Letters From the West

Idaho scientists lay out their data on how our climate has changed

Zion Klos, a doctoral student at the University of Idaho, speaks in 2012 at the Northern Rockies Climate Change Workshop held at the Foothills Learning Center in Boise. He outlined how scientists view climate change. (Idaho Statesman file)

Zion Klos, a hydrologist at the University of Idaho, speaks in 2012 at the Northern Rockies Climate Change Workshop held at the Foothills Learning Center in Boise. He outlined how scientists view climate change. (Idaho Statesman file)

Idaho scientists, engineers and managers rarely get dragged anymore into the debate about climate change. They avoid it when they can.

They are too busy analyzing its impacts on our land and water. They all take for granted that the historically high levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels have either offset or contributed to the natural warming of the atmosphere, the rivers and the oceans.

And they see it in their work as biologists, hydrologists, foresters and ecologists. But many readers e-mail, call or comment to me on social media complaining about how I report on climate change, the debate I have followed closely for 40 years.

“You keep slipping into your articles the theory that humans are causing climate change as if it were a fact,” one regular correspondent who did not want to be identified wrote.

These scientists, like the vast majority of their kind worldwide, have little doubt these days it is a fact. But what they want Idahoans to understand is climate change is happening and no matter what we think about our ability to stop it, we must prepare our institutions to adapt to it.

Seven of these Idaho-based scientists will be at the downtown Boise Public Library on three Thursday evenings in April, beginning next week, to discuss their findings on how climate change is affecting Idaho’s natural and economic systems.

“So are these scientists going to tell us how to adapt, or are they going to tell us that we have to CHANGE what we are doing because WE are causing the climate to change?” my skeptical critic wrote when I asked him to attend one of these talks.

I think they plan to talk about both, but the nature of their work will make them focus more on adaptation than on what science types call “mitigation” – trying to stop global warming, for us lay folks. Take for instance Charles Luce, a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist who recently published groundbreaking research in Science called “The Missing Mountain Water.”

The decline of precipitation in the region’s mountains that has been measured over the past 60 years has been attributed to increasing the area of wildfires, and earlier and lower streamflows have generally been attributed to warming temperatures. But Luce and his team, which included scientists from the University of Idaho, suggest that decreases in winter winds have led to decreased precipitation in the high-altitude mountains, which are a primary water source for us.

If engineers hope to build dams to offset the effects of the decreased precipitation and of getting more rain instead of snow in the winter, they need to study closely how much water they can expect, especially in the driest years, he says.

Then there is Dan Isaak, a fisheries researcher at the U.S. Forest Service who has shown how much stream temperatures already have risen in many Idaho waters and how the trend continues to a point where bass may replace trout.

“There’s not much wiggle room for them to avoid the effects of warming and no one’s going to evolve legs in the next few decades, climb out of the water and walk to cooler habitats,” he wrote.

Other speakers include University of Idaho hydrologist Zion Klos, who works with Luce and perhaps the state’s premier fire scientist, Penny Morgan. Boise State University’s Kerrie Weppner will share her work with geological-scale fire and tree records that show what’s happening in Idaho’s forests.

Hydrologist Jae Ryu, from U of I, will show how climate affects long-term strategies for water storage and use. Scott Lowe, who chairs the Environmental Studies Department at BSU, will discuss how climate change could affect all manner of resources as both farms and cities grow in Idaho.

These three forums provide Treasure Valley residents the best chance to understand the science underlying our changing realities: warmer winters, earlier runoffs, longer fire seasons and hotter rivers.

Idaho Climate Talks will be at the Boise Public Library in the Hayes Auditorium at 6 p.m. April 10, 17 and 24. Each set of talks will be followed by audience questions. You can learn more at www.idahoclimate.org.

“If these scientists could prove that human contribution to C02 increases are changing the climate, they would win the Nobel Prize,” my skeptical critic said. But wait, scientists already did and they did win the Nobel Prize.

It didn’t change his mind.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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