Stories of
Climate
Change

Each week between the end of February and Earth Day in late April, Western will reveal a new story about how its faculty, staff and students are working to combat global climate change, from the peaks of the world’s highest mountains to the vast expanses of the open ocean.

Come back each week to see how Western is working to make a difference in the most impactful existential threat facing the global community today.

 

Credits

Stories by John Thompson · Illustrations by Chris Baker · Web Scripting by Stephanie Mason

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Alia Khan’s
Global Quest
for Snow and Ice

Two scientists wearing thick snow suits, collecting samples in a snow dugout

Alia Khan, an assistant professor of Environmental Sciences in Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, is on a mission to find the whitest snow and ice on the planet.

This mission has taken her from the storm-racked Chukchi Sea to the tops of the Andes and Himalayas, and from the Cascades just outside Western’s door to the Antarctic, half a globe away.

Why the passion for pure snow and ice? Because the whiter the snow, the less it has been tainted by the impurities of black carbon.

“Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. When the dark colored particles are deposited on the cryosphere – an ecosystem encompassing frozen water -- they absorb more solar radiation than the surrounding snow and ice, which reduces the amount of light that is reflected from the snow or ice surface and thereby lowering its albedo (whiteness),” she said.

This concept of the earth’s blanket of snow and ice keeping the planet cool with its reflective qualities is crucial to understanding what happens when that reflection stops working.

“Snow and ice with a lower albedo leads to enhanced meltwater generation; the more snow and ice that becomes liquid during times of the year and in places where it generally didn’t used to, the more problems it can cause for the environment as a whole,” Khan said, alluding to potential issues around flooding, less snowpack, melting glaciers, lower river levels, and more.

Lower albedo on snowfields and ice sheets around the globe mean more than just some melting snow here or there; the global distribution of black carbon through the atmosphere (and other hugely important factors like warming temperatures) means places like the Greenland ice sheet, the second largest chunk of snow and ice in the world behind only Antarctica, are melting - fast. According to NASA, its rate of melt has reached 283 BILLION metric tons of lost mass each year, and scientists estimate that the total loss of the Greenland ice sheet would mean a sea level rise of about 20 feet.

So understanding how snow and ice are changing is vitally important. Getting a better grasp of how mankind’s use of fossil fuels is accelerating that change remains the linchpin of Khan’s research, which this spring will take her to Svalbard, a remote archipelago near the top of the world, east of Greenland and north of Scandinavia.

“Svalbard is a fantastic location to study science in the Arctic. It also attracts amazing people from diverse backgrounds, who share a love and passion for understanding environmental processes in the Arctic. As a result, it’s a wonderful place to develop research collaborations and friendships,” she said. “Compared to other regions of the Arctic, Svalbard is ‘somewhat’ habitable for humans because of the Gulf Stream. But it can still get very cold in winter, and there are more polar bears than people.”
Penguins

Despite traveling to the four corners of the world to conduct her research, she knows some of the best locations to sample snow are just east of campus in the Cascades, a fact that her classes have found out each winter. On a recent trip to Mount Baker, students in her ESCI 497 class dug snow pits and sampled snow in what any skier knows are typical winter conditions in the Cascades: blustery, cold and windy.

“They did great! The students brought back 18 snow samples from two snow profiles and we filtered the samples in the lab. Next we will start analyzing them for effective black carbon (eBC). The Cascades are fantastic. I feel really lucky to call the Pacific Northwest home and have the Cascades in my backyard for both research and recreation,” she said.

About the Researcher

Alia Khan collecting a snow sample

A Tarheel born and bred, Khan received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing the call of the mountains, she went west to get her master’s degree and then her doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research; she then completed post-doc work at CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center. She has studied lake bottoms in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica and snow fields in the Alps of New Zealand.

Want to learn more about how the changing nature of snow and ice across the planet?
Email Khan or visit her lab website.

Did you know?

Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment is one of the oldest environmental colleges in the nation, and a regional leader in researching climate change.

 

Find out more about Huxley

Peak of a snowy mountain

Crunching the Numbers

Climate Modeling in the Cascades

Numbers In, Numbers Out.

NINO.

The concept of NINO is what makes Robert Mitchell’s research work. Mitchell, a professor of Geology at Western Washington University, specializes in watershed hydrology and numerical modeling – the craft of using data (scads and scads of data) to plug into a custom-built computer simulation that results in a years-ahead forecast for the rain and snow on a given area.

But for the climate model to work, it needs reams of accurate data, both historical and real-time.

NINO.

“The more numbers I have, and the more accurate those numbers are, the better the model,” he said. “That shouldn’t be surprising. But what is surprising to some people is how much data is takes to make the model work.”

Mitchell is currently doing modeling work on two important regional watersheds: the South Fork of the Nooksack and the Stillaguamish. Both of these watersheds feature mountain systems that feed their rivers through seasonal snowfields as opposed to glaciers, and, alarmingly, what his numbers show is indicative of what is occurring elsewhere on the planet: precipitation that is falling more as rain and less as snow for those high altitude snowfields, such as the ones on the Twin Sisters range east of Acme that feed the South Fork.

“As anyone who lives around here knows, we’re often right at that temperature point where incoming storms could be either rain or snow. And sure, in the middle of the winter, during the coldest months, precipitation falling at elevation on the Sisters will fall as snow,” he said. “But whereas historically we might have seen a lot of additional snowfall in the fall and spring, our numbers show that more than likely, a lot of that precipitation will increasingly fall as rain, especially in the lower elevations that currently get snow in the winter.”
Twin Sisters, a red mountain range with snow pockets

The snowfields of the Twin Sisters range in Whatcom County store moisture for release during the summer months into the Nooksack River’s South Fork, helping to keep river levels higher and water temperatures cool.

Mitchell gathers his data from a variety of established sources, from historical data to just-off-the-mountain sampling work by colleagues such as Western’s Doug Clark -- and runs 20 different meteorological scenarios, including best-case, worst-case and most-likely case examples for each basin.

“It doesn’t take much of a nudge upwards in temperatures to have a pretty big impact on those snowfields,” he said, pointing to a map of the Sisters which shows current typical snow levels as large white patches on the upper half of the mountain. Under most future climate scenarios, the white areas of the map shrink drastically, meaning less snowmelt in the summer.

Less snowmelt means a lower, warmer South Fork in the summer months, when the river is undergoing its highest recreational and agricultural use and hosting endangered summer-run Chinook salmon.

“And while this is an issue for the salmon, it’s going to also be an issue for all the towns along the Nooksack in the fall and spring,” Mitchell said. “Because snow is stored like a moisture bank in the winter. It releases slowly as it melts over the summer. Rainfall isn’t the same way; that moisture that falls as rain instead of snow presents a new problem for all the communities downstream in terms of potential flooding. And the reality is that the South Fork basin isn’t unique in this regard; many of the watersheds in Western Washington face this same kind of pressure.”

The concept of the moisture bank is important, because of a term more and more frequently used as global weather patterns change: “short-term climate variability,” which at its core is simple to understand. It’s Mother Nature’s ability to throw a year, or just a season, of beyond-norms weather at a location, from extreme flooding to extreme drought, from prolonged high temperatures to prolonged low temperatures.

Aerial photo of a large flooded area

Ferndale is just one of the towns on the Nooksack River’s floodplain that will receive increased chances of flooding as higher average temperatures cause more precipitation to fall in the Cascades as rain instead of snow.

One analogy for this kind of variability is that the world’s climate patterns are like a spinning top; as the globe warms, seasonal variability causes the top to wobble and weather patterns to become dangerously unstable and harder to predict. Extensive snowfields act as insurance against short-term climate variability: they hold moisture as snow and prevent flooding, and they release moisture as runoff during drought.

Without them, an important climate safety buffer has been removed as the planet warms, said Mitchell.

What can be done? In the short term, cities and towns need to prepare for more of the kind of flooding that hit the Nooksack basin at the beginning of February and made national news. There is no way to steer the short-term climate ship in any direction other than where it is now going, he said. Long term, Mitchell said he feels policies could still be put into place that could slow down climate change.

“Sadly, only in this country is this even a matter of debate,” he said.

In the meantime, doing as much habitat-restoration work to keep the rivers as shady and as cool as possible is an option, and Mitchell said he will keep crunching the data. NINO. He just wants to see better numbers emerging from his models.

“We got ourselves into this, we can get ourselves out,” he said. “We just have to have the collective will to do so.”

Step into STEM

Western Washington University’s College of Science and Engineering is home to nine departments, with over 35 degree options.

 

College of Science and Engineering open_in_new

Out of  Balance

Mount Baker’s Shrinking Glaciers

Mount Baker’s glaciers are disappearing, and Western faculty and students such as Doug Clark (Geology), Andy Bach (Environmental Studies) and graduate student Monica Villegas are working to better understand not only why this is happening, but how quickly.

“The glaciers on Baker are receding at an alarming rate,” said Bach. “In the 20 years I have been studying them, I have seen huge changes. The more information we can gather about how quickly these glaciers are shrinking, the better we can understand and document how climate change is impacting our local environment.”

Clark says glaciers, by their very nature, are slow to respond to climate change, either warming or cooling.

Doug Clark on a snowy hillside

Professor of Geology Doug Clark pounds ablation stakes into one of Mount Baker’s glaciers in an effort to understand how the glacier’s mass is decreasing.

“It takes about 15 years to start to move the needle one way or another on a typical glacier and have it respond,” he said. “‘Glacial’ is a term for a reason … they are usually slow to do anything like grow or recede.”

Clark and Bach are measuring different elements of Baker’s glaciers. Clark is seeking to measure the actual physical mass of its current glaciers, whereas Bach is looking at ways of finding out how quickly they are receding.

Villegas, Bach, and undergraduate assistants Marissa Wall and Keith Martin spent this past summer focusing on the rate of retreat of Mount Baker’s Easton Glacier, a massive tongue of ice on the mountain’s south flank.

Villegas’ research focuses on mapping the age of the trees in the empty trough below the toe of the glacier; using cores from the trees to graph their age shows how the glacier has retreated and at what rate.

“Each core is like an almanac into that tree’s life,” Villegas said. “We can tell so much about the weather patterns that contributed to the behavior of the glacier from looking at those rings.”
A group of hikers made to look miniscule by a giant glacier

A group of mountaineers ascends Easton Glacier on its way to the summit of Mount Baker.

Her initial results show that Easton has retreated almost 3.5 kilometers in the last 150 years alone – lightning fast for a glacier.

“For a glacier the size of Easton to have retreated that far in that amount of time is stunning,” Bach said.

Those evergreen almanacs seem to point to the same conclusion that Clark is finding as he and his students measure the mass of glaciers like Easton, manually pounding what are called ablation stakes through meters of snow and ice in an effort to ascertain “glacial balance.”

The sharp double peak of Mount Waddington

Professor of Geology Doug Clark and his colleagues atop Mount Waddington in British Columbia, taking deep core samples to get a view of the history of the mountain’s glaciers.

A glacier with a balance of zero is growing as much on its top, snowy end as it is losing through the process called ablation at its bottom end. A positive balance means the glacier is growing, negative balances mean it is shrinking, and sadly the forecast for Baker’s glaciers, at least in the short term, remains gloomy.

“We can’t make climate change go away overnight,” Clark says. “Many of our glaciers are going to keep shrinking for a while, no matter what we do. But we can put in place efforts to mitigate these changes, to communicate what we find, and to understand what those findings mean. The science is clear. We just have to communicate it, and have people listen.”

Bach echoed Clark’s thoughts, and added what the loss of the glaciers would mean.

“I think of glaciers as our water savings account,” he said. “If these glaciers actually melt all the way off the landscape, we’re going to be in deep trouble, because studies show stream flow in the lowlands could decrease anywhere from 25 to 50 percent in the summer season.”

In the meantime, all the systems that benefit from glacial runoff - from the plants, animals and fish that rely on the rivers to the cities that pull drinking water from lakes fed by ice and snow to agriculture’s irrigation needs - will need to make due with less.

In the Field

Western students Monica Villegas, Mars Wall, and Keaton Martin get hands on with their research, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

 

More WWU Student Research

Glacial silt washing out into a rock lined pond on a hill side
Small purple, green, and white flowers growing on the hill side. Each color of flower comes into view at a different rate.
A dense thicket of growing purple wild flowers

Flights of
Fancy

a few painted lady butterflies crawling around on the article

The Fragile and Changing
World of Alpine Butterflies

As fragile and ephemeral as butterflies are, their existence is even more magical when you find out how many things need to go right around them for them even to exist. And as the planet warms and the climate continues to change, the fates of these beautiful creatures are balanced even more on a knife’s edge.

a buttefly with gray-green upper wings and creamy yellow-green and red-spotted lower wings, crawling on a pink flower

Clodius parnassian, a high-altitude butterfly species. (image courtesy National Park Service)

Western Washington University Associate Professor of Environmental Science John McLaughlin has studied butterflies his entire professional life – and they admittedly are a subject of abject fascination for him. He specializes in the population dynamics of alpine butterflies, and their environments are among the most rapidly changing ecosystems on the planet.

“They are such amazing creatures, and probably the most studied insect of all - but we still have so much to learn about them,” he said.

The old adage “timing is everything” was probably written about alpine butterflies. As a collective group, they thrive when nature’s cycles are predictable, and given the increasingly unpredictable nature of our climate patterns, it is easy to understand their struggles.

The alpine landscapes these butterflies live in are more like islands, said McLaughlin, and like an island chain when the ocean rises, the room they have to live on gets smaller and smaller.

“As the planet warms, the alpine zones rise and forests work their way up higher and higher on the mountains, and the alpine meadows where the butterflies live are swallowed up and filled in with trees,” said McLaughlin.

“When we combine global climate models with vegetation models, we can forecast the complete loss of alpine and subalpine meadows in the Olympic mountains in the next 50 years, and in the North Cascades in the next 100,” he said. “The places they live are disappearing.”

Besides working against the infill of their meadows, the swings of short-term climate variability – cold and wet one year, dry and warm the next – mean that the cycles the butterflies count on are getting increasingly erratic.

“In 2015, for example, we had record-low snowfall that all melted off of the meadows on Mount Rainier by May instead of the customary July,” he said. When the butterflies emerged and began looking for the fresh flowers they would normally feed on, they found the flowers had already withered, dried out, and gone to seed.”

The plant/pollinator relationship is particularly vulnerable to erratic climate cycles in the alpine zones, said McLaughlin.

“The caterpillar is the butterfly’s way of storing energy to overwinter under the snowpack so it can turn into a butterfly the following summer,” he said. “But more and more often, they are emerging to a shorter growing season that make it more difficult to complete their life cycle.”

 

McLaughlin said while alpine butterflies are facing a tough test, they can still surprise us.

“One summer I was sampling on Ranier and feeling a little down about the low numbers I was seeing,” he said. “Then I ran into a group of climbers coming down from the summit who told a story about the strangest thing they had ever seen – the summit of Mount Rainier was just crawling with painted lady butterflies everywhere.”

many butteflies crawling around

“So don’t count them out just yet.”

a person in hiking gear and a broad rimmed hat walking along a north cascades trail wielding a bug net

Butterfly survey at Easy Pass in North Cascades National Park. (image courtesy National Park Service)

Help McLaughlin’s Research

John McLaughlin continues to work on a joint research venture and citizen-science initiative with the National Park Service called the Cascades Butterfly Project. You can help monitor these sensitive indicators of climate changes.

Get Involved with Butterflies

tree lined hill sides
fire errupting across the trees
fire errupting across the trees

Megafire

Understanding the New Normal
for Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest

It’s a whimsical riddle that couldn’t possibly have a real answer:

“What’s 150 feet tall, sounds like a freight train, leaps across the Columbia River, and creates its own weather patterns?”

But as Pacific Northwest residents know well, wildfires are becoming a bigger, more threatening part of our lives.

“The earth is getting hotter. With climate change come more droughts, earlier springs, and hotter, drier summers. Maybe not every year, but they will happen with more frequency. For the Pacific Northwest, any combination of those things is almost a guarantee of a long and intense fire season,” says Michael Medler, an associate professor of Environmental Studies at Western whose primary research area is pyrogeography—the geography of fire.

Residents of the Evergreen State need only look at the span of the last six summers to see a set of the deadliest, most active fire seasons in state history.

a firefighter in a smokey forest

Photo by WWU alumna and wildlands firefighter Caitlin Chinn

“These fires, with the abundant fuels propelling them, can literally just explode; they grow and expand in ways typical fires do not.”

In 2014 the Carlton Complex fire roared through the Methow Valley and became the largest wildfire in Washington history at more than 256,000 acres; that ignominious title lasted less than a year.

In 2015, an extraordinarily hot, dry spring set the stage for more than 300 wildfires across the state before June was even over, and fires kept raging throughout the summer. The season culminated in August with the next newly crowned largest wildfire in state history, the Okanogan Complex fire—complexes consist of many different blazes—that claimed the lives of three wildland firefighters near Twisp and consumed more than 300,000 acres.

At the same time, the Chelan Complex fire just to the south burned 100,000 acres. As these two monster fires were tearing through the east slopes of the Cascades, the Pacific Northwest was so strapped for firefighters that President Obama sought help from Australia and New Zealand. Nationally the news wasn’t any better, with the fire season claiming, for the first time, more than 1 million acres in a single summer.

The 2017 fire season was kindled by record heat and dryness on both sides of the state but was perhaps best-known for “Smokezilla,” the smoke plume from the record number of fires in British Columbia that choked the Puget Sound. In Washington, Diamond Creek in Okanagan County was consumed by a “megafire,”a relatively new term for any blaze that tops 100,000 acres. And Skamania County’s Eagle Creek fire was ignited Sept. 2 when a massive blaze in Oregon jumped the Columbia River and kept burning until after-Thanksgiving rains.

A 2018 fire map of British Columbia, with many large regions of affected areas

British Columbia's 2018 fire season was the worst in the province's history.

The 2018 season started hot and dry, and fires in the state caused Governor Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency by the end of July; the news was even worse for our neighbors to the north, as the province set a new record with more than 3.2 million acres burned. The Tweedsmuir Complex fire alone was more than 750,000 acres in size, more than doubling Washington’s record setter from 2015.

Last summer’s cool, wet summer provided a brief respite to the smoke for most Washingtonians, but the trend is clear.

“The numbers don’t lie,” says Medler. “Even the way we describe wildland fires has changed: We used to talk about them in acres, now we use square miles. A huge fire back in the ‘80s was 50,000 acres, now it takes 300,000 or more to move the needle.”

What has Changed?

Wildland fires are not new, and are a part of nature’s renewal process; they burn down unproductive grasslands and replace them with lush new growth. Lodgepole pines actually need fires—very hot fires—for their cones to open and spread their seeds to start a new generation of trees. Many types of trees are genetically prepared to resist fire: While they might lose branches and part of their outer layers of bark, they can bounce back after a fire and survive.

What has changed is the frequency, duration, and intensity of the fires, as our region’s recent fire history shows. The warmer climate is a part of it, Medler says—but playing just as big a role is how the nation responds to and prepares for fire seasons. For example, federal wildfire policy is focused on suppression, scrambling the fire crews when fires reach a certain size. But he says spending our resources on extinguishing smaller blazes may actually put communities at greater risk of massive fires. Periodic fires burn at a cooler temperature and scorch away the dead wood, underbrush and other fuels in the forests, Medler says. Such fires might typically kill only about 20 percent of the trees in the burn area.

“But when we race to extinguish fires, the fuel is never exhausted, and it just builds up to the point that when a big fire comes— a huge fire maybe once every 50 years instead of smaller ones once every five or 10—the fire burns with such heat that perhaps more like 80 percent of the trees are lost, a term called ‘complete canopy mortality,’ ” he says. “And these fires, with the abundant fuels propelling them, can literally just explode; they grow and expand in ways typical fires do not.”

When a Fire Comes to Town

firefighter surrounded by flames on a forest floor

Photo by WWU alumna and wildlands firefighter Caitlin Chinn

As a pyrogeographer, Medler focuses his research on areas where high fire hazards overlap with development; in states like California especially, the line between wildland firefighting and urban firefighting is becoming increasingly blurred.

These areas, called the wildland-urban interface, are often seen on newscasts as whole housing developments reduced to ash and rubble. When wildland-urban interface zones burn, firefighting strategy often takes a backseat to political reality.

“In the forest, you can easily understand sacrificing 200 acres of woods to save 5,000 more, but no crew can burn a fire line through 20 homes in a development in order to save 500 other homes. They just can’t do it,” he says.

“In the forest, you can easily understand sacrificing 200 acres of woods to save 5,000 more, but no crew can burn a fire line through 20 homes in a development in order to save 500 other homes. They just can’t do it”

Medler says that crews currently working on thinning projects would be put to better use clearing quarter-mile buffer zones around high-risk communities such as those in the eastern foothills of the Cascades.

“Cutting those zones would be a fraction of the work of thinning 400 million-plus acres, and the work would make these communities more resilient and better able to withstand the kinds of tragedies we see in California almost every summer,’ he says.

In the wake of the disastrous 2015 fire season, Medler was called to testify before a special meeting of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee led by Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and John Barasso of Wyoming.

He talked to them about suppression as a practice, about thinning, about buffer zones and fire mitigation strategies, and about the system known as “fire borrowing”—using next year’s mitigation and preparation funds to fight this year’s fires—and how the system was untenable. Before he studied wildland fires, Medler battled them. He fought fires in Washington, Oregon and the infamous Yellowstone fires in 1988, where almost 800,000 acres burned. He was once “burned over,” his head down in a scratch-dug hole as he blacked out, only to wake as a member of his crew was dragging him feet-first to safety.

Medler described his work on the crew as an exhilarating combination of exhaustion, euphoria, and camaraderie.

“When you are on a fire crew that has been dispatched to a fire, it is all you are going to be doing. You don’t make a lot of decisions. It is like the military,” he says. “You eat, sleep, and work within a few yards of everyone on your crew for weeks at a time. You learn to recognize each of them at a hundred yards in the dark just by their walk. You know who is going to say which joke before they say it. The result of months of this can be a little disconcerting when the season ends.”

The fires themselves also proved to be endlessly fascinating.

“When you are anywhere near an active and moving wildfire it really holds your attention like few other things in nature. If it is big and making a run, you are out of the way, or doing everything you can to get out of the way. However, when you get a moment to watch and contemplate what you are viewing, it really is one of the most spectacular things you can see,” he says. “It breathes and moves a little too much like it is alive. It is really hard not to anthropomorphize that behavior. In fact, even on my crew we talked about ‘fire habitat’ as if fire was an organism, and that very notion still informs some of my research.”

At Western, not surprisingly, that research has been focused on wildfires and wildfire risk and response, so he knows wildland fires aren’t going away.

“The only thing that can change is how we choose to plan for them, prepare at-risk communities, and react once the season begins,” he says.

“The good news is, there are things we can do individually and locally to make our homes and communities safer, and we can push for change on a state and federal level if we have the will to do so. But it may take another couple of fire seasons like 2015 before there is the political capital to look at the old system and truly understand it just doesn’t work anymore.”

This story first appeared in Window, Western’s university magazine.

Read Window Magazine

hillls surrounding a lake with a waterfall pouring into a river
trees on the hillside, many with burnt stumps
three salmon swimming up a stream
a bear turning its head

Climate Change,
Snowmelt,
and Salmon

Jim Helfield is in a race against time, and he knows it.

A man straddling a shallow river bed taking a water sample

Jim Helfield working at his South Fork sampling site.

Helfield, an associate professor of Environmental Science at Western Washington University, is researching ways improve the habitat for spring- and summer-run Chinook salmon on the South Fork of Whatcom County’s Nooksack River. Also known as king salmon, Chinook are the largest Pacific salmon species, growing to sizes upwards of 100 pounds in some rivers.

In conjunction with colleagues in the Nooksack Tribe, Helfield is measuring how large, engineered log jams, placed systematically up and down the South Fork, change the river’s topography and form deep pools for the Chinook to rest and shelter in on their way to their breeding grounds upstream.

a log jam

An engineered log jam on the Nooksack River.

“These summer-run Chinook already have a tough task ahead of them,” Helfield said. “They enter the river at a time when its flows are at their lowest and its temperatures are at their highest. When temperatures get above 16 degrees Celsius or so (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), they really start having a tough time and mortality rates jump. So we are trying to build these deep pools for them to rest in and sort of leapfrog their way upstream.”

Fisheries biologists with the tribe have built scores of the large logjams, and more are planned. Helfield plants temperature loggers each summer to gather temperature data above, below and in the pools; checks the temperatures to see if the river’s action of scouring the pools is also causing an upwelling of cool, beneficial groundwater through a process called hyporheic exchange; and just as importantly, also surveys to see how or if the logjams are being used by Chinook and other salmonids.

So far, the results are very positive.

“The vast majority of the early Chinook on the South Fork are using these structures, which is very encouraging,” he said. “In addition, the young salmon that emerge from the gravel are using these structures as shelters as well, going back deep into the root balls and using them to avoid predators.”

But this is where the race against time comes in: water temperatures on the South Fork are only going to get higher.

one student kneeling in the water holding a piezometer that another student hammers in place

WWU students place a device called a piezometer next to an engineered log jam to record water temperature.

Unlike the North Fork and Middle Fork of the river, which are fed by glaciers from Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, the South Fork is fed entirely by snowfields from the Twin Sisters, a massive slab of upthrust rock separated from Mount Baker by the Middle Fork valley.

And according to research by Helfield’s colleague Robert Mitchell, a professor of Geology at Western who specializes in watershed hydrology and numerical modeling, the planet’s rapidly climbing temperatures will in all probability mean far less snow in those snowfields, and thus higher summer water temperatures and lower stream levels.

“As anyone who lives around here knows, we’re often right at that temperature point where incoming storms could be either rain or snow. And sure, in the middle of the winter, during the coldest months, precipitation falling at elevation on the Sisters will fall as snow. But whereas historically we might have seen a lot of additional snowfall in the fall and spring, our numbers show that more than likely, a lot of that precipitation will increasingly fall as rain,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell gathers his data from a variety of established sources and runs 20 different meteorological scenarios, including best-case, worst-case and most-likely case examples, for the South Fork basin – and the results aren’t encouraging. He pointed to a map of the Sisters which shows current typical snow levels as large white patches on the upper half of the mountain.

salmon in clear turquoise water

Salmon investigating the log jam.

“It doesn’t take much of a nudge upwards in temperatures to have a pretty big impact on those snowfields,” he said.

Under most future climate scenarios, the white areas of the map shrink drastically, meaning less snowmelt in the summer for the early Chinook.

“And while this is an issue for the salmon, it’s going to also be an issue for all the towns along the Nooksack in the fall and spring,” Mitchell said. “Because snow is stored liked a moisture bank in the winter. It releases slowly as it melts over the summer. Rainfall isn’t the same way; that moisture that falls as rain instead of snow presents a new problem for all the communities downstream in terms of potential flooding. And the reality is that the South Fork basin isn’t unique in this regard; many of the watersheds in Western Washington face this same kind of pressure.”

All of which makes Helfield feel a sense of urgency as he pauses on a South Fork gravel bar to look at a map with the locations for the next group of planned logjams. It is a sunny, gorgeous late summer day, the sky a cloudless, robin’s-egg blue, and Helfield has just seen a big Chinook making its way upstream.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle,” he said, watching the v-shaped wake of the large fish. “Other times, there’s reason for hope – you come out here on a day like today and see these logjams that we’ve built, and these huge salmon hiding down in them, and you feel like there are reasons to be optimistic as well. Time will tell. But in the meantime, we’re going to keep working.”

We Throw Pool Parties for Salmon

The students working on the science of salmon habitat restoration.

 

Interested in our rivers, coasts, and oceans?

Western's new Marine and Coastal Sciences Program

To be continued

Check back next week for the next installment...