Feeling a bit warm? You may just have to live with it
KING COUNTY, WASH.--From a chopper buzzing the forested foothills of the Cascade mountains just outside Seattle, County Executive Ron Sims describes this as "a good year." The craggy canvas below is a gorgeous bottle green. The lakelike reservoirs are nearly full. Crisp-white snow caps much of the Cascade Range. It's everything one would expect in this cool, water-rich corner of the world. But residents here worry that the "good years" are becoming increasingly rare. According to scientists at the University of Washington, the Pacific Northwest has gotten warmer by 1.5 degrees since 1900, about a half-degree higher than the global average. That might not seem like much, but the effects are being noticed here, particularly in the amount of snow in the Cascades. Since 1949, snowpack in the lower mountain range, a primary source of water for the area, has declined 50 percent, raising the odd specter of water shortages in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
The culprit is unusually warm weather, which is melting snowpack and changing the precipitation cycle. More water is falling as rain--and being lost as runoff--and less is falling as mountain snow, a natural banking system that holds the precipitation until the spring, when it melts to fill reservoirs for the dry summer season. "Our water system is based on snowmelt," Sims says. "But we're continually losing huge volumes."
The problem snapped into focus over the past two years, when the state was hit by a severe drought--the kind of extreme weather fluctuation that scientists expect will become more common as temperatures climb. The governor declared a statewide emergency. Ski resorts closed. Rivers and reservoirs fell to dangerous lows. For Sims, the water crisis was a worrisome sign of things to come. "How are we going to meet the needs of people and fish," he asks, "when the snowmelt is going away?"
It's a question haunting the 58-year-old Sims, who has made fighting the effects of climate change a central theme for much of his 10-year tenure as county executive. The quest puts him on the front line of what is shaping up to be the next battle in the climate-change wars: preparing for and adapting to a warmer climate. Even if people everywhere unplugged their appliances, left their cars home, and shuttered their factories today, enough fossil fuel emissions are already in the atmosphere to heat up the planet an additional 1 degree Fahrenheit this century, experts say. In reality, however, emissions are increasing--and scenarios put the likely temperature increases at 2.5 to 8 degrees over the same span. While politicians wrangle over mitigation, i.e., cutting emissions of gases like carbon dioxide and methane, some environmentalists and policymakers are increasingly focusing on the controversial concept of adaptation--preparing for changes increasingly seen as inevitable. Adaptation has long been the third rail of green politics for fear it would pull the focus away from fixing the problem. For many, however, the next debate in the climate-change debate is not why the planet is warming, or if we can stop it. It is this: How do we live with it?