Climate Change in Idaho: Impacts and Perception

ORDINARILY, climate change adaptation tends to be a top-down process. Climate researchers identify the best climate science and data, run climate simulations, and, eventually, make that data available to end users, who put it to work in their adaptation efforts. The problem is this approach doesn’t always deliver the kind of science end users need. But that’s changing.

One group leading the change comes out of the University of Idaho and includes CIRC researcher John Abatzoglou. The team—composed mostly of a cadre of students at the university—essentially worked backwards, flipping the traditional top-down approach on its head by going to the end users first.

The researchers surveyed a group of roughly 100 Idaho resource managers to assess the kinds of climate impacts data they most needed for their work. These end users were a diverse crowd, representing managers at federal, state, and municipal agencies to nongovernmental organizations and businesses. To reflect this diversity, questions in the survey followed a tiered approach, meaning answering a question one way would elicit one set of follow-up questions; answering it another way, would produce another.

Questions were asked within ranges represented by 15 datasets—vetted by researchers along a number of criteria—that provided information on biophysical indicators of climate varying from direct climate metrics (think air temperature) to indicators less directly tied to climate (think wildfires).

The survey revealed Idaho end users’ top four concerns around climate change impacts: water resource availability (16 percent); extreme drought (14 percent); changes in plant productivity (14 percent); and wildfire (10 percent). The researchers then compared the reported concerns to the vetted datasets. Through this comparison, they determined the three climate measures that most closely reflected the end users’ concerns: annual rainfall versus snowfall (23 percent); seasonality trends (22 percent); and general precipitation (14 percent).

Although climate indicators do not always track well with impacts most relevant to resource management, the project’s researchers were able to home in on the most relevant indicators for the period from 1975 to 2010. These included instream flow timing and area burned by wildfires. These variables were then compared to available climate change data. Among their top climate change indicators water managers prioritized timing of instream base flows and annual stream volume; forest managers prioritized wildfire severity, and vegetation and wildlife distributions; and rangeland managers prioritized plant productivity, vegetation distribution, and plant phenology. Likewise, farmers prioritized precipitation patterns, drought characteristics, and growing season length, while recreationalists prioritized timing of peak visitation and recreation restrictions due to wildfire.

The study found significant statewide trends for several climate change indicators for the period from 1975 to 2010. These included findings showing that the mean annual air temperature had increased (2.4 degrees Celsius warmer), growing seasons had become longer (by 3.9 days), and more forest area had burned (roughly 107,000 acres for the period measured). Weaker trends noted by the researchers included higher maximum daily spring precipitation (5.1 percent), earlier peak streamflow (1.9 days), and a longer fire season (9.2 days).

The results of the survey, as well as the relevant indicators, were published in Weather, Climate, and Society.


Citation: P. Zion Klos, John T. Abatzoglou, Alycia Bean, Jarod Blades, Melissa A. Clark, Megan Dodd, Troy E. Hall, Amanda Haruch, Philip E. Higuera, Joseph D. Holbrook, Vincent S. Jansen, Kerry Kemp, Amber Lankford, Timothy E. Link, Troy Magney, Arjan J. H. Meddens, Liza Mitchell, Brandon Moore, Penelope Morgan, Beth A. Newingham, Ryan J. Niemeyer, Ben Soderquist, Alexis A. Suazo, Kerri T. Vierling, Von Walden, and Chelsea Walsh: Indicators of Climate Change in Idaho: An Assessment Framework for Coupling Biophysical Change and Social Perception. Weather Climate and Society, Volume 7, Issue 3 (July 2015), pages 238–254. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00070.

Photo: Sign welcoming motorists to Idaho. (Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn, some rights reserved)


Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. Other Posts by this Author. 


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