The Climate CIRCulator is brought to you by The Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC) and The Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI).

Featured Researcher
Susan Capalbo:
The Economics of
Climate Change

Professor Susan Capalbo, who heads OSU's Department of Applied Economics, researches a very important but often neglected subject: the economics of climate change.

The applied econ bug first bit Capalbo in the early 1980s at the University of California, Davis, where she received her Ph.D. in agricultural economics. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when she started working at Montana State University, Bozeman, that climate change and economics started mingling in her mind. She realized that regulations might push coal-abundant Montana to keep that economy-supporting yet dirty fossil fuel in the ground. This piqued Capalbo’s interest in carbon sequestering.

In practice, sequestering usually refers to a mechanized process that involves capturing power plant CO2 before it hits the atmosphere, then “sequestering” the gas underground. However, sequestering also refers to how CO2-inhaling plants — the chlorophyll-filled, not the coal-burning kind of plant — might offset industry’s emissions. Capalbo has examined both sequester types. On the green plant side, she’s been rolling up her economist’s sleeves.

Capalbo is currently co-principal investigator on a USDA grant examining adaptation of cereal production to climate change. The project is halfway done, but has already shown some interesting results, says Capalbo. On climate change’s potential ills, she says effective policies will have to consider economics. She’s also not given up on that other type of sequestration.

“If we really want to continue using fossil fuels for power, we have got to do something about the CO2 emissions,” she says.

Salmon massing for spawning (©Joel Rogers)

Salmon and Steelhead
Less CO2 Means More Money for Recreational Coldwater Fisheries

Coldwater fishes, including salmon and steelhead, have enormous cultural and economic importance to communities in the Pacific Northwest. On top of the current challenges facing these species, climate change likely will complicate their survival further as summer stream flows decrease and stream temperatures increase.

Diana Lane and colleagues estimate the economic impact of climate change on these recreational fisheries in a recent study. Using a single global climate model along with a hydrological model to project changes to suitable stream habitat, they scaled their analysis to the current “climate forcing,” which is about 2.3 watts per square meter. (Typical Christmas lights use 0.4-10 watts of energy; think of one bulb per square meter over the whole surface of the Earth.) They then combined production estimates with an economic model to estimate changes to recreational fishing efforts.

They found that policies limiting climate forcing to 3.7 watts per square meter by the end of the 21st century would avoid more than $1.2 billion in economic losses from recreational fishing, compared to a business-as-usual scenario of 10 watts per square meter where global carbon dioxide concentrations reach 1,750 parts per million. The 4.5 watts per meter scenario resulted in nearly $1.1 billion in avoided losses. These estimates are based on studies indicating that recreational fishers are willing to pay up to $60 above actual expenses per trip for a more enjoyable fishing experience.

The estimates of avoided losses may also be conservative because the model assumes no barriers to fish movement, and the authors calculate stream flow and temperature thresholds for the brown trout (Salmo trutta), one of the more tolerant species of coldwater fishes. The study also provides estimates for warm-water fisheries and coral reefs in other parts of the United States.

Editorial Note: The “business-as-usual” scenario described above is higher than the highest “representative concentration pathway” scenario, RCP 8.5, which has a climate forcing of 8.5 watts per square meter by 2100.
Lane, Diana et al., (published online 2014). Climate change impacts on freshwater fish, coral reefs, and related ecosystem services in the United States, Climatic Change, This article is part of a special issue on “A Multi-Model Framework to Achieve Consistent Evaluation of Climate Impacts in the US.”

Columbia River Basin, Mica Dam Spillway, British Columbia (©Tim Palmer)

Climate Science
Powerful New Tools Boost Decadal Climate Prediction

A new approach to climate simulation is showing great promise for predicting future changes in temperature and precipitation across western North America.

A set of experiments has compared observed oceanic and atmospheric evolution against the results of two types of climate simulation: “initialized” and “uninitialized” simulations, according to Gerald Meehl and colleagues. Initialized simulations specify variables such as currents and temperature at the start of the simulation using real-world data for a specific date. Uninitialized simulations specify those variables using something less tied to the real world, usually from a long simulation of the same model. As Meehl and colleagues report, initialized simulations did a noticeably better job of representing features of the recent climate history, like the observed temperature-change pattern in 1977 as well as the so-called “hiatus” of the early 2000s, than did uninitialized simulations.

In the latest Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5), as the researchers explain, most global modeling groups conducted coordinated “hindcasting” experiments for the first time. For these experiments, the groups ran 30-year predictions starting every five years since 1960. These results could have far-reaching consequences for the field of decadal climate prediction — that is, projections for up to 10 years from a current real-world starting point. A map of temperature change for 2016 - 2020, for example, showed that the initialized predictions indicate somewhat less warming than the uninitialized predictions.

Meehl also found that of all the ocean basins, the North Pacific has the lowest predictive skill on these timescales (one to nine years). This maybe be surprising to many people because El Niño — a pattern of inter-annual variability in the tropical Pacific — is the most robust and predictable non-seasonal feature of the climate system for timescales less than a year. One possible reason for this low prediction skill on longer timescales, writes Meehl, is that the Pacific is “inherently more sensitive to initial-state uncertainty.” In addition, the mechanism generating internal decadal climate variability in the Pacific is unknown. Despite the poor predictive skill over the North Pacific, projections of temperature and precipitation over western North America still have predictive skill comparable to the rest of the continental United States.

Our editorial view: This is a promising line of research that may have important value for the Northwest’s natural resources management.
Meehl, Gerald et al. (2014). Decadal Climate Prediction: An Update from the Trenches, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 95, 2, 243-267, doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00241.1

Burned forest and glaciers on Mount Adams, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington   (©Tim Palmer)

High-Altitude Stations
Are Observational Networks
Missing a Decline in Precipitation?

In the Western United States, some 75 percent of the precipitation falls in the mountains. Not surprisingly, then, researchers and managers count on accurate precipitation measures from their high-altitude weather stations. But the mountains themselves could be preventing accurate measures. That’s because the distribution of stations is inadequate to measure certain important climatic changes.

That’s the conclusion of Michael Dettinger’s recent note in the journal Nature Geoscience. The paper, “Impacts in the Third Dimension,” provides an overview of research into a unique problem: In the late 2000s, climate scientists diagnosed a decline in the Pacific Northwest’s streamflows, yet the region’s mountain observational network didn’t register a corresponding decline in precipitation.

Dettinger references the paper of Charles Luce and colleagues in Science [featured in the January 2014 issue of the CIRCulator]. Luce’s paper ties the low steamflows to a “climate-change-induced slowdown in the westerly winds that normally bring mountain rain and snow,” writes Dettinger. Luce concluded that these westerly winds declined enough to noticeably affect the amount of mountain precipitation and, consequently, streamflow. So how did this differ from observations collected at weather stations? According to Dettinger, the difference was noticeble and originates because there are so few mountain weather stations.

If Luce is right, Dettinger concludes, then a 15 percent decline in mountain, or "orographic," precipitation must have eluded the region’s high-altitude, observational network. However, this makes sense. Getting high-quality precipitation observations at high altitudes can be difficult, so there are very few long-term weather stations at high altitudes.

Dettinger ties the missed precipitation measurements to the difficulties many stations face, including harsh weather, complex topography, and the sheer distances of mountain weather stations from towns and cities.

However, Dettinger was not entirely convinced by Luce’s methodology. He writes,“[It] is not yet clear how much the decline in high-altitude precipitation change in the Pacific Northwest can be generalized [to other parts of the world].”

Dettinger ends his paper with a call for better observational data and climate modeling that can account for mountain ranges’ complex topography, a move he refers to as paying “more attention to the crucial third dimension.”
Dettinger, Michael (2014). Climate change: Impacts in the third dimension, Nature Geoscience, 7, 166–167, doi:10.1038/ngeo2096

IPCC Climate Change 2014
Summaries for Policymakers
Provide Guidance for Action

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released the summaries for policymakers for the reports by Working Groups 2 and 3. They are highlighted below. (Last fall’s report from Working Group 1 was highlighted in the March 2014 issue of the CIRCulator.)

Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability

Working Group 2 has created a practical "guide to action," evaluating current and future patterns of risks and potential benefits from climate variability and change. Using social science to suggest how policies can be adjusted and communities can adapt, the report analyzes impacts, risks, values and co-benefits. Specifically, it “assesses needs, options, opportunities, constraints, resilience, limits, and other aspects associated with adaptation.” Five “reasons for concern” provide a framework for assessing risks across contexts, through time, either cumulatively or from single events, and at what scales (local to global), to judge when impacts may become dangerous across regions and sectors.

As summarized in the journal Science by Eli Kintisch, the report discusses categories of climate risks that will begin to appear when global average temperature rises by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius and that will become worse at higher temperatures. They are:
  1. Death or harm from coastal flooding
  2. Harm or economic losses from inland flooding
  3. Extreme weather disrupting electrical, emergency, or other systems
  4. Extreme heat, especially for the urban and rural poor
  5. Food insecurity linked to warming, drought or flooding
  6. Water shortages causing agricultural or economic losses
  7. Loss of marine ecosystems essential to fishing and other communities
  8. Loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems
The summary includes a number of points relevant to the Pacific Northwest (shown here along with the scientists’ levels of assessed confidence):
  • Changing precipitation and melting are altering hydrological systems and runoff patterns and are impacting water quantity and quality (medium confidence)
  • Glaciers will continue to shrink worldwide; terrestrial and aquatic species “have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions”; ocean acidification poses substantial risks to shellfish; and negative impacts on crops such as wheat are more common than positive (high confidence)
  • Many human systems and some ecosystems are vulnerable to extreme events, such as floods, drought and wildfires under current climate variability (very high confidence)
Adaptation in the United States is becoming prevalent in planning processes, especially at the local community and municipal levels of government and particularly for disaster risk and water management. Adaptation generally is incremental, but there is some evidence that flexible and adaptive management solutions are being implemented. The report notes (with low confidence) that global costs of adaptation have been estimated between $70 billion and $100 billion per year by 2050.

Mitigation of Climate Change

Working Group 3 reports on the scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of mitigation of climate change. The report also assesses mitigation options based on governance, economic activity, and societal implications of policy interventions but does not recommend any particular option for mitigation. Climate policy may be informed by a diverse array of risks and uncertainties, some of which are difficult to measure, notably low-probability, high-consequence events.

Under international agreement (the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992) the goal of global mitigation is stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. However, acceptable means and associated risks will be based on political, economic, cultural, ethical and value-based considerations. Ultimately, stabilization should be achieved within a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensure food production, and enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions. The contribution of population growth between 2000 and 2010 remained roughly identical to the previous three decades, while the contribution of economic growth has risen sharply. About half of cumulative CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred in the last 40 years. Annual emissions have increased by 10 gigatons between 2000 and 2010, with this increase directly coming from energy supply (47 percent), industry (30 percent), transport (11 percent), and buildings (3 percent).

Effective costs of mitigation vary widely, but without additional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist. A target of 450 parts per million or less in atmospheric CO2 concentrations likely is needed to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, necessitating 40 to 70 percent cuts in emissions by mid-century through large-scale changes in energy systems, buildings and infrastructure, transportation, urbanization, forestry, agricultural and land-use practices (high confidence, medium to high robustness, medium to high agreement).

Science 4 April 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6179 p. 21 DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6179.21 Climate Science: In New Report, IPCC Gets More Specific About Warming Risks by Eli Kintisch

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability - SUMMARY FOR POLICYMAKERS WGII AR5 Phase I Report Launch 31 March 2014

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (Working Group 3) - SUMMARY FOR POLICYMAKERS


The upper part of the March 22, 2014, landslide in northwest Washington as it appeared on March 27 (Jonathan Godt, USGS)

A Tricky Link to Make
Devastating Oso Landslide
Sparks Climate Speculation

The landslide that buried a valley of homes outside Oso, Washington, on March 22 has, as of this writing, claimed the lives of 41 people. Two are still missing. After the tragedy, some news outlets attempted to link the tragedy to anthropogenic climate change. But how solid is that link?

One factor in the slide was the heavy rainfall in the weeks preceding the event, according to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist. February and March were very wet across the Pacific Northwest, including the Oso area. Data collected from four weather stations surrounding the landslide showed significantly more precipitation than usual for late winter. Still, the amounts were not unprecedented.

What’s more, the two wettest periods in the unusually wet months were March 2-6 and March 15-19. By the date of the slide, the heavy rains had already stopped. So tying the landslide directly to the heavy downpour is tricky.

Trickier still is tying the slide to climate change. News media have pointed to historical data showing that Washington has been both warmer and wetter since widespread regional measurements began in the 1920s. Many climate models project that the Pacific Northwest will be warmer and wetter in the future. Therefore, the argument continues, landslides will also be more prevalent in the future.

This argument, however, oversimplifies things. Multiple global climate models suggest that the Pacific Northwest may warm up anywhere from 2 degrees to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The same models project that the region may get slightly wetter during winter and on an annual basis. However, projected precipitation increases are less than 10 percent in most models. In fact, some models project the region will get drier. In other words, natural variability continues to dominate the region’s overall precipitation trends.

Our editorial view: The Oso landslide is a terrible tragedy regardless of its cause and tying that tragedy to climate change is misleading at best.

The Climate CIRCulator is brought to you by The Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC). CIRC delivers science, information, and tools to decision makers responsible for the management of  resources and services in a changing climate. Our team consists of experts from Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, the University of Idaho, Boise State University, and the University of Washington. CIRC is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and housed in the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) at Oregon State University. The OCCRI brochure can be downloaded  here.
The Climate CIRCulator, April, 2014, Issue 4.
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