Adapting to changing conditions has always been a human strength. It even may define us as a species. We are the animals who adapt to everything. This trait is going to tested to its limits as the 21st century advances.
One of the main reasons I choose to be a newspaper editor rather than one of the professions I actually trained for — environmental economics and natural resources law — is the opportunity it provides learn new things every day and ask questions. Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond, who spoke in Long Beach in May, was a perfect example of someone loaded with a feast of fascinating (and kind of scary) information.
There are undoubtedly those who could speak with Bond and still be unconvinced that our world is in the clutches of transformative change. But the facts very nearly speak for themselves, and with Bond’s help paint a picture of an ocean in trouble. I commend your attention to my story about it on page 16 in this edition.
It’s not that the world’s coming to an end. Locally in the time ahead for us now alive, we can anticipate noticeably warmer nights, more humidity, possibly more coastal erosion. Bond warns local elected leaders about the risks of sea-level rise. (However, here in our neighborhood tectonic force in the form of the Juan de Fuca plate sliding under North America continues to counteract the rising ocean, for the time being.)
We may actually enjoy the middle and later 21st century climate. What we won’t enjoy are all the ways in which a warmer ocean transforms natural habitats and alters the mix of fish and other wildlife that can prosper here.
Imagine an ocean in which the tiny animals at the base of the food chain find it too hot to do well, and are replaced by less nutritious cousins that evolved for warmer waters down south. Imagine this lack of basic nutrients rippling up into the lives of species we rely on for food and economic success — things like pollock or whiting that keep local seafood processors in business, and coho salmon that sustain the recreational fishing business. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it — it happened in the past couple years.
A warmer ocean won’t guarantee a toxic algal bloom every year like the one we had last year, but it makes such events more likely, threatening the economic viability of the shellfish and crabbing sectors.
We will have to adapt to these changes, perhaps by harvesting newly abundant species, perhaps by raising existing species in controlled settings, or by taking other actions beyond our present capacity to imagine. The degree to which the next generations of Columbia-Pacific residents are able to prosper will depend a lot on being able to adjust to climatic forces beyond our control.
Monitoring ocean changes and pushing for public investments in science and adaptive management are things we can do now to brace for change and identify paths forward to success. We can’t afford denial, fatalism, complacency.