Saturday, May 11, 2013

400: A sobering milestone

Humankind reached a significant milestone on May 9th, 2013.  This is one of those milestones where decades from now, people will be asking each other "where were you when you heard..."  Unfortunately, this is not a milestone to be celebrated, so don't pop that bottle of champagne just yet.  This is a milestone to be regarded with genuine concern and a sobering realization of the destruction that humankind has wreaked on our planet, and on earth's ability to remain livable in the future.  On May 9th, 2013, the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii measured average atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels at 400 parts per million (ppm).  This is the first time in the history of humankind that CO2 levels have reached 400ppm.  This milestone is a reminder that our current way of living is not sustainable, and that we're facing enormous problems in the future if we continue to let that number rise.  The Pacific Northwest is not exempt from problems arising as a result of climate change-- those of us who continue to live here in the future will notice big changes to our beloved Evergreen State.

A NOAA graph showing recent CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa Observatory, through April 2013.  In May, that red line reached the top of the graph, at 400ppm.

Numbers to consider

After doing a little digging, I found some information on historical CO2 levels.  From the beginning of civilization up until 200 years ago, the atmospheric CO2 level held steady around 275ppm.  With the onset of the industrial revolution when we began burning fossil fuels and releasing their carbon into the atmosphere, the CO2 level began its steep upward ascent to reach the current level of 400ppm.  Among climate scientists, a CO2 level of 350ppm is the agreed-upon "safe" upper limit, at which we should be able to avoid the most serious effects of climate change.  Anything higher than that, and we're in danger of serious consequences from a warming planet.  Unfortunately, according to data from Mauna Loa, we blew through the 350ppm limit right around 1990.

What will happen to Washington?

When I heard the news about the 400ppm CO2 level, I wanted to know what would happen to the Pacific Northwest.  What would happen to my beloved Washington State in a future where climate change was a certainty?  To find out, I turned to the Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment, written in 2009 by the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington.(The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a great summary of the paper here). This paper outlines the likely climate change effects in Washington State resulting from "low" and "moderate" fossil fuel emissions.  Here are the major findings:
  • The average temperature in WA has increased 1.5 degrees F since 1920.  That temperature is expected to increase an additional 2.0 degrees by 2020, and a frightening 5.3 degrees by 2080.
  • Precipitation is expected to increase 1.3% by 2020, and 3.8% by 2080.  Also predicted are increases in extreme precipitation events, along with wetter autumns and winters, and drier summers.
  • Snowpack will decrease approx. 59% by 2080.
  • River levels will drop in summer, with a corresponding 20% decrease in hydropower produced during the summer months by 2080.
  • Forests will initially respond to higher CO2 levels with increased growth, but once temperatures and CO2 levels rise beyond the tree's ability to adapt, forests die-offs are a real possibility.  We could be the Evergreen State no more.
  • Crop yields in Eastern Washington could decrease 25% by the end of the century.
  • Sea levels are anticipated to rise between 2.6 and 6.6 FEET by 2100.
  • Rising stream temperatures and altered stream flows will reduce the quality and extent of salmon habitat, causing 1/3 of current salmon habitat to be uninhabitable by mid to late century.
  • The area of land burned by forest fires will double by 2040 and triple by 2080.
  • Species extinctions and range shifts are likely.
  • There will be increased human deaths due to heat and poor air quality.
As I read the paper, I wondered why the Climate Impacts Group only modeled the effects of "low" and "moderate" emissions levels.  Wouldn't it have been more effective, and scarier for the reader, for them to provide the absolute "worst case/high" emissions scenario? Then I came to the chilling realization that what they actually did was far scarier.  The effects that you read above were not even the WORST CASE scenario.  The researchers left it very open-ended:  they don't even know what the worse case scenario could be-- it could be far worse than we could imagine.  I don't know about you, but the climate change consequences outlined above are scary enough for me. No snow, no forests, no salmon, decreased food and freshwater supplies, poor air quality... that is not a Washington that I want to live in!

What can we do?

So what do we do about it? That's a great question.  I'm feeling a bit lost myself as to what I can personally do about this problem-- so I just write about it.  Spread the word.  Dive into conversations with other people on this topic, especially those who don't agree with me!  I hope to write a more thorough article in the future detailing actions that everyone can take to address the climate change issue.  Here are a few things to get you started, though:
  1. Determine how much your lifestyle is contributing to the problem by figuring out your ecological footprint here.
  2. Reduce, reuse, recycle (an oldie but a goodie!)
  3. Consume less and buy locally
  4. Get involved and speak up! 350.org is a great resource to help with ways to accomplish this.
  5. Educate yourself on the issue and science behind it
Thanks for reading and please feel free to pass this blog along to others.  Tackling this issue and setting back the CO2 level to 350ppm is going to take all of us!

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