OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Five new, short online videos discuss climate change at the Oregon coast

01/08/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Concerns about climate change voiced by Oregon coast residents are addressed in a set of short, on-line videos produced by Oregon Sea Grant at Oregon State University.

Those concerns, expressed through both interviews and a 2008 Sea Grant survey of 300 coastal Oregonians, frame the topics of the videos: How scientists predict climate change, the shoreline effects of climate change, the broader coastal and ocean effects, and what state and local governments are doing in response.

In an introductory video, producer Joe Cone emphasizes that the focus of this project is not on fighting global warming, but on helping coastal residents and communities understand and prepare for the likely effects of the changes it will produce.

The videos, hosted by Sea Grant climate change specialists, feature interviews with subject experts  including scientists from OSU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Oregon coastal planners. The videos are available to view online at:

http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/research/ClimateChange/oregon-video.html.

The videos are part of a broader community-engagement project supported in part by a grant from the NOAA Climate Program Office.

“Climate change is of course a big and complex topic,” said Cone, assistant director of Oregon Sea Grant, “and no single, short presentation is capable of providing all that each viewer might want to know. Our intent was to provide a solid foundation for the Oregon coast on issues of concern.”

In one video, OSU climate researcher Andreas Schmittner helps make climate models – which often are misunderstood by non-scientists – much more approachable.

“There is no one climate model,” Schmittner noted, “but a whole hierarchy of models, starting from very simple models that only predict the global average air temperature on the earth. That is only one equation, and you can solve it on a piece of paper with a pen. And the range goes up to very complex models that solve many millions of equations on supercomputers and include all the components of the climate system, such as the atmosphere, the oceans, ice, and biological systems.”

Scientists are certain about some elements of models, Schmittner says, such as the global average temperature changes. However, recognizing that some people are skeptical about computer modeling, the Sea Grant videos also highlight scientists who use physical instruments to gather climate data.

OSU geoscientist Edward Brook, for instance, extracts the air trapped in small bubbles in ice cored out of polar regions.

“We build specialized instruments to be able to put the ice samples under vacuum, in a very clean fashion so that the sample isn’t contaminated,” Brook said, “and then extract that small amount of air and analyze it.” From such research Brook and others are able to reconstruct a long-term history of the relationship between increasing greenhouse gases and atmospheric temperature.

Another OSU researcher, wave specialist Peter Ruggiero, uses measurements of wave heights from buoys off the Oregon and Washington coasts, another process that’s been affected by climate change and variability.

“The mean winter wave heights have been increasing at a steady rate over the last several decades,” said Ruggiero, “while over that same 30-year time period where we’ve been measuring the waves, the annual maximum wave height has increased by about three meters.” 

The increase in maximum wave heights can affect shoreline erosion and retreat – on the order of potentially 100 feet inland in some locations by later in this century.

State and local officials are alert to the potential effects of climate change and are making preparations. In the government response episode, Bob Bailey, head of the Oregon Coastal Management Program, notes that “Oregon has a great advantage in having a land-use planning program in every jurisdiction. So right there we’re a step ahead of many, many other areas in the country, in that there’s a framework. There’s a certain level of understanding and professional capacity.”

“I feel we’ve got the basic policy toolkit to deal with climate change across a variety of effects,” Bailey pointed out. However, he added, that “to engage citizens, to work through schools, to really help people understand and mobilize for this effort, it will take some resources. And we really don’t have them right now.”

Matt Spangler, interviewed while director of the Lincoln County Planning Division, concurs that mobilization is still in very early stages.

“There’s just so much uncertainty,” Spangler said. “We understand quite a bit qualitatively, but to really put numbers and quantify the effects of climate change is very difficult right now.”

Yet, on-the-ground changes are being noticed, says Tony Stein, the north coast land-use coordinator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “What we’re seeing in the last 10 years or so is a trend toward larger waves, more frequent storms and higher tide surges,” Stein said, “so some of the shoreline structures that we have are receiving more of a pounding. Some of these really weren’t designed for the sort of regime we’re in now.”

Stein expects to see applications for new permits for shoreline structures that will be designed “much tougher – either large rocks or construction of a size that can withstand some of the pressure that we’re seeing.”

Just offshore are other apparent early signs of a changing climate. OSU oceanographer Jack Barth discusses the low-oxygen “dead zone” that has become a regular summer event off the Oregon coast that researchers say is consistent with climate change models. Richard Feely, an ocean chemist with NOAA in Seattle, describes the companion problems associated with increasing acidity in the ocean, driven by increasing carbon dioxide being absorbed by the ocean. Ocean acidification may have far-reaching effects on the oceanic food web.