As Skagit County experienced yet another stretch of oppressive heat, smoke and continued drought this past week, news alerts kept coming about massive fires in the U.S., Canada and Greece along with word of a Code Red announced in the latest report from a United Nations group studying climate change.
It was the latest report from the U.N.-appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a 3,000-page document written with input from 234 scientists who say things are worse than feared. Global warming is already accelerating, and extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods and storms are getting more intense faster than predicted.
Greenhouse gas emissions from human use of fossil fuels have the planet on a path to more warming, at least until 2050, regardless of efforts to mitigate those changes moving forward, the report states.
Here at home, that means more melting of North Cascades glaciers and more massive wildfires, drought, hot days, noxious air and sea-level rise.
Worldwide, the kind of heat wave that used to happen only once every 50 years now happens once a decade, and under one of five scenarios considered in the IPCC report, it could soon happen twice every seven years.
Locally, Skagit Climate Science Consortium researchers and Transition Fidalgo and Friends leaders are not surprised, but they are frustrated.
“I’m absolutely depressed that our current political system hasn’t addressed this issue both locally and nationally in the last few decades,” Transition Fidalgo and Friends President Bud Anderson said. “This information has been readily available, but unfortunately the political inertia has not moved the needle far enough to do something about it, and now we’re in a situation where people and animals and the environment are being seriously harmed.”
Transition Fidalgo is a local nonprofit that’s part of a broader movement encouraging a transition away from fossil fuels and toward climate change resilience. The local group published its own report on climate impacts and mitigation options in 2014.
“It predicted the same issues that unfortunately we’re seeing today: That summers are going to get hotter and drier and longer, there’s going to be issues with winter snow, there’s going to be a lot of stress on plants and animals, there’s going to be fires in the summer,” Anderson said.
Before that, the National Research Council in 2012 published a report titled “Climate Change: Evidence, Impacts and Choices” in response to requests from Congress.
“Ten years ago, Congress was given a document from an agency that they fund and support that said this is serious and we should do something,” Anderson said. “It’s all there and my question would be, to politicians, what have they done about it?”
At the local level, Skagit County in 2011 published an Envision Skagit 2060 report that reflected on scenarios from an earlier IPCC report. A Climate Action Plan was also published in 2010 that said: “The Skagit County Commissioners understand that Climate Change is an immediate problem that needs tackling at the local level.”
A related web page encourages residents to reduce fuel, energy and resource consumption.
“Climate change threatens to dramatically change our weather, our coastline, and our natural resource industries,” the web page states. “A long-term goal of Skagit County’s ... is to project and prepare for the impacts of climate change and to mitigate our own contribution of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Skagit County Facilities Director Ken Hansen said while county efforts on climate change largely lost steam following the publication of those documents, the pursuit of energy efficiency in county buildings maintained momentum.
His focus is on replacing outdated lighting with LED fixtures, improving insulation and upgrading HVAC systems to reduce energy use and in turn reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re doing what we can,” he said.
Additional measures are of interest but require money.
“Next year we’re hoping to actually have a solar project out at the community justice center — the jail — which would be the county’s first solar project,” Hansen said. “But that’s depending on whether we get the grants that are out there.”
Meanwhile, the county has faced some scrutiny over its level of attention to climate change.
This spring, residents and nonprofits including the Skagit Land Trust criticized Skagit County Planning and Development Services for failing to mention climate change in the draft Shoreline Master Program published in April. The document, which will regulate the use of marine and freshwater shorelines in unincorporated Skagit County under the Growth Management Act, also mentions sea-level rise just once.
Skagit Land Trust President Mark Hitchcock wrote in a comment letter dated June 22 that the document needs to better address “the reality of climate change.”
Hitchchock said the science, long before the latest IPCC report, has suggested global climate change will bring local sea-level rise, coastal storm surge and intensified river flooding. He wrote: “the effects on Skagit County’s shorelines will be increasingly impossible to ignore.”
The nonprofit Skagit Climate Science Consortium has in recent years called attention to those impacts. The group has compiled government, tribal and university research since 2009 to show how local temperatures and sea levels have already risen, while glaciers have melted and snowpack accumulation declined — as well as to model what a warmer future may look like in the Skagit River watershed.
“We’re seeing globally it’s getting warmer and certain things (like drought and changes to snowpack) are happening,” said Skagit Climate Science Consortium member Guillaume Mauger, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. “Locally, we see the same thing ... it’s warmer than it used to be, we have warmer summers, warmer winters, less freezing days.”
The Skagit Climate Science Consortium’s work suggests that as temperatures continue to rise, the watershed will move from an ice and snow-fed system to one dominated by rain. That rain will also fall in patterns leading to more flooding in the spring and more drought in the summer, hurting water availability for everything from drinking to irrigation to fish.
Mauger said the new IPPC report hits home that those conditions are now impossible to forestall.
“There is no future where we don’t have to adapt to climate change,” he said. “The best thing we can do is plan and prepare for that.”
Impacts already seen from mountains to sea — with an estimated 8 inches of sea-level rise already documented on some local shorelines and about one-quarter less snowpack accumulating annually in the North Cascades now than in the 1950s — are harbingers for challenges to come.
“Snowpack and sea-level rise are really, I think, the canaries in the coal mine on climate change,” Mauger said.
Local aerial photographer John Scurlock, who has contributed images for National Park and U.S. Geological Survey glacier research, said the ongoing shrinkage of the glaciers is a clear sign that climate change is reshaping the region.
On July 10, he flew over the North Cascades and photographed the Coleman Glacier on Mount Baker. Images that Scurlock shared show that the glacier has receded dramatically since he photographed it in July 2003.
“It’s the type of thing that you don’t notice so much from year to year, but when you see something like that then you realize that (impact), you know, it is significant,” Scurlock said.
The new IPCC report says the burning of oil, coal, natural gas and wood is responsible for current rates of warming; the 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7-degree Fahrenheit) limit to warming set as the Paris Climate Accord goal of 2015 will likely be surpassed in the 2030s; and some warming — and associated impacts such as more frequent and extreme weather are now irreversible.
“This groundbreaking report makes clear that the extreme weather now being felt around the globe and across Washington state will look mild compared to what’s ahead if we don’t act,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement issued in response to the report’s publication Monday. “The next generation deserves to be able to enjoy the bliss of a Puget Sound summer day, not be trapped inside by triple-digit temperatures and smoky skies.”
As temperatures for a second time this summer climbed to abnormal highs in the 90s and 100s this week, the state Department of Health issued a statement recounting the 95 deaths reported statewide as a result of the June heat wave event.
“Historically this kind of weather has been unheard of for the Pacific Northwest ... Climate change is an emergency,” the agency wrote.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose scientists contributed to the U.N. report, said in a statement that no U.S. state or sector is untouched by impacts of climate change, and action is needed now.
Anderson of Transition Fidalgo said he’s among those desperately hoping local and national leaders will heed that call.
“Perhaps now people will have a deeper understanding of the issues and will work on solutions,” he said.