Forum: Climate change to heighten flood, fire threat in Sonoma County

A day-long forum Wednesday focused on local-level climate adaptation, including presentations by leading scientists, government planners and agricultural representatives.|

Sonoma County residents who live in rural places prone to flooding and those in urban areas who are unable to afford protection against rising heat will be among those who suffer the most if the extreme conditions predicted to come with climate change materialize as expected, county officials said Wednesday.

The stark message headlined a day-long conference at Sonoma State University about adapting to the world’s changing climate and the increasingly unpredictable weather it generates.

The impact of more wildfires, rising sea levels, heavier periods of rainfall and longer dry spells will be widespread, scientists and public officials said Wednesday, affecting everything from the cost and availability of food to water supply, wildlife habitat and public safety.

The most vulnerable residents in Sonoma County are expected to be those living along the lower Russian River, where flooding would be more frequent; those who live in coastal communities or low-lying areas subject to rising ocean tides; and disadvantaged urban neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and elsewhere, where air conditioning is rare and older, under-insulated homes would offer little defense against extreme heat, said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin.

“We need in the future to find out how we can help these communities adapt and survive,” she said.

Gorin’s comments kicked off a forum focused on climate adaptation at the local level, a first-of-its kind gathering in the county of scientists, conservationists, government planners, policymakers and others, organizers said.

The event, which drew about 200 people, included presentations geared toward understanding what lies ahead and discussions about employing science and experience to identify new ways for humans to be resilient in a changing world.

The problems outlined Wednesday are largely known. Greenhouse gases accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere are driving up global temperatures and causing a host of other changes, including extremes of rainfall and drought, acidification of the world’s oceans and more wildfires.

It has been consistently warmer now for at least three decades, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Regional Climate Protection Authority. She cited findings by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration showing that average monthly temperatures have, since February 1985, exceeded all previous averages from the 20th century.

Computer models suggest Sonoma County’s usual 10 days a year above 93 degrees will be closer to 80 days by the close of this century, Smith said.

The North Coast, stuck like the rest of the state in a prolonged drought, this winter saw the kind of variable weather expected to be more common in the future, speakers noted. For example, a three-day December storm that dumped about 10 inches of rain on most of the county - raising the Russian River just above its banks - was bookended by days and weeks of bone-dry weather.

Scientists are looking at ways to better forecast such variable patterns, giving water managers, for instance, a clearer picture in advance of strong storms or extended periods of little rainfall. Teams are also looking at how sea level rise will affect the Russian River estuary and watershed, and how continuing drought will change the landscape and soil.

There are public health issues to consider - from asthma to insect-related disease - as well as increased demands for emergency responders and building and development codes that will need to be overhauled.

But one speaker after another highlighted the work already being done to assess and prepare for the challenges ahead.

They described land conservation, rangeland composting and other techniques for storing carbon in the ground. They also highlighted efforts to conserve and store water in the soil and through rainwater capture and the outgrowth of community gardens and local farms that can make county food resources more sustainable.

Caitlin Cornwall, research program manager with the Sonoma Ecology Center and a founder of the North Bay Climate Action Initiative, acknowledged the challenges posed by climate change could be extremely disheartening, but said there is power in planning and action.

But “the first thing we need to do,” she said, “is stop making the problem worse” by reducing fossil fuel consumption and keeping more carbon in the ground.

“There is still ample opportunity to influence how rapidly and drastically things change,” Smith said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@press? On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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