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Tuesday, November 9, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Things Could Get Hot By 2050

Seattle Times Science Reporter

If you thought El Nino was a rough ride, just wait half a century.

A squad of University of Washington researchers today predicted widespread climate problems by the year 2050 and called for a coordinated approach to contain the damage.

Among researchers predictions: Average increases in the annual temperature well above anything wrought by the Pacific-driven weather phenomenon of El Nino, water shortages, diminished snow pack, wetter winters, decreased forest productivity, increased wildfires, and ever-more-threatened salmon runs.

While global climate models predict an average temperature increase of 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit, seven climate simulations run by area researchers said the Northwest can expect a warming of about 2 degrees by the 2020s and 4 degrees by the 2050s.

"Before long, the coolest years of the next century will be warmer than anything we've seen this century," said Philip Mote, lead author of the report released today and an atmospheric scientist for the UW's Climate Impacts Group.

The Pacific Northwest report is the first publicly released regional analysis for the National Assessment of the Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, a project mandated by Congress in 1990.

Climate-change predictions are an almost daily occurrence.

Last week, the Ecological Society of America and the Union of Concerned Scientists released results of a two-year study concluding that global warming could raise temperatures in California, leading to more flooding, landslides, droughts and wildfires.

The California study, based on 1995 climate models by a United Nations panel of experts, laid out a scenario in which the next 30 to 50 years would see average winter temperatures rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer temperatures would rise 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many of the Climate Impacts Group's findings have been circulating for months. A handful of state senators got a briefing on them last spring; they were mentioned in a July report of Climate Solutions, an Olympia-based conservation group; and in July, they were published in the Journal of Climate.

But today's report combined the latest scientific research while criticizing the short-term thinking of resource managers and other government agencies.

While the exact timing of the coming climate change is not certain, such changes will come, said Mote, the lead author of the report. To wait until the last minute, he said, is like waiting for your car's brakes to fail before visiting the mechanic.

Nathan Mantua, research scientist for the group, said significant institutional barriers get in the way of resource managers, who stand to be singled out or even fired if they deviate from the status quo.

Edward Miles, leader of the group and a UW professor of marine affairs, said government agencies can look for "no regrets" strategies that help prepare for climate change at little expense. Such strategies can be large-scale versions of the way utility crews trim trees and clear storm drains with the approach of severe winter weather.

But the researchers acknowledged the tough trade-offs are on the way. Already, dams - prized for water storage - could end up being removed to improve stream flows for migrating salmon.

When you add climate change to the equation, said Miles, "the tradeoff becomes particularly intense indeed. And if the tradeoffs become greater in drought years, you ain't seen nothing yet."

Behind global temperature increases is the growth of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, as the use of fossil fuels has proliferated through the 20th century. Scientists are in almost universal agreement that carbon-dioxide levels will double in the next 60 to 90 years.

With higher carbon dioxide levels raising temperatures, the researchers predicted a sharp reduction in the forested eastern slopes of the Cascades and declining productivity on the western slopes. Drought-plagued forests could also take a "double hit," getting wiped out by wildfire and then struggling to regrow in drier conditions.

There would be a greater likelihood of wintertime flooding, lower water quality and reduced summer water supplies.

Eric Sorensen's phone-message number is 206-464-8253. His e-mail: address is esorensen@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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