIS specialist) looked at the changing climate trends for the last 100 years in the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakama sub-basins: 

·        On average, the sub-basin day-temperatures increased by 0.2 to 1.7 degF during the last 100 years,

·        Night-temperatures increased by 0.6 to 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit (an increase that is two to four times faster than the trend of the day temperature), and

·        Annual precipitation has increased by 2% to 28% during the last 100 years.


These changes in temperature and precipitation profoundly impact the sub-basin flow timing and volumes.  On average, the timing of the spring snow-melt sequence has moved 1 to 23 days earlier during the last 100 years while the volume of the spring-summer runoff has shifted towards autumn-winter by an average of 2 % to 37%.  These changes mean that there is less winter snow, earlier snowmelt, and less spring-summer flow.  The warming winter temperatures cause the salmon fry to emerge from the river gravels weeks earlier than expected and the premature hatching means that late winter food supplies may be scarce for the young.


   However, changes in winter climate patterns are not the only problem.  Warming summer water temperatures are a major concern to salmon populations. 


  During the 1940s, it was rare for summer seasonal water temperatures to exceed 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the state water quality standard for salmon.  However now, that critical threshold for salmon is exceeded half of the time.


   In the last ten years alone, the warming climate has not only influenced the juvenile salmon and water quality standards but it has greatly altered the migratory behavior of adult salmon.  Instead of seeing a gradual “bell-shaped” curve of migrating salmon in late August and early September, the adult salmon are forced to hang out in the cold water pools of the river bottom, and then burst over the fish ladders when the river water cools to below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  The runs are no longer a progression over time, they are sporadic opportunities to migrate when the water temperatures and conditions allow. 


Global Warming Impacts on Tribal Lands


Research from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group (CIG) suggests that the effects of climate change are weaker above 4000 feet and stronger below 4000 feet.  So, using a GIS-based risk assessment model, Kyle and Dave looked at the susceptibility of the four tribes to climate change by the amount of tribal land above, and below, 4000 feet.  They found that the Yakima and Umatilla tribes face the highest risk of climate change, with 83% to 87% of their land below the 4000 feet elevation mark.  The Nez Perce Tribe face a high risk of climate change, with 66% of their land below 4000 feet while the Warm Springs faces a moderate-high risk of climate change, with 52% of their land below 4000 feet.


  The threats of climate change extend beyond the immediate impacts to tribal lands and fisheries to a number of other environmental disasters.  Research from the CIG suggests that the Pacific Northwest will warm by +1.4 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040 and the annual precipitation will change by -4% to +7%.  Snow packs will decline even more with a major loss of the low elevation snow and part of the mid-elevation snow.  There will be lower spring and summer flows, summer water temperatures will continue to rise, the frequency of drought is expected to double, we will see more extremes in weather patterns, and more forest fires and pest/disease infestations.


“Tipping Point”


  Unfortunately, climate change is threatening on a global scale as well as local.  Kyle, who is of Danish descent, traveled to Denmark in 2006 to learn about how global warming is affecting the glaciers on Greenland, a Danish territory.  He talked with scientists at the Danish Climate Center in Copenhagen about possible impacts of global warming to North America and shared with them his climate change research on Columbia Basin tribal lands – a good mutual exchange.


  The Danish scientists expressed concern that a meltdown of the Arctic sea-ice and Greenland glaciers could not only disrupt, but shut down, the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic Ocean—it has already slowed by 30% since 1992.  This would stop the transport of warm tropical water northward and could trigger a sharp cooling, known as the “Tipping Point” scenario (a.k.a., Dansgaard-Oeschger or Heinrich events) toward ice-age levels in the lands surrounding the north Atlantic and possibly the northern Hemisphere. 


   While the scientists at the Danish Climate Center are aware of this “Tipping Point”, they do not have enough data on the glacial mass balance of Greenland to estimate when it might occur, at least 100 years out.  They emphasize that, despite the large melt seen in recent years, Greenland is not going to completely melt anytime soon.


  The Danish scientists and researchers are not the only ones talking about the potential impacts of global warming; even the native peoples of Greenland feel that this “Tipping Point” is coming.  Angaangaq Lyberth, a traditional healer from the Kalaallit Nunaat, recently expressed concern over the melting of Greenland’s glacial ice, “The Eskimo-Kalaallit people have a prophecy that when the rock-hard glaciers become so soft that you can leave a handprint on them, this would be a sign that Mother Earth is in profound turmoil.  I never thought I would see the prophecy taking place in my lifetime.”


    But the million dollar question is when can we expect this “Tipping Point” to occur?  Some U.S. researchers believe that this “Tipping Point” scenario could happen in 10 to 20 years but Kyle disagrees.  Using carbon dioxide gas levels, the primary driver of global warming, and looking at when those levels would cross a critical threshold, he calculates that we will cross that threshold in 2052 and then “Tipping Point” may occur.


  The potential impacts of global warming will not be pleasant.  We must ask ourselves: what can be done to prevent a “Tipping Point” scenario?  Kyle believes that there needs to be more resiliency and flexibility built into our ecosystems and economies.  This will help us to be prepared to handle increased climate change, the variability associated with those changes, and the possibility of a “Tipping Point” event.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using “green” energy (e.g., wind, ocean, solar) and absorbing and reducing current greenhouse gas levels are all key strategies to postponing, and ultimately preventing, the “Tipping Point” scenario from occurring.  Improving water supply forecast methods and more adaptive water reservoir strategies are needed to adequately manage our water supply for fish and other uses during a time of uncertainty.  Kyle says we should be proactive, in the face of uncertainty, before it is too late.  While a lot of uncertainty lies ahead of us, it is important to note that it is not too late to prevent “Tipping Point”- if we want a future for our children and the salmon.


After the talk concluded, Kyle asked the staff of OMSI to come forward, as he had a “special good deed” to perform.  Kyle presented and donated a book, entitled “Climate Change Research – Danish Contributions” from the Danish Climate Center in Copenhagen, Denmark.  The book is a summary of all the major climate change research from Denmark in recent years, illustrated in color, and written in English.  The OMSI staffers were grateful for the gift.  We appreciated the hospitality of our hosts, OMSI.



Note-taker: Kyle Dittmer, OR-AMS President