PCC Science Instructor Kyle Dittmer's Climate Paper Published:

By Anthony Robotham|March 31, 2014Uncategorized|

Kyle Dittmer is a Hydrologist-Meteorologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a part-time PCC Science Instructor. The interview topics discussed here are about Professor Dittmer’s newly published research paper: “Changing streamflow on Columbia basin tribal lands—climate change and salmon,” as well as his science classes at PCC, and places to get information for students interested in climate science.

His paper can be read online [here] through Springer Publishing Company: you will find it by its title in Climatic Change Volume 120, Issue 3, October 2013 Special Issue: Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts, Experiences and Actions.

Please start by telling us about your career as a professional scientist.

I have worked almost 25 years as a scientist here in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). My first 10 years were with NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) here in Portland, as a Hydrologist. We performed real-time river and flood forecasting – saving the lives and property of all PNW residents. In the last 15 years, I have worked as a Hydrologist-Meteorologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), in Portland.

What exactly is the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission?

CRITFC (critfc.org) is the largest Native American science-center in the PNW and one of the biggest centers in the USA. We have a staff of 110 comprised of fish biologists, and specialists such as myself, who provide technical assistance to the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes as they help to rebuild the many PNW salmon populations.

In addition to your work with CRITFC, you’re also a PCC Instructor.   

Yes, on top of my day job, I have worked for 23 years as a part-time G/GS (Earth Science) Instructor at PCC – first at Sylvania and now at Southeast Center (since 2008). I also have part-time teaching appointments at Marylhurst University and Clark College, but PCC has been, and always will be, my teaching base. I love to teach – it is my best natural talent!

What specific science classes do you teach at PCC?

I have taught introductory classes in geology (GS-106, G-201, G-207), oceanography (GS-108), and meteorology (GS-109). All of my classes emphasize a practical real-world perspective that helps the student connect the subject with their personal lives. You can visit my faculty webpage here. I love the energy and enthusiasm of students and faculty. It’s amazing and heart-warming!

You started teaching Astronomy at PCC last term, tell us about how you got into space science.

I was an amateur astronomer as a pre-teen. I built two telescopes and was into astrophotography. The COSMOS series by the late Dr. Carl Sagan (carlsagan.com) was a huge inspiration. I worked as a student helper for two years for a German husband-and-wife research team in the Dept. of Astronomy at the University of Washington – crunching their NASA data. My minor at the UW was in Astronomy, too! So, to be able to teach astronomy has been a life-long dream!

Aside from teaching PCC classes and having your research papers published, how else do you help educate future scientists?

I just delivered a guest lecture at the University of Oregon. One of my colleagues, Kathy Lynn, who is also a co-author in the special issue for Climatic Change, is teaching a new class, ENVS 411/511, Tribal Climate Change (envs.uoregon.edu/undergrad/courses). To the best of my knowledge, no other university has ever attempted to teach such a specialized class. I talked about my new research paper, which was required reading. The class – a mix of upper-division and graduate students – asked good thoughtful questions. These young people are going to be tomorrow’s leaders and managers in natural resources, so it is important that they get a good perspective from current scientists working the field and be inspired. My talk was well received. I am curious to see if that class will be permanently added to the UO curriculum. I hope it is!

Many more people are able to read your climate paper because it was released under Creative Commons License. What does this mean and why was this done?

A Creative Commons License (CCL) enables one to protect and copyright an original work, but enable users to view and share that work publically in a non-commercial manner (creativecommons.org). Given the rapid rise of social media and search engines like Google, it is the best of all worlds. A CCL will enable me to have anyone on Earth view, share, and use my climate change work.

Describe where people can read your recently published paper and the significance of your research.

I was recently published in a special issue of the peer-reviewed science journal Climatic Change in October 2013. This journal is among the top ten climate journals in the world in terms of papers and citations. My paper, “Changing streamflow on Columbia basin tribal lands—climate change and salmon,” was the culmination of 12 years of research performed at CRITFC. It’s my biggest research paper to date. [You can read the paper here: (bit.ly/tribal-climate).] According to the publisher, this is the first time a peer-reviewed science journal has exclusively devoted an entire edition to climate change and its impacts on indigenous/tribal communities across the United States. More than 50 authors contributed to this issue, representing tribal communities, academia, government agencies, and NGOs.

My research focuses on a historical perspective of changing timing and volumes of stream flows on tribal lands throughout the Columbia Basin. I am also a co-author of another paper in this special issue that assesses water resources across all the tribal lands of the United States and specific cultural impacts (and I wrote the PNW section). The research presented in this issue of Climatic Change supplements the “Impacts of Climate Change on Tribal, Indigenous, and Native Lands and Resources” chapter in the Third National Climate Assessment. The National Climate Assessment will inform national decision makers on the climate change status and trends throughout the United States. The new Fifth Assessment of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc.ch) will cover indigenous peoples and climate change. This special issue will also be cited. So, the significance is enormous on a regional, national, and global level.

Can you explain how salmon are more than just a food source for tribes?

Salmon are a major and integral part of PNW tribal culture. Native American spirituality teaches that all “First Peoples” have a special relationship and responsibility with all the “gifts” (e.g., water, plants, animals, etc.) left by the Creator. The People take care of the Creator’s gifts and the gifts take care of the People. This symbiotic relationship and powerful bond between the PNW tribes and salmon was set as the Natural Law during the time of the Ancient Ones and has endured for over 10,000 years (critfc.org/salmon-culture/tribal-salmon-culture). As such, the interior Columbia Basin tribes became known as the Salmon People (critfc.org/salmon-culture/we-are-all-salmon-people). Think of salmon as being the equivalent of a Communion Wafer, used in Catholic Church services. When a tribal member eats a piece of a salmon, it is like taking a part of the spirit of the salmon, or “Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit” (ancient Sahaptin), and making it a part of your body – like a powerful mysterious life force that gives Life.

Can you share an example of a personal experience you have had with tribes and salmon resources?

The most amazing and culturally powerful experience that I was honored to participate in was attending the tribes’ First Salmon Ceremony or Celilo Wy-am, held in early April of each year at the Celilo Longhouse just east of The Dalles (critfc.org/salmon-culture/tribal-salmon-culture/first-salmon-feast). This six-hour ceremony and feast is meant to honor the first adult salmon of the season to swim up the Columbia River.

What is the reasoning for using five independent ways to calculate stream flows in your paper?

A wide variety of environmental indicators can document a changing climate. Since I have worked as a Hydrologist-Meteorologist, it made sense to use stream flow metrics. A river record contains a lot of ‘ground-truth’ information. It is the product of all the weather events, rain and snow storms, in that basin over the years. Three of the metrics show the change in flow timing. Two metrics show the change in extreme high and low flows. All five measures point to a similar conclusion but come at it with different perspectives.

How do shifts in peak stream flow affect fish?

The change in stream flow timing means that the food sources for the fish and wildlife may not be available when they’re needed. The salmon may not grow to juvenile size or be ready for their journey to the ocean. Anything that can impact the salmon’s first year of survival, which is in the rivers, can have great impacts on the rest of its life cycle.

Many major PNW rivers have several dams crossing their path to the ocean. Would these dams be, in general, “bad for salmon?”

The history of dams in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere) has been filled with promise and controversy for more than 100 years. Dams were promoted with promises of bountiful agriculture, cheap electricity, and taming and/or stopping damaging flooding of communities. The environmental impacts were trivialized or not well known back then – ‘progress’ was the word of the day. These promises have been fulfilled – as our region enjoys good economic prosperity – but it has come at an accumulated environmental cost. When you build a dam – big or small – you slow down the river and alter its timing. A dam impacts the natural ecological processes that the salmon and other fish depend on for their survival. If you look at the last diagram in my paper (in the Supplemental Materials section), then you will see a graph of Chinook salmon abundance of the last 150-years. The salmon have been in decline since the 1800’s from overfishing and destruction of habitat. The construction of the dams from 1910s to the 1970s did help force the salmon populations to a 99% decline of their original abundance. Much has been written about the impacts to salmon (nwcouncil.org/history/DamsImpacts).

You include El Niño’s climate effects in your paper. You also include PDO or Pacific Decadal Oscillation which isn’t as well known. Can you briefly describe how PDO differs from El Niño?

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation is a 20-30 year swing in North Pacific Ocean temperature.  The PDO was discovered through its close relationship with PNW and Alaskan salmon – their populations move in sync when the PDO oscillates from warm to cold. El Niño is part of a short-term (one-year) fluctuation called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (or “ENSO”). Here in the PNW, an El Niño event will give us warm, dry winters. That may sound nice for people, but it wreaks havoc on our natural resources. Salmon suffer due to low river flow and poor ocean conditions. Water for irrigation and hydro-electric power takes a big hit. Forest fires are more likely in the summer after an El Niño event. The PDO does influence (i.e., strengthen or weaken) the impacts of ENSO events. Both ENSO and PDO are a big part of natural climate variability. My research used five distinctive stream flow metrics along with statistical tests to tease out a climate change signal that is outside the bounds of natural climate variability.

Your paper has several tools that students would be familiar with: like maps, tables, and other statistical graphics. How important is it for experts to know about them? For laypersons?

Looking at tables of numbers is not enough. Earth science is a very graphical science. To see in spatial depth (3-D) or even time (4-D) gives an extra view and context. Using statistics is an extension of standard math tools – enabling a scientist to tease out trends and significant differences that you could not do otherwise. This is important for the layperson, so that one can see proper cause-and-effect relationships and not coincidence or false relationships.

In the sciences, what areas do you find students generally strong or weak?

Students have moderate-to-strong curiosity of the world around them. Since we live in one of the most incredible naturally beautiful places on Earth, the PNW, it is natural for most PNW students to learn about the science of where we live. Some students entering my class say that they’re taking the class “just for credit,” then I get them hooked into the science and help them develop a real enthusiasm for the subject. One of my goals is to induce life-long learning of a science, so that they will continue to learn long after they leave my class. A big weakness for students is a fear of math and being able or willing to learn to use such tools (e.g., equations, graphs, and computer apps). A student is much better able to learn the science if you use its tools.

Are you currently working on any new papers?

As far as new papers, I am working on new research as to the climate impacts of the Iceland volcanic eruption of 2010. A gifted student at Lake Oswego High School has been my research assistant. He downloaded my temperature data and number-crunched while I ran statistical tests. I will make him a co-author of this new paper, soon to be submitted to Monthly Weather Review.

The Bridge appreciates the detail of your answers and the time you took for this interview. For students wanting to learn more about climate and the environment, where would you recommend they look?

Students are welcome and encouraged to take the Intro Meteorology class (GS-109), as climate change is covered. I teach GS-109 each Autumn term. It is important that students know the difference between real climate change science and the junk-science promoted by climate change deniers and hucksters – the climate change “televangelists” of our time. In my GS-109 class, I use a climate change group project that divides the class up into the three causes of climate change. They present their research findings to the class at the end of term. Each group tries to persuade that their view of climate change is the “correct” world view. It is a lot of work but tons of fun. The students come away with in-depth knowledge of climate science and being able to tell the difference between good science and junk science.

For films, I would recommend former Vice-President Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” (climatecrisis.net), which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2007. Contrary to popular opinion from the “deniers,” it is not a propaganda film from the “Church of Global Warming,” but rather a fact-filled retrospective view of how we know that the climate has been changing. I was asked to give a key-note address at an Indian Water-Law conference in 2007 about this film. It is on target and uses good science. I saw Al Gore’s original slide-show when he first came to Portland in 2005. At one point, he was talking about “oxygen isotopes” in climate research. Everyone else in the audience did not understand what he said; but I did. I used oxygen isotopes in my master’s degree thesis. For a politician, he understands the science of climate really well. Ironically, he did not talk a lot about future climate change. Despite well-funded attacks on the film, it has stood the test of time. Its message has resonated even more in recent years, given the increased extremism in our weather. Our increasingly warm atmosphere has played some role in the wide-spread death and destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), and now Super Typhoon Haiyan (2013). Preliminary reports suggest that Haiyan could be the strongest storm ever recorded in history and the scenes of destruction to the Philippines are sad and heart-breaking (dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2496954).

Another film worth viewing is the award-winning 2010 documentary, “Sun Come Up” (suncomeup.com). It is a story about a south Pacific island nation that is forced to move to another neighboring island, as their islands are being inundated by rising sea-levels due to global warming. Their whole society, which had been in harmony with the sea for thousands of years, is forced to change or die. The PCC Library (pcc.edu/library) now has this film and it can be checked out by students.

There are also good online resources that the reader can go visit. One of my top recommendations is the Climate Impacts Group (CIG), based out of the University of Washington, in Seattle (washington.edu/cig). The CIG is the largest and oldest of all the climate change science “think-tanks” in the USA that were set up during the 1990’s. You can read about the basics of climate change science and see what research has been done to date on PNW natural resources and society impacts. The IPCC website (ipcc.ch) is another good source.

Share this Post:
Anthony Robotham

About Anthony Robotham

Former Southeast Campus Editor (2013-2014), Anthony joined the Bridge staff in late October 2012. As a high school dropout who transformed himself into a college honors student, he was surprised at how well he was doing academically. While at PCC, he has been inspired by other students who are also in college to better their lives. After finding how rewarding it is to learn about other PCC students and their goals—he became more involved. Anthony started volunteering and made personal connections with many more students, student clubs, and school staff. Seeing that PCC students are excited to share their experiences and concerns with college, Anthony wanted to work for the student newspaper to help inform the student body and give them a voice.