Writers on the Range: The World to come
Writers on the Range
In the world to come, there will still be oak trees and pine trees and the golden leaves of aspen in the fall. The sweet sounds of birdsong will still wake us on spring mornings. In the world to come, the beauties of nature will still be found.
But what will be lost?
That was the uncomfortable question that a group of ecologists was asked to consider at a recent meeting of the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative. Our charge was to anticipate the alterations in southern Oregon’s natural environments that could result from climate change.
To guide our deliberations, we examined the projections of three leading climate models for such variables as monthly mean temperatures, total precipitation, snowpack and the risk of wildfires.
All models agreed that our annual average temperatures will increase, likely by at least 3 degrees F by 2040. For other variables, the models differed, particularly for precipitation, with one model forecasting much less, another slightly more, and the third about the same as currently. Of course, this sort of uncertainty is seized upon by skeptics to challenge the reality of climate change, and to question the need to prepare for an altered world.
Clearly, there is much we don’t know about the world to come. The dwindling band of climate change skeptics, however, seems to be motivated by economic and political concerns, not by science. Today, there is a near-universal scientific consensus that we are in a period of rapid climate change that will dramatically alter not just weather patterns, but the distributions of plants and animals around the world. Driven by sharply rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, this warming has achieved tremendous momentum. Despite uncertainties in the models, our group found enough agreement to paint a bleak picture of the likely changes in store for our region.
First, regardless of whether total precipitation increases, decreases, or remains the same, all the models predict far less snowpack in the future, with declines ranging from 25-75 percent by 2040. That has profound implications, because the gradual melting of deep mountain snow fills underground water supplies and keeps our rivers flowing through the long, hot summers. Without significant snowpack, even some of our major rivers could dwindle to intermittent flows in dry years, with catastrophic results for fish, wildlife and human populations.
On the land, it is likely that oak woodlands will spread up the slopes into the mountains, replacing mixed conifer forests. At mid-elevations, more frequent fires and drier conditions will probably break conifer forests into a mosaic of forest patches and brush fields. With the loss of heavy snowpack, the wildflowers filling many of our high mountain meadows will be replaced by drought-adapted species like sagebrush.
All the models agreed that the risk and severity of wildfire will increase in coming decades. Less snowmelt will lengthen the fire season by reducing soil moisture, and hotter temperatures will produce dry, highly flammable fuels. Some projections call for as much as a 100 percent increase in acres burned annually in our region by the 2040s. The world to come will be filled with smoke, and will be a much riskier place for those who choose to build homes in the woods.
In our discussions, we kept returning to one unanswerable question: Will nature be able to keep up with the changing climate? Will plant distributions be able to move northward and up the mountainsides fast enough to stay with their preferred zones of temperature and moisture? And if not, will we be left with dying forests repopulated only by scrub and weeds? That prospect is reason enough to try to at least slow down climate change, to give nature ” and ourselves ” a chance to adapt. The alternative would be crippled ecosystems vulnerable to disease, insect outbreaks, invasion by alien species, and hugely at risk of wildfire.
Our team of ecologists was not asked to consider the impacts of climate change on the human world; other groups of experts will do that. But I left the meeting wondering: What about our economy and our food supply? What about politics, and energy, and peace and war? For all that, the best I can find to say is this, offered as benediction and apology to my children and the generations to follow:
The world to come will not be blessed
Yet may you be
Blessed in strength for those hard times
Blessed in love
For love is always blessed
Blessed in courage to conquer the fear
That will seek an easy victory
Blessed in peace that you create
For there will be no other
Blessed in hope
For a better world to come
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Ashland, Ore.
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