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Originally published Friday, December 21, 2012 at 3:31 AM

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With climate change, winter isn't what it used to be

Scientists analyzing the effects of climate change say they are surprised to see how much winter has already changed and the cascade of effects that unleashes, from outbreaks of pests and diseases to fewer days of skiing.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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At 3:12 a.m. Friday, winter arrived in Seattle.

The winter solstice marks the season of rest and renewal, a quiet, dark time in which nature catches its breath.

Scientists are only now realizing, though, how climate change unleashes a cascade of effects on this season.

Here, and elsewhere around the country, while winter weather can still be ferocious — witness the storm hammering the Midwest — the long-term trend, or climate, shows winter isn't what it used to be. And more change is ahead.

At Snoqualmie Pass, the skiing right now is as great as ever. But long term?

"By 2050, there won't be any more skiing at Snoqualmie; it's over," said Cliff Mass, atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington.

Snoqualmie is the lowest in elevation of the state's ski areas. It is only the chilling effect of winds from the colder interior of Eastern Washington blowing through the pass that make the skiing as good as it is at Snoqualmie today, Mass said.

"We joke about building a shrine to the easterly air flow, it is such a nice benefit for us," said Guy Lawrence, marketing director for Snoqualmie. The resort has enjoyed five years running of great snow and long seasons, Lawrence said, with some starting before Thanksgiving and running into May.

Mass agreed that it's still business as usual at the pass — but not for much longer. "But then, we'll still have Crystal and Baker. We have higher places, and places with more snow. But at Snoqualmie it'll be over."

A shorter ski season — or none at all in some locations — in the Cascades and Olympics was just one of many changes noted in a report issued this week under the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

"Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services," is one of several technical reports that will inform the National Climate Assessment, due out for draft release in 2013.

Congress in 1990 mandated that the assessments coordinate and integrate federal research on climate change, with reports published every four years. Thirteen federal departments and agencies participate in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the world's largest scientific investment in the area of climate-change and global-change research.

One of the biggest surprises in the technical report on biodiversity and ecosystems is how much winter has already changed, said Bruce Stein, director of climate-change adaptation with the National Wildlife Federation, in a conference call this week.

"The bottom line is that these impacts aren't just going to happen in 50 to 100 years; many of them are already here, and are only going to get worse over time," Stein said. "There has already been more effect on winter than we thought, and that affects what happens in summer."

In the Northwest, forests already show the effect of warmer winters in beetle-killed trees. The pests thrive without the killing cold. That, in turn, means summertime wildfires stoked with dead conifers.

In addition to changes in winter, the report noted many other effects of even small shifts in temperature. Among them, increased risk of extinction among animals that can't move, or adapt quickly enough to outrun warming temperatures.

"We were surprised at the rate of movement of species in response to these changes in temperature," Stein said. Shifts in species' ranges is occurring about two to three times faster than previous estimates, with plants and animals shifting north in their home ranges about 10 miles a decade, and marine species moving even faster, as much as 27 to 30 miles north, seeking colder water.

There are exceptions of course, and winners, as well as losers. As the climate warms, some species are gaining whole new ground to colonize, while other animals are dying out.

Locally in the Northwest, barnacle and mussel beds already are declining in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, because of warming water in the intertidal zone, according to the report.

The timing of seasonal events in nature is also shifting, with animals migrating and nesting earlier caused by shorter, milder winters, including northern flickers in the Northwest.

The bottom line is change. Because of the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, no matter what is done now to affect human-caused global warming from the burning of fossil fuel, long term, the climate of the past will not be seen again.

"What we are seeing, " Stein said, "is a new normal."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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