Idaho is seeing the negative effects of climate change more clearly.
Climate change is not a single problem. The issue represents how the earth’s climate system is acting differently than how it has been operating for a very long time. It is a global systemic change caused by problems all over the world and it affects every place in a different manner.
What climate change has done is it has thrown a really big wrench into our ability to predict what’s going to happen in the future given how things have looked in the past, said Dr. Chris Torres, an environmental studies professor at Boise State.
Changes in Idaho’s climate have raised concerns about water supplies for agricultural and residential uses. The summer heat is increasing and wildfire seasons are longer, causing more damage to our environment and making it more dangerous to venture outside.
According to Torres, water is scarce in Idaho. We are also dependent on the snowpack that forms in the mountains during winter.
Here in the Mountain West, water is scarce. Areas such as Treasure Valley rely on snowpack melting, water management systems, reservoirs, and properly distributed water.
The Army Corps of Engineers in Idaho is responsible for overseeing and installing the current water management system. The system is intended to provide flood control, snowpack melt in reservoirs, and water sources that can be used for irrigation.
The Army Corps of Engineers used data spanning centuries about snowmelt, precipitation, and temperatures to predict how much water would be released in winter to make space in reservoirs.
Torres stated that climate patterns we once believed to be predictable and reliable enough to plan for a lot of other things are now unpredictable and highly variable.
If snowpack melts earlier than usual, there are concerns about flooding if the reservoirs are not opened. This could mean that a new system will be needed to provide more reservoir space, depending on the water requirements of the agriculture industry.
Snow is melting earlier from Idaho’s landscapes, and that really depletes what I would call our biggest storage of water on our landscape which is in all of that snowpack, said Dr. Jen Pierce, director of the Idaho Climate Literacy Education Engagement and Research network. This earlier snowmelt also affects ecosystems and species that depend on it later in the season.
Idaho’s economy is dependent on agriculture. Poor water management and early melting of snowpack can cause water shortages in the agricultural system and could lead to crop failures.
In a McClure Center news assessment, Garrett Lofto, president of J.R. Simplot Company, stated that as a global food and agricultural company, we understand the impact that events such wildfires, hot and dry summers, and a diminished water supply can make on our business, state, and way of living.
Wildfires and Heat Waves
Idaho saw record-breaking temperatures this summer. This extreme heat can pose a health risk to those without air conditioning. Additionally, heat waves can pose problems for crops or livestock in the agricultural sector.
These warm, dry summers are making it very challenging for our farmers and ranchers to manage livestock and to grow crops on our landscapes where we just don’t have enough water, especially later in the summer, to support the agricultural industry, Pierce said.
Abnormal weather conditions are more common, and extreme heat waves or droughts are to expect at increasing rates.
The Pacific Northwest has seen an increase in hospitalizations due to heat exhaustion, lung exacerbations caused by wildfire smoke pollutants in air and in admissions to emergency rooms.
These hotter and drier summers are ideal for wildfires.
Pierce stated that we are seeing an increase in the severity and size of catastrophic wildfires in Idaho.
Because of their unpredictable nature, it is important to be prepared for the consequences of these fires. Idaho must not only try to contain the fires but also improve its resilience.
Jen Schneider, Boise State associate dean and professor, stated that we need to prepare our communities to understand the risks of fire and how to manage them if they occur.
Idaho’s forest environment has the potential to be more valued overall. Idaho’s forests help keep air and water clean, provide habitat for wildlife, reduce pollution and provide materials and jobs for rural Idaho economies.
Although the dangerous negative impacts of wildfires incite a motivation for change, these natural benefits that Idaho’s forests provide could be a positive motivator for change in an effort to protect them.
Poor air quality
Fire seasons have become more severe and longer in recent years. Wildfire smoke can have a negative impact on the environment as well as on the health and wellbeing of the people.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has established national ambient air quality standards that assess the health risks and levels of concern to protect public safety.
Schneider said that we are seeing more days when it is unsafe for us to be outside, according to EPA standards.
Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds upon miles. Smoke particles in the air can interact with other atmospheric chemicals, making them even more toxic.
Itchy eyes, headaches, and sore throats are minor symptoms of smoke exposure. It can be difficult to monitor the effects of smoking on human health. It is difficult to determine how many people are killed or sickened by it.
Pierce also highlighted the importance for our health services to be stocked with inhalers that can be used by people suffering from asthma and other preexisting conditions. It is crucial that these industries are aware of the dangers that lie ahead and plan accordingly.
Public health systems are already under stress due to the pandemic. In particular, the Pacific Northwest has been suffering more deaths from record breaking heat waves as well as dangerous levels of pollution.
Smoking exposure is more common in the elderly and younger generations. People with preexisting conditions such as asthma are particularly at risk. The long-term effects of these toxins remain unknown.
Pierce stated that although there have been some steps taken, we still need to do much more.