Public discussion of global warming is often caught in a vortex of misinformation perpetuated by extreme forces who say it’s all just a big hoax. This often causes the most relevant scientific questions to get lost, suggests Washington State climatologist Philip Mote, PhD, who has been working for years to understand climate changes brought about by human activity. 

What we should be talking about when we discuss climate change, Dr. Mote suggests, is no longer if it’s occurring, but how and where. Further, what lasting impacts will climate change have on individual regions like the Pacific Northwest—and, most important, what can we do about it? 

“Climate change is real, and it is a problem,” says Dr. Mote, a researcher with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group and an affiliate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s going to exacerbate all sorts of economic and environmental problems, and in the next few decades we could be determining events that will happen thousands of years from now.” 

Dr. Mote has spent years tracking climate trends in the Pacific Northwest—in particular, the Columbia river basin, which encompasses most of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and a large part of British Columbia. He and his colleagues look specifically at the annual mountain snowpack, which is determined by the weight of a sample of snow taken from a carefully selected spot each year on April 1, when the snow is at its thickest. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been collecting such snow cores every year at more than a thousand locations scattered around the west for decades because nothing is more relevant to Pacific Northwest agriculture than winter snowfall. As the heat returns to the mountains in the spring and the snow melts, the runoff feeds the region’s streams and rivers. Such stream water is the lifeblood of agriculture in the west, where surface sources provide most of the region’s freshwater. 

But the snowpack samples are also something more. They provide a climate record of the mountains because some of the sites have been operating for half a century. And the climate record shows declines in annual snowpack in many of the locations where snow cores are collected. As the snowfall decreases, the runoff volume is less, which means less water is available. 

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this story.

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