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The 2019 forecast for effects of climate change on Idaho is 'not looking good'

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Kayakers float the Snake River June 26, 2015, close to Centennial Park in Twin Falls.

BOISE — More fires. More smoky air. More of what made August in Idaho so unpleasant. That’s what 2019 could bring to the state, thanks in large part to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, a University of Idaho scientist says.

Days after a United Nations report called climate change “a life-or-death situation,” an Idaho climate scientist pointed out the effects of climate patterns over the past year in the Pacific Northwest.

John Abatzoglou, a climatology professor at the University of Idaho, presented his 2017-2018 analysis to a room of climate scientists, educators and policymakers at the Riverside Hotel in Boise on Thursday morning as part of the Northwest Climate Conference. His message was less dire than the UN report, but Abatzoglou hopes Idahoans and others across the region will make no mistake: “One thing we need to make very clear is climate impacts do occur in our region,” he said.

Those impacts occur in the form of warmer water, worsening snowpacks, rising temperatures and more intense wildfires, he said.

The changes may not entirely be the result of climate change, Abatzoglou said, but “you’d have to squint really hard” to fully attribute last year’s unusual precipitation and temperature patterns to natural phenomena like La Niña, an ocean-atmosphere occurrence that affects North American weather.

“It’s difficult to point the blame at climate change for an individual year,” Abatzogloud said, but it’s possible to contextualize 2018 as part of a “bumpy ride uphill” when it comes to temperatures, drought and more.

Though last autumn saw “healthy precipitation” and mountain snowfall, the unusually high snowpack quickly dissolved, Abatzoglou said, leaving ski resorts in the lurch and causing flooding across the region.

Next, the northwest saw another dry, warm summer, leading to a fire season that burned a collective 5 million-plus acres across Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia — almost the size of New Jersey. Though that was slightly less than 2017’s burned acreage, 2018 still brought with it health concerns over worsening wildfire smoke in areas including the Treasure Valley.

Fires and smoke curbed outdoor recreation and hurt revenue for farms and other businesses, he said.

“The smoke issue is one we’re going to have to face in terms of how to cope and adapt,” Abatzoglou said.

“When you have large-scale fires, there’s definitely a link to climate, despite what some people may think,” Abatzoglou said.

“Some people just don’t trust scientists, unfortunately,” he added. “But the thing to drive home is that climate matters.”

In a nod to the UN’s recent report, the U of I professor said there are “great benefits to reducing warming,” though in the meantime people must figure out how to manage the unavoidable, such as the worsening droughts hitting the Northwest. So what’s in store for Idaho and the surrounding region in 2019?

It’s hard to say, Abatzoglou said. Experts are predicting an El Niño weather pattern that would bring unseasonably warm temperatures through the coming winter. Abatzoglou’s short-term predictions echo the details of other recent climate change reports:

“If the guesses are right, if the models are right, things are not looking good,” he said.

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