Oregon 2050 Forecast

This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and I’d like to say hello to all our friends in Oregon!

Now, Oregon is a state with very distinct geographical regions, big differences in precipitation, elevation, and landscape.  We’ve got the Willamette valley over near the coast, we’ve got these special places further inland, lovely valleys tucked into the center of the state, around Bend, and at the northern, southern, and western edges of the state, and we’re going to pay attention to each of these special places.  I’m gonna be honest with you.  Your state, I have less experience with your unique ecology than many other parts of the US.  There are a number of unique systems here, the relationships between the salmon and the forests as a prime example, and I’m far from an expert on these particulars on your regional ecology.  So I’m going to go gently, and try to stay aware of what I don’t know.

Your region, with the very unique ecology, is under-represented in the federal accounts.  Look here, they don’t even have you up on the toolkit yet: https://toolkit.climate.gov/#regions

But with these caveats, I do think we’ll be able to get you a lot of practical, useful information in which I am highly confident.  We’ll start with projected changes to the summer and the winter.

Let’s look at changes to the summer first.  We’ll see we have very uneven summer warming here.  The summer is going to stay fairly cool by the coast, in the Willamette Valley but we can see we are expecting dramatic warmups, months more summer heat, as we move further inland.  Let’s get really close so we can see changes in more populated areas.  We see that the extent to which you can expect a longer, warmer summer is really very dependent on where you are, so make sure you can come back and check this out for yourself, there’s a tutorial on how to use this mapping tool yourself on the channel.

Looking at changes to the winter, let’s check out the expected changes in plant hardiness zones.  Now with contemporary data, we can see there’s just an incredible cline through this state, you start out at 9 and go all the way up to 4, it’s just a remarkable spread.  I’m relieved to say that as we look at this, we’re talking about a much more moderate change picture.  Willamette Valley, very moderate change, that mild zone 9 area is increasing, moving further inland, and throughout the state we can see that plant hardiness zones will be increasing, but I want to draw your attention to something weird here.  Look at Bend, under the current conditions, and look at Bend now!

Now, this is the first time I’ve seen a place getting cooler!  I’ve been working on this project for five months, I look at these maps a LOT, and this is the first time I’ve seen this!  You can see that Bend, and these mountains just south of it, we’ve got this kind of anomalous pattern where these folks are moving DOWN a plant hardiness zone, and they’ve got pretty decent cool summer conservation, too.  I hear there’s some pretty good skiing there, nice to see a hopeful outlook for such an economically important activity, just great news for the community.  Particularly because, by and large, there will be decrease skiing opportunities in Oregon as we move towards mid-century.  You can see for yourself, that elsewhere in these mountains the winter lows are moving up, the winters are becoming milder, and according to the federal reports there is a trend towards particularly increased late winter/early spring warming, which will make for a real problem with snowpack loss.

The projected decrease in snowpack loss, that’s going to cause a lot of problems downstream.  Especially with the warming trend in the summers, the summers being longer and more intense, the soil is going to absorb more moisture, faster, and plants will need more water.  And there will be less water to go around, the snowpack won’t hold out as long, it won’t be as reliable a source of water as it has been for these landscapes for centuries.  This will impact the snowpack-fed streams and rivers, it will be harmful to the fish, and it will be harmful to the forests. 

We’ve already had the forests experiencing real harm.  Eastern Oregon impacted by tree death, I hear western and coastal, not so much.  Different kinds of trees there- trees that are going to be very sensitive to it getting dryer.  And that kind of tree stress, that’s often the most serious underlying cause of these terrible forest fires.  Oregon, I know you’re already dealing with those, and my heart goes out to you.  It’s going to continue to be a threat.  Managing forests to control fire, putting in fire breaks, managing the amount of fuel in the forest through controlled burns, making homes and communities fire-safe through landscaping choices, those are all important.  And I learned another lesson from the Deputy Director of the California DNR the other day, that most homes that burn, the fire burns them from the inside.  Embers get in, and that’s when you have the loss.  So as we work to build resiliency in our homes, that’s an important lesson.  To close up real good when you evacuate, to have a practiced procedure for sealing the home in case of very high fire danger.  The California DNR wants us all to learn this, this preparedness practice will save people’s homes. 

Let’s take a break from fire, talk about water.  We’ll start with sea level rise.  Sea level rise is going to happen, but not really really bad.  Just a foot, max, by 2050, let’s check go take a look.  Now, I know no one wants to see any beach loss, but if you’ve looked at how the coastline is going to change in the gulf, or on the vulnerable parts of the northeastern seaboard, or even down by LA, this is not a bad outlook, Oregon.  You’re looking at a little beach loss, but it’s really not bad.  There will be more storm surge, it’ll beat up the areas behind it more, you could potentially be looking at beach retreat instead of beach loss.  I’d choose retreat over loss, myself. 

I would be concerned about increased storm surge, and focus on that when you’re thinking about sea level rise, and I would also be concerned about handling big atmospheric rivers.  In the California forecast, I talked about the enormous consensus around atmospheric rivers.  They’re going to be more frequent, more intense, and they’re going to have a broader range, all up and down the Pacific coast.  Things are getting kinda wobbly, right?  So these lower-lying areas, the northern coastal areas in Oregon, designing infrastructure with large amounts of water in mind is going to be more important than ever. 

Speaking of water infrastructure,your water system in Oregon is very distributed, a lot of you are on single source well water.  Now, the groundwater isn’t in very bad shape now, but there is a probability that there will be more draw on the groundwater in the next thirty years.  So if you’re on a shallow well, less than 100 feet, you should know about it, and you should be prepared for a possible water transition.  You and your community might need a new well, and that’s not an expense you want as a surprise. 

So, we’ve identified several threats.  Snowpack decrease, wildfire increase, the increased possibility of both drought and wildfire increase.  You have already experienced a much more severe heatwave than we expected in the region for another ten years.  We’re talking about a lot of types of threats, severe threats, that will occur at increasing frequency.

And that’s happening, that elevated severe threat, in the context of a state that doesn’t have too much sea level rise, doesn’t have that much average summer or average winter change anticipated in its most populated areas, and that average summer and average winter climate, they’re both considered quite pleasant by most people. 

You are also in the context of some real advantages.  California is poised to suffer some serious agricultural losses.  There are a number of high value crops, grape crops, other berries, other table crops, that will be able to move profitably into Oregon.  And, as I’m sure you are already experiencing, people are going to be moving from California into Oregon, but I imagine that, on the whole, you’d really rather not see those property prices increase so much more than they already have. 

In Oregon, you’ve been dealt this good base hand.  Really good, really manageable baseline change.  But you’ve also picked up this very dangerous wildcard.  Disasters are going to hit you, faster than you’d like, some years more of them together than you’d like, and some years are going to be good years.  You’re going to need incredible flexibility in your adaptation strategies, you’re going to need to be very resilient, very able to bounce back.  Oregon is the state so far where I see the most need for serious investment in multiple water strategies for agriculture, a real need to be able to pivot between surface and ground water. 

This is a different risk profile than we’ve had in other states, and I think that’s part of why there’s sort of a shying away from it, in the collected federal resources.  There are going to be years where this is one of the best, most agriculturally productive, most pleasant parts of the country.  And there are going to be years where Oregon needs major disaster aid.  That’s not a risk profile we’re used to considering.  But that does look to be Oregon’s 2050 future.  If this is where you choose to settle, I wish you a balance of many good years, and all the help and care you need from the rest of us in the bad ones. 

From a big picture perspective, thinking about what Oregon offers the country in 2050- probably the best wine in the country will be made in Oregon, much of the best fruit, and, God willing, some good skiing still, and those beautiful coastal forests.  A huge, crucial, natural resource economy, on top of those things.  It should make us think about the importance of building resilience and relationships across regions, how many wonderful things we can make and grow and trade here in the US.  And that to have that richness, we will need to help each other.  Particularly in the Pacific Northwest, there’s going to be years where the cards fall all wrong.  But they’re building incredible resilience in the region.  The people of Oregon are making huge efforts, we all know that.  But there is no being so resilient that we can stand alone.  We gotta get our hearts ready for these changes, too.  Maintain a flexibility, an openness to give.

This is Dr. Schoerning with AR, signing out.  Please like and subscribe, help get the message out there.  There is hope.  We can prepare for what’s coming.  Let’s get ready.