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Jan. 28, 2023

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Changing climate an issue for Clark County farms, air, wildlife and rivers

With a reversal of climate change becoming increasingly unlikely, ecosystems — and humans — must adjust accordingly

By , Columbian staff writer
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9 Photos
Mount Hood can be seen as Greg Valdivia of Northwest Organic Farms in Ridgefield prepares soil for future planting on April 7.
Mount Hood can be seen as Greg Valdivia of Northwest Organic Farms in Ridgefield prepares soil for future planting on April 7. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Northwest Organic Farms prides itself on supplying Clark County and Portland with various fruits and vegetables grown in its 5 acres of chemical-free soil.

However, this labor of love is becoming more fickle.

Greg Valdivia, co-owner of Northwest Organic Farms, said his crops are at a greater risk of succumbing to intensifying heat as the climate continues to warm. He does whatever he can to adapt, even if that means collecting rainwater to use during the spring.

“You can’t really cut back on much, because you’re only doing what you can to make a living,” said Joyce Haines, Valdivia’s wife and Northwest Organic co-owner.

As a certified Community Supported Agriculture farm, Haines and Valdivia work directly with consumers to provide fresh produce, and the revenue goes directly back into the local economy. This year, the couple are afraid they’ll have to reduce what they provide to their customers — again.

Crop yields were considerably lower after the 2021 heat dome; Haines and Valdivia lost nearly half of their expected returns. Plants died because of the heat, and there wasn’t enough water to sustain the quickly drying soil.

To further exacerbate fears surrounding the farm’s future, there isn’t any financial protection for small farmers to recover from such a loss, Haines said.

“It wasn’t good,” she added. “There was no help.”

Hot trends

Southwest Washington’s summer heat waves are getting hotter and lasting longer every year.

Recorded temperatures at Portland International Airport, which closely mirrors conditions in much of Clark County, show an overall increase of 4 degrees since 1940.

While this shift may seem incremental, its implications are far-reaching. The number of days above 90 degrees has increased over the past 30 years, and intense heat waves are more frequent, posing a risk to both the environment and people living in the region.

The magnitude of extreme heat is projected to grow, said Paul Loikith, director of the Portland State University Climate Science Lab. He said events caused by high heat are expected in a natural cycle, but the conditions are intensified by human-caused greenhouse gases.

Southwest Washington may not be experiencing severe drought conditions like those developing east of the Cascades, nor does the Pacific Northwest face extreme precipitation or tropical systems like other parts of the country. Instead, the main concern involves the heightened risk of wildfire consuming dry forests, subsequently worsening air quality and residents’ health.

In 2021, more than 670,000 acres burned in Washington, which was down from 2020, when more than 840,000 acres burned. Winds carried smoke from forests sometimes hundreds of miles away and left Southwest Washington in a haze.

Uri Papish, Southwest Clean Air Agency executive director, said the poor air quality poses a severe health risk, as seen during the previous summers. Short- and long-term exposure to polluted air can trigger asthma, heart attacks and cancer — in both humans and animals.

“It’s a good idea to start preparing for bad wildfires and poor air quality, and be happy if it doesn’t happen,” Papish said.

Scorched forests

Daniel DePinte routinely takes an aircraft up to 1,000 feet above forests to diagnose their ailments, whether they’re caused by insects, diseases or abiotic influences — including climate change. As a U.S. Forest Service aerial survey coordinator, he has witnessed several wildfires firsthand. He said conditions leading to wildfires, once expected but infrequent, are being exacerbated by increasing summer temperatures and a lack of moisture.

When the 2021 heat dome settled over the Pacific Northwest, shattering long-held heat records throughout the region, proteins in trees came apart as the sun beat down on their needles, leaves and branches.

Forest dwellers and birds in their nests succumbed to the severe exposure; the weather pattern was sudden and unprecedented and left them ill prepared to adapt or flee. A literal sunburn on the Earth’s face could be seen from the sky and reflected the demise of wildlife, DePinte said.

The rapid moisture loss caused by such conditions isn’t sustainable for the wooden giants to survive, compromising the millennia of adaptations they’ve made in the ecosystem, DePinte said. Still, they will try.

Forests shift to taking in as much water as they need to live, leaving a trail of dead trunks where extreme drought dried the soil, DePinte said. To illustrate, Ponderosa pines at the base of a mountain might die, but the trees grow farther upslope, where there is more moisture; more drought-tolerant trees will fill the space where the pines once stood.

Fish at risk

In the Columbia River, fish species are at risk of going extinct.

Lauren Goldberg, Columbia Riverkeeper’s legal and program director, said summer water temperatures in the river currently remains above the scientifically accepted 60-degree threshold for fish survival. At this point, salmon traveling in the river are more susceptible to disease and heat exhaustion.

These conditions pose an increasing threat to the survival of the Columbia’s fish species, as large numbers of adult salmon are dying before they can spawn, Goldberg said. In 2015, about 250,000 sockeye perished in the Columbia and Snake rivers, indicating conditions that may threaten the survival of the fish in future climates.

In 2021, Columbia Riverkeeper captured underwater footage of salmon that were literally cooked by the hot conditions, according to Goldberg. They were far from their expected spawning location in mountain streams, as the fish sought refuge in cool tributaries along the way.

“Salmon are the iconic species of the Pacific Northwest,” Goldberg said. “It should give everyone who lives in this incredible place pause and inspire all of us to do everything that we can right now to combat the climate crisis.”

Goldberg said climate issues aren’t the only causes of fish deaths, as the management of the river is a cause for concern. She pointed the Columbia and Snake rivers’ hydroelectric dams, which raise water temperatures as the slack water reservoirs absorb more sunlight.

In mid-October, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee said they would pursue finding solutions to aid salmon recovery, which included possibly breaching dams on the lower Snake River. State and federal recommendations will be delivered by July 31, they wrote in a joint statement. Altering the dams requires Congress’ approval.

Conservationists say the move is vital to the prosperity of future salmon and steelhead; others hold reservations regarding its likelihood and efficiency.

The reduction of fish stocks has direct impacts on Indigenous communities that rely on them, but the issue has a far broader reach, Goldberg said, including local economies.

“Salmon is worth more than its weight in gold,” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

The American Sportfishing Association estimated that Southwest Washington anglers contributed $237.2 million to the state’s economy in 2020.

Inequitable outcomes

Vivek Shandas, a Portland State University professor of climate adaptation, said the composition of neighborhoods and districts affects their heat absorption. While spaces with tree canopies provide more shade, concrete or cinder block buildings absorb more of the sun’s radiation and amplify its heat.

Roads bend, rail lines crack and electricity lines melt under intense heat conditions. Infrastructure in cities and neighborhoods was not engineered to withstand these sorts of conditions.

“We’re potentially crossing that threshold of the conditions for which the infrastructure was designed and, after some years of wear and tear, it’s even less capable of safeguarding us from these heat events,” Shandas said.

With minimum tree coverage and hot pavement, urban heat islands take hold in congested areas. In older apartments without air conditioning, internal temperatures can be several degrees hotter than outdoors, Shandas said. In Portland, people died alone in their homes during the 2021 heat dome because of the extreme conditions, according to reporting by the Willamette Week.

To prevent overexposure to heat, a common response is to blast the air conditioning or go on an impromptu trip to the beach. Yet not everyone has the resources to cope.

It creates an inequitable situation for low-income communities.

“It’s deeply a social issue,” Shandas said.

One’s ability to reduce health impacts from intense heat is dependent on their financial and social resources, Shandas said. Air conditioners are costly, road trips to the beach require a car and time, and not everyone has a family member or friend who can support them — even in times of desperation.

Dehydration, sunburn, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and other complications arise when one’s body is unable to regulate heat effectively. According to the Washington Department of Health, people over 65 years old, infants and individuals on certain medications are at a higher risk of heat-related illnesses.

As temperatures continue to rise, these heat-related illnesses are becoming more common, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

From late June to mid-July 2021, temperatures in our region reached 116 degrees — 42 degrees hotter than the average June temperature.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 1,038 people sought emergency services to address heat-related illnesses on June 28 in the region, including Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. There were only nine visits to emergency departments on the same date in 2019.

People experiencing homelessness are at a greater risk during periods of extreme heat, which is exacerbated by their scarcity of cooling resources. For this reason, heat waves pose more dangers to these populations than winter conditions, said Laura Ellsworth, Council for the Homeless strategic partnerships and advocacy manager.

The Council for the Homeless’ severe weather task force partners with local organizations to deliver cold water, sunscreen and protective hats to unsheltered people, yet helping those seeking respite remains difficult.

Moving forward

Humans have committed to a reality in which the globe will continue to warm, and communities will have to adapt accordingly. Earth takes years to fully adjust in temperature to change in greenhouse gas concentrations, Loikith said, and reversing current effects is not realistic.

However, scientists and policy makers have all the information necessary to build resilience for future generations, Loikith noted; everyone just needs to get onboard.

“Anything that’s done to reduce emissions today will reduce the magnitude of warming in the future, even though it won’t reverse the changes that we have experienced,” Loikith said.

Regardless of the conditions, Valdivia will continue to farm because there is value in working in the dirt. He’ll do it without the support of chemicals or genetically modified materials — even if that ensures the farm’s success — furthering the couple’s desire to maintain its natural operations.

“It’s hard work, (but) my heart loves doing this,” he said.