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Ocean Acidification, Wildfires Are Taking Their Toll On The Pacific Northwest

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"Ocean Acidification, Wildfires Are Taking Their Toll On The Pacific Northwest"

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Dammon Saunders, a deckhand with Taylor Shellfish Farms, reaches for a container as he transplants Totten Virginica oysters, on the waters of Oyster Bay in the Totten Inlet near Shelton, Wash.  Oyster growers in Washington state are among those observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience, according to the National Climate Assessment report released Tuesday, May 6, 2014.

Dammon Saunders, a deckhand with Taylor Shellfish Farms, reaches for a container as he transplants Totten Virginica oysters, on the waters of Oyster Bay in the Totten Inlet near Shelton, Wash.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The Northwest U.S. is known for its thick, green forests that in some places reach right up to the coast of the Pacific Ocean. But both of these sources of natural beauty — and economic stability for many industries in the region — are already feeling the effects of climate change, according to a federal report released this week.

The major new National Climate Assessment, which documents the current and future effects of climate change in all regions of the U.S., found that wildfires, pests, sea level rise and ocean acidification pose grave threats to the Northwest U.S., a region which in the report includes Oregon, Washington and Idaho. These are threats that are being felt all over the world, but several are particularly magnified on America’s West Coast.

Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, plant manager for Goose Point Oyster Co. in Willapa Bay, Washington, told ThinkProgress that ocean waters in the bay have become so acidic that the company can’t grow oyster larvae off the coast of Washington anymore. The problems started happening in 2006, she said, when winds that cause upwelling off the West Coast didn’t subside as much as they usually do. Upwelling brings up water that was at the surface of the ocean 50 years ago, water that had spent the last five decades years deep in the ocean, accumulating carbon dioxide from the organic matter that sinks to the seafloor. According to Oregon State University, the water that rose to the surface off the coast of Washington in 2006 contained CO2 levels of 900 to 1,000 parts per million.

Nisbet-Moncy said that after Goose Point’s oyster larvae started dying in 2006, the company moved its larvae operations to Hawaii, which doesn’t have the continental shelf that’s off the coast of Washington and therefore doesn’t have to deal with upwelling waters. This has given the company a respite from ocean acidification, but the years that the company spent trying to grow larvae off the coast of Washington were difficult. And they weren’t the only oyster companies struggling, she said.

“Back in 2006 and 2007, hatcheries were struggling drastically,” Nisbet-Moncy said. “We took a production hit because we couldn’t get enough oyster larvae to set out in oyster beds — two years of not having enough oyster larvae was a big hit for our company. We’re just now getting back into real full-time production.”

Now, Nisbet-Moncy’s company’s larvae is hatched in Hawaii, then shipped to Washington and grown on Goose Point’s oyster farms. Nisbet-Moncy said she hadn’t read the NCA, but she’s worried that ocean acidicification is only going to get worse in Washington.

“At this point, unless we’re able to reduce our carbon footprint, I think we’re on a conveyor belt,” she said. “I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it can get any better. If sea water comes back up 50 years later, any changes that we make here in the next decade — our grandchildren will see those changes.”

The added carbon dioxide emissions from human activity is a creeping threat, conveyor belt or not. “When the upwelled water was last at the surface, it was exposed to an atmosphere with much lower CO2 levels than today’s,” according to Oregon State University Professor Burke Hales. “The water that will upwell off the coast in future years already is making its undersea trek toward us, with ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide and acidity.”

“If we’re right on the edge now based on a starting point of 310 parts per million, we may have to assume that CO2 levels will gradually increase through the next half century as the water that originally was exposed to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is cycled through the system.”

The NCA report points out that even Nisbet-Moncy’s oyster bed refuge in Hawaii already faces threats from ocean acidification, and a 2012 study suggested that tropic ocean areas will be the first to feel the impact.

Ocean acidification isn’t the only climate impact threatening Washington’s marine environments and coastlines. The assessment points to sea level rise, too, as a threat for the coastal state, along with its neighbor Oregon. Right now, the report states, much of the Northwest is rising due to tectonic uplift, so sea level rise isn’t as apparent there as in other regions. An earthquake, however, would quickly change that.

“A major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, expected within the next few hundred years, would immediately reverse centuries of uplift and, based on historical evidence, increase relative sea level 40 inches or more,” the report reads. “On the other hand, some Puget Sound locations are currently experiencing subsidence (where land is sinking or settling) and could see the reverse effect, witnessing immediate uplift during a major earthquake and lowered relative sea levels.”

Many of the region’s wetlands and tidal flats are also at risk from habitat damage from sea level rise.

“Species such as shorebirds and forage fish (small fish eaten by larger fish, birds, or mammals) would be harmed, and coastal infrastructure and communities would be at greater risk from coastal storms,” the report states. In addition, “toxicity of some harmful algae appears to be increased by acidification.”

Besides ocean acidification, the Northwestern states face water availability threats from decreased snowpack, changes in growing seasons (which, the report points out, may actually help some Northwest crops), and, some scientists say, increased risk of landslides like the one that killed eight people in Washington earlier this year.

The West Coast’s forests, too, are grappling with climate change-exacerbated effects, including bark beetles and wildfires. Paul Barnum, Executive Director of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, a state-created agency that focuses on forest management, said wildfires were one of the gravest threats facing Oregon’s forests, not only due to climate change but due to long-term fire suppression that created fire-ready forest conditions. Pine beetles and more people moving near forests, he said, compound the problem.

Trees killed by a fire (left side of watershed) and trees killed by mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle infestations (orange and gray patches, right side of watershed) in subalpine forest in the Pasayten Wilderness, Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest, Washington, illustrates how cumulative disturbances can affect forests.

Trees killed by a fire (left side of watershed) and trees killed by mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle infestations (orange and gray patches, right side of watershed) in subalpine forest in the Pasayten Wilderness, Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest, Washington, illustrates how cumulative disturbances can affect forests.

CREDIT: Jeremy Littell, USGS/NCA

“You’ve had a lot of growth into the forests in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, so people wanting to live near forests,” he said. “This creates a strong incentive to put fires out quickly, and it also raises the risk of fires by human costs.”

Last year was one of Oregon’s worst fire seasons since 1951, Barnum said. In 2013, wildfires burned through 100,000 state-protected acres and cost the state $122 million in firefighting costs — a record-setting amount that Barnum said doesn’t include loss of property, loss of standing timber or the loss of business for people who run outdoor recreation companies.

Barnum said adequate forest management could help prevent some of the biggest fires, but that’s hard to do without funding. Over the past couple years, the U.S. Forest Service has run out of money to fight fires, right in the midst of wildlife season. Last year, however, Oregon’s governor put aside additional $2.88 million for forest management in eastern Oregon, which Barnum said has helped.

And Gov. Kitzhaber isn’t alone in taking steps to help protect his state from climate change. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a climate action plan into effect last month, which outlines ways that Washington can cut carbon pollution and promote use of clean energy. Inslee said the NCA “further illustrates the costs that we know climate change is already having on Washington state, and the unacceptable dangers posed by a future without action to reduce carbon pollution.”

“Fortunately, we have the knowledge and the tools to rise to this challenge. Washington state is uniquely positioned to lead in reducing carbon pollution, through the development of new clean energy technologies and increasing the energy efficiency of businesses and homes in our state,” he said in a statement. “This assessment confirms that the costs of inaction on climate change are unacceptable for our state, and our children’s future. This challenge is significant, but it is matched by tremendous opportunities.”

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