Backyard Naturalist: Cyclical Climate Change Arrives in Northwest

Russ Mohney

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Jan. 17, 2003, before several extended cold snaps of recent years.

There seems to be no question that the Northwest is experiencing a cyclical climate change. It is too rapid, in geological terms, to be the result of global warming (which I don’t accept anyway) but it’s certainly evident.

It is important to distinguish between climate shifts and climate cycles. Shifts are slow and profound, producing very long periods of extremes, while cycles tend to occur in relatively shorts spans and result in minor but recognizable changes.

The fossil record tells us that the Pacific Northwest was once covered with lush, steamy tropical forests. Eons later much of the region became a stark desert — the Cordilleran — remnants of which are around today. As recently as 13,000 years ago, the entire region was essentially covered by an enormous sheet of ice. Each of those extremes produced populations of plants and animals adapted to the conditions that were occurring.

As the ice receded, the region settled down to the climate pattern we know today. But it is still subject to cyclical variations — and one is going on now.

Temperature averages and precipitation patterns have changed only slightly over the past half-century, but those changes have been enough to make some striking differences in the ebb and flow of life around us.

Here in the Chehalis basin we have had only one significant snowfall in the past five years, and it lasted just a day. Surrounding hills and mountains have had snow, but less than in earlier years. Above about 4,000 feet there is still a lot of snow, sometimes more than usual, but it tends to melt earlier than in the past.

We haven’t had more than 36 consecutive hours of sub-freezing weather for several winters at lower elevations, and we are seeing some substantial changes in the plant and animal communities because of it.

The point has been driven home emphatically to me over the past two weeks. Reports from local birders indicate a curious shortage of species and numbers in most cases, and their observations are marked by the appearance of birds that really ought not be here in the middle of winter.

The most dramatic indication of a serious climate shift, at least for me, has been the sighting of several swallows in the past week over fields along the Jackson Highway and Spencer Road.

These birds were busily catching insects out of the air — insects that ought not be here, either, in early January.

Last Saturday I saw swallows over Swofford Pond, where insect hatches were occurring in the afternoon. I stopped and chatted with a waterfowler in the Mossyrock area who hadn’t taken any birds, but was bitten by a mosquito while sitting in an impromptu blind over a raft of decoys.

A mosquito. In January!

Later this month, the Washington Noxious Weed Board will issue a “Class A” alert for the tropical vine kudzu, which has devastated huge tracts of land in the southeast U.S. A non-native, invasive weed, kudzu can grow up to 60 feet a year and choke out everything in its path. A “Class A” designation means state and local governments must take whatever action is necessary to destroy any outbreak that is found.

The plant has been found in Clark County, near Vancouver, and in several sites in Oregon. Just a few years ago, climate conditions in the Northwest would have precluded the establishment of kudzu here. Several other dangerous subtropical plants have been found here in the past couple of years, requiring expensive eradication measures.

If it seems like the winters were colder and the seasons wetter when you were a kid, perhaps it isn’t a case of selective memory. The plant and animal record seems to confirm that the times are, in fact, changing. It will be fascinating to watch!

Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.