Ecodrought on the east side of the Pacific Northwest

Bill Dennison ·
27 February 2017
Applying Science | 

Simon Costanzo, Brianne Walsh and I traveled to Boise, Idaho for a second workshop with scientists from the Pacific Northwest Climate Science Center. Our first workshop, held in Portland, Oregon, focused on the issues west of the Cascades, and this second workshop focused on issues east of the Cascades. We heard about the three 'W's (wounded wetlands and water rights), the three 'F's (forests, fires and fish) and the three 'A's (acclimation, adaptation and assemblages). We heard a lot from Matt Germino about sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), which is a scraggly, deep-rooted plant that can tolerate occasional droughts, that grows on the steppes of Idaho. It was surprising to learn how dry the climate can be east of the Cascades, considering how wet it can be west of the Cascades.

Left to Right: Scientists from the Northwest Climate Science Center discussing environmental issues on the eastern side of the cascades, a diagram of strong and weak points in scientific knowledge regarding climate transitions, and a diagram of strong and weak points in scientific knowledge regarding hydrology east of the Cascades. Photo Credit: Brianne Walsh

Charlie Luce explained to us how one of the key climate vulnerabilities of the Pacific Northwest is a result of the changes in the wind speeds that are uniquely manifested in that area of the country. Precipitation in the Northwest is largely derived from the moist maritime air masses that blow from the west and encounter the various north-south mountain ranges. The rising air is cooled and moisture condenses to form clouds and ultimately rain or snow. The diminution of the winds that blow this moist air into the region has resulted in drier conditions. Future projections are for this continue.

The frequency and size of fires is increasing in the Pacific Northwest, which Doug Shinneman summarized. Both forest fires as well as rangeland fires have increased. One of the factors that is exacerbating the rangeland fires is the invasion of 'cheatgrass' (Bromus tectorum), a fast growing, shallow rooted grass that grows in sagebrush habitats. It can grow densely in between the sagebrush and allow the spread of rangeland fires. One of the impacts of rangeland fires is to increase the susceptibility of soils to erosion. Large dust storms have been becoming more frequent, following fires. In addition, the ash from the fires or the dust from soil erosion can coat snow, and due the dark particles absorbing sunlight and accelerating snow melt, lead to increased runoff.

Simon leading the SNAP exercise. Photo credit: Bill Dennison
Simon leading the SNAP exercise. Photo credit: Bill Dennison

A diagram of potential drought impacts in the Pacific Northwest. Photo Credit: Brianne Walsh

'Snow droughts,' or winters with reduced snow cover, occur when precipitation is reduced or when winters are shorter or warmer. Less snow cover has multiple effects. Snow melt is more effective at recharging groundwater than rainfall. Snow also protects soils from erosion and deep freezing. So the loss of snow will be an important component of the impacts of Ecodrought.

Following the workshop, we drove up into the mountains north of Boise. We saw elk and mule deer, sagebrush and snow. We had good views of Boise, down in the valley along the Boise River. We eventually drove into the Boise National Forest with pine trees poking up from deep snow drifts. The stark landscape was a real contrast to the lush temperate rainforest in western Oregon, serving to emphasize the strong moisture gradients in the Pacific Northwest.

An outing to Boise National Forest. Photo Credit: (Top) Simon Costanzo and (Bottom) Bill Dennison
An outing to Boise National Forest. Photo Credit: (Top) Simon Costanzo and (Bottom) Bill Dennison

We decided to break up our Pacific Northwest Climate Science Center workshop into two parts, a workshop in Portland to focus on the wetter, western portions of the region and a workshop in Boise to focus on the drier, eastern portions of the region. Since we held our first workshop on the west side of the Cascades, we joked that we had received the 'west side story'. Thus, we were in Boise to get the 'east side story'. This reference to the west side story inspired me to adapt the popular "West Side Story" musical that Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim wrote, so I adapted this musical to what I called the "East Side Story". I solicited (and sometimes assigned) acting volunteers and we found a singing star for the title role of Maria in our Northwest Climate Science Center coordinator. At the conclusion of our Boise workshop on climate change, we held the premier performance of "East Side Story", and the following is the script:


East Side Story
Adapted by Bill Dennison
9 February 2017


NARRATOR: Chris Murphy
JETS LEADER: Matt Germino
TONY: Doug Shinneman
MARIA: Nicole DeCrappeo
SIMON: Simon Costanzo
ROSALIA: Kathie Dello
ANITA: Helen Neville
JETS: Don Major

The play

NARRATOR: This is a story of two star-crossed lovers. Maria, a member of the west side Sharks gang from Portland, and Tony, a member of the east side Jets gang from Boise. The first scene is with the Jets, hanging out in Boise.

Scene 1 Boise streets


When you're a Jet,
You're the top cat in town,
You're the gold-metal kid
With the heavyweight crown!

When you're a Jet,
You're the swingin'est thing.
Little boy, you're a man;
Little man, you're a king!

The Jets are in gear,
Our cylinders are clickin'!
The Sharks'll steer clear
'Cause ev'ry Oregonian
'S a lousy chicken!

Here come the Jets
Like a bat out of hell-
Someone gets in our way,
Someone don't feel so well.

Here come the Jets:
Little world, step aside!

Better go underground,
Better run, better hide.

We're drawin' the line,
So keep your noses hidden!

We're hangin' a sign,
Says "Visitors forbidden"-
And we ain't kiddin'!

Here come the Jets.


NARRATOR: In the next scene, Tony and Maria are alone, falling in love with one another at a climate change workshop in Boise, Idaho.

Scene 2 USGS office, Boise


Could be!...
Who knows?...
There's something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.

It may come cannon-balling down thru the sky,
Climate it's a changin',
Hotter and drier!

Who knows?...
It's only just out of reach,
Gettin' drier, gettin' hotter,
Fires in the forest...

I got a feeling there's changes due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!
Could it be? Yes it could.

Something's coming, something bad,
Wish it would wait!

Something's coming, I don't know what it is,
But it is different
Gonna be wild!

With a drought, with a storm,
Plants'll suffer, animal'll die,
Climate's a changin'
Something's coming, don't know when but it's soon-
Catch the drought,
Stop the dying!


Only you, you're the only thing I'll see forever.
In my eyes, in my words and in everything I do,
Nothing else but you


And there's nothing for me but Maria,
Every sight that I see is Maria.


Tony, Tony...


Always you, every thought I'll ever know,
Everywhere I go, you'll be.


All the world is only you and me!
Today, today,
It all began today,
I saw you and the world went away.

Today, today,
There's only you today,
What you are, what you do, what you say.


Today, all day I had the feeling
A miracle would happen-
I know now I was right.

For here you are
And what was normal is no more


Today, today,
The world is full of change,
With droughts and storms all over the place.

Today, today,
The world is wild and it's changin',
Going mad, changin' seasons
Today the world was just an address,
A place for me to live in,
No better than all right,
But here you are changin' my ways,
And what was just a blip is all the time


NARRATOR: At the climate change workshop in Boise, the workshop facilitator has a moment alone to look in the mirror, and he begins to sing to himself.

Scene 3: Simon in the workshop bathroom, looking at the mirror


I feel pretty,
Oh so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright,
And I pity anybody who isn't me today.

I feel charming,
Oh so charming,
It's alarming how charming I feel,
And so pretty that I hardly can believe I'm real.

See the pretty guy in that mirror there:
Who can that attractive guy be?
Such a pretty face,
Such a pretty shirt,
Such a pretty smile,
Such a pretty me!

I feel stunning
And entrancing,
Feel like running and dancing for joy,
For I'm loved
By a pretty wonderful group!


NARRATOR: In this scene, two woman, Anita from the east side Jets and Rosalia from the west side sharks are in Boise, talking about the relative merits of Portland vs. Boise.

Scene 4 Boise


You lovely city...
City of IPA beers.

Always the city of hipsters hanging...
Always the coffee beans grinding...
Always the weirdness growing,
Always the weed smoke blowing...


You ugly city
City of social diseases
Always the rain clouds blowing,
Always the population growing...
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
I hate the Willamette River.

I like to be in I-da-ho
You dry out in I-da-ho

You ugly city...
City of social diseases.

Always the rain clouds blowing,
Always the population growing...
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.

I like the place called Boise-
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

I like to be in I-da-ho!
OK by me in I-da-ho!
Everything nice in I-da-ho
It is great here in I-da-ho!


I like the city of Port-land-


I know a road you can get on.


Hundreds of flowers in full bloom-


Hundreds of people in each room!
Sage brush in I-da-ho,
Snake River in I-da-ho,
Very big deal in I-da-ho-


I'll drive a Buick to Port-land-


If there's a road you can drive on.


I'll give my cousin a free ride-


How you get all of them inside?
It's better here in I-da-ho,
Nice folks here in I-da-ho;
You everyone here in I-da-ho
Port-land's not as good as I-da-ho.


When will I go back to Port-land


When you will shut up and get gone!


I like the mountains of I-da-ho!
Comfort is yours in I-da-ho!
Good stuff here in I-da-ho,
Wall-to-wall sage in I-da-ho!


NARRATOR: It is becoming apparent that the east side Jets and west side Sharks will never get along. They can't even stand to have a shared workshop. So Tony and Maria sneak away from the Boise workshop to dream of a better day when they can be together.

Scene 5 (near Boise workshop site)


Then we'll find some place, far away from here,
I'll take you away, take you far far away out of here,
Far far away till the fires and the  disappear,
Somewhere there must be a place we can feel we're free,
Somewhere there's got to be some place for you and for me.

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to look, time to care,

We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving

There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're half way there.

Hold my hand and I'll take you there


Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Home my hand and I'll take you there


NARRATOR: The east side Jets gather together in Boise with Professor Hausner, to explain why they ended up on the wrong side of the Cascades.

Scene 6 Boise, Desert Research Institute


Dear kindly Professor Hausner,
You gotta understand,
It's just our bringin' up-ke
That gets us out of hand.

Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Gee, Professor Hausner, we're very upset;
We never had the love that every child oughta get.

We ain't no delinquents,
We're misunderstood.

Deep down inside us there is good!
There is good!
There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good.
Like inside, the worst of us is good.

My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.
They didn't wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin' lizards, that's why I'm so bad!


Professor Haisner, you're really a square;
This boy don't need a judge, he needs an
analyst's care!
It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He's psychologic'ly disturbed!

I'm disturbed!

We're disturbed, we're disturbed,
We're the most disturbed,
Like we're psychologic'ly disturbed.

Professor Hausner, you're really a slob.
This boy don't need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society's played him a terrible trick,
And sociologically he's sick!

I am sick!

We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick sick sick,
Like we're sociologically sick!

Professor Hausner, you've done it again.
This boy don't need a job, he needs a year in the pen.

It ain't just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he's no good!

I'm no good!

We're no good, we're no good,
We're no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!


NARRATOR: The east side Jets and west side Sharks end up fighting one another and Tony is mortally wounded. Maria rushes to his side and they have a few last words as Tony fades away.

Scene 7 at the end of the Boise workshop


They won't let us be.


Then we'll get away.


Yes, we can. We will.


Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there,

NARRATOR: Tony dies, but his death makes the east side Sharks and west side Jets realize that they should get along and combine efforts in the future.



About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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