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Climatologist Briefs Council on Global Warming Impacts

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 9, 2004

Scientific opinion is overwhelming that global warming is taking place and that its effects will leave the Columbia River basin's fish, farmers and hydro producers vulnerable, particularly in late summer, according to a University of Washington, and state of Washington, climatologist.

A less predictable trend is the region's, and the world's, response to the phenomenon that is blamed for the warming -- a growing cloud of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere.

Costs and complicated policy issues make it unlikely that the Northwest and world can reverse the trend, but an expert in the field told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council Tuesday that the problem cannot and will not be ignored.

There will be "a lot of action but not necessarily success," according Mark Trexler of Trexler and Associates. His company specializes in climate change mitigation policies, technologies and projects.

He defined "success" as a stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. That would require a 70 percent reduction in global emissions, a difficult task. Provisions of the international Kyoto Protocol signed by many countries in 1997 but still not ratified by notable industrialized countries like the United States and Russia, would slow but not even stop emissions growth, Trexler said.

Those concentrations are up by 32 percent since the pre-industrial era, according to Phil Mote, a research scientist with the UW's Climate Impacts group. Those concentrations are, if unimpeded, expected to grow rapidly through this century, driven by third-world and other development and growing use of fossil fuels.

The stakes are high for both ignoring the estimated global warming or dealing with its believed cause.

There are doubters, but Mote said the preponderance of climate scientists believe the world is warming and the trend is caused by human activities. One of those activities is the production of electricity with fossil fuels such as gas and coal.

"It really is happening; it's not a figment of our imagination," Mote told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council Tuesday. Models predict that the Pacific Northwest's average temperature could rise by 7 degrees F over the course of the century, much accelerated even over the picked-up pace of the late 1900s.

"This rate of change is faster than we've ever seen," Mote said.

The sun's energy that lights and warms the earth floods in as short-wave radiation. When the energy strikes the surface, the energy changes from light to heat and warms earth. The planet's surface, in turn, releases some of this heat back into space as long-wave infrared radiation.

The gases accumulated in the atmosphere doesn't allow all of the long-wave infrared radiation back into space. As the gas concentrations grow, so does the atmosphere's ability to trap that radiation and hold in more heat.

The rise would cause profound changes, Mote said. During the winter months the region would receive less snow because of the warmer temperatures. Opinions differ over weather the shifting climatic pattern means more or less precipitation overall.

The higher temps would also mean an earlier meltdown of that reduced snowpack. That trend has already begun with spring snowmelt beginning two weeks earlier in the Northwest than it did in 1948.

That earlier meltdown of a lesser snowpack will make it more difficult to supply water for agriculture, hydropower, fish and recreation particular later in the summer. Mote said that flows could be reduced by as much as 25 to 30 percent in June and July.

Such a climate change would also reduce the likelihood of springtime flooding and increase the likelihood of rain-driven, winter flooding.

The Northwest's Cascades would likely see the most dramatic shifts.

"The warmer mountains are more vulnerable to warming," Mote said of the more temperate zones in the region. The Arctic is the part of the globe that is likely to see the most significant climate change.

The NPCC and staff are watching global warming, and policy responses to it, as they prepare their Fifth Power Plan for the region. The choices made to restrict greenhouse gas emissions -- at the state, regional, national and international levels -- could affect the choices the region makes as regard to what resources it uses to provide energy.

There would be certain effects of the region's major power source -- hydro -- resulting from such a climate shift as described by Mote. According to a Council staff memo, winter electricity demand would decrease in the region with the warmer temperatures, thus easing peak requirements. But in summer demand would rise and there would be less water running through the hydrosystem to fuel that demand.

That could "potentially force the region to compete with southern California for diminished electricity resources," the memo said. Now the federal power system frequently has surplus generation in summer that it can sell in California markets.

Policies being pondered to slow the growth of emissions -- such as charges on carbon dioxide and other gas emissions -- could greatly affect industry and energy prices.

To "deal with it" or attempt to seriously tackle the climate changes would affect the power sector in material ways, Trexler said. As an example, the $75 to $100 fee per ton of emissions likely needed to bring them in check would translate to "almost 10 cents per kilowatt hour on a coal(-fired power) plant," Trexler said. That would send the cost of producing power with coal, now 2-4 cents, skyrocketing.

An impact on emissions could be made with lesser charges, he said.

CBB Staff
Climatologist Briefs Council on Global Warming Impacts
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 9, 2004

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