science environment

The Denmark Project: Climate Change From Europe To The Oregon Coast

By Christy George (OPB)
Denmark, OR July 1, 2009 4:30 p.m.

A majority of climate scientists agree – the planet is warming.

The question now is how climate change will change our lives, our landscapes, our economy, and the ecological web around us.


And how will we react to a changing climate?

World leaders are already drafting a global climate treaty.

They’ll finalize it at a summit this coming December in Copenhagen, Denmark.

So we decided to focus on the impact of climate change on one small town – the town of Denmark, Oregon.

Christy George has OPB’s Denmark Project.

Patty Reese: I grew up, went to high school here, raised my family here and now I’m back.

“Here” is a tiny town near the northernmost edge of the southernmost county in Oregon. Curry County has the Pacific Ocean to the west, forest and mountains to the east and to the south, California.

Jim Kolen is Curry County’s tax assessor.

Jim Kolen: Denmark’s always just been a sign on the highway, letting me know I’m going through it.

The sign that says Denmark, Oregon sits right at the bridge over Willow Creek, next to a drive-through espresso stand that Patty Reese owns.

Patty Reese: My brother and I played in the creek and we learned to swim here that’s how I ended up at Denmark.

You can’t get a cup of coffee there right now, but for most passers-by, Patty Reese’s espresso stand IS Denmark, Oregon.

Long before she opened her shop, her father owned a gas station in the same spot.

Patty Reese: My dad was looking for a business, he was always an entrepreneur. So he bought this property and built a gas station and a garage where he could fix flat tires and things, a service station – of old. So that’s how we ended up here.

Apart from a little tourism, the economy is mostly berry-growing and cattle and sheep ranching – much like the economy when Denmark was settled in the 19th Century.

Bill Waddle: I don’t know if they’re living in the 1880’s…

Bill Waddle chairs the Curry County Board of Commissioners.

Bill Waddle:  …but they certainly do enjoy independence, and certainly feel they’re part of Curry County.

How many people live here?

Patty Reese: In Denmark? Maybe 30.

Patty Reese says there are still a few descendants of the Scandinavians who settled Denmark, Oregon. Back then, Denmark was a lot busier.

Patty Reese: People who grew up here homesteaded, I remember potatoes over the hill to sell, they didn’t think about it being Danish except there were the Nilsons, the Jensens, the Adolfsons and the Rasmussens, and they liked looks of the rolling hillsides and green grass, dairies and sawmills, big timbering time. And yeah, we all knew the history.

The Denmark Post Office was established in 1882, and a year later, notary public and conveyancer, real estate and collection agent J. H. Upton started publishing “The Southwest Oregon Recorder.”

The Post Office made it to 1960, but the paper only lasted two years. It was a chronicle of a new settlement in the making.

Actor Gary Schiedel portraying J. H. Upton:

"Tuesday, September 23, 1884. No bids yet to erect a bridge across Floras Creek.

W. H. Averill shot a panther on his place Sunday.

Panthers played hell with old Doc Wilson’s sheep.

Tuesday, October 14th, 1884. School District Number 13 met in considerable numbers in Denmark Saturday last regarding the advisability of levying a tax to complete the schoolhouse.

Tuesday, November 18th, 1884. We are somewhat disappointed at our inability to make an authoritative announcement to the effect that Cleveland is to be our next President, though we entertain no doubt whatsoever as to his election.

December 9th, 1884. Who has the dictionary belonging to this school district?"

Denmark never incorporated as a town. And that’s partly why nobody in Curry County knows exactly where Denmark, Oregon is.

Not even Patty Reese, who lives right downtown.

When you think of this area, how far do you extend the borders?

Patty Reese:  You mean Denmark? Well, Clyde Quigley’s house has to be included in Denmark, so I’d say half a mile to Langlois.

The trouble is, Langlois – the town just north of Denmark is unincorporated, too. And so is Sixes - the town just south of Denmark.

We went looking for old maps, but the Curry County Surveyors Office couldn’t find any that show where the town of Denmark is, or was - and neither could Tax Assessor Jim Kolen.

Jim Kolen: Denmark, I’ve never seen anything on a map as to where the boundaries were on that.

Nobody really knows where Denmark starts or stops.

So we’ll stretch the town borders a little so we can talk about research into how climate change affects that part of the southern Oregon coast.

Climate change has no geographic boundaries either.

When people filled up their Fords and Studebakers at the old Denmark gas station, one of the emissions that came out of their tailpipes was carbon dioxide, or CO2.

Andrew Rice: If you traced a molecule of CO2, it can live for many decades in the atmosphere, and it might go into the atmosphere and then if you look west east transport only takes a couple of weeks to go all the way around the globe.

Professor Andrew Rice studies greenhouse gases at Portland State University.

Andrew Rice in his lab: Usually we’re looking for fairly trace compounds with this type of mass spec…

We couldn’t survive without carbon dioxide. Plants turn it into oxygen, and when CO2 gets into the upper atmosphere, it traps heat – and makes Earth livable.

But too much carbon dioxide and Earth heats up so much that the climate starts to change.

And here’s the big problem.

Andrew Rice: It just doesn’t turn on a dime essentially. It’s a very complicated system, and these gases last a long time – some of them thousands of years. The main ones, carbon dioxide, are much shorter – hundreds of years.

The CO2 that Patty Reese’s father’s customers emitted decades ago may still be in what scientists call “the pipeline” – meaning, our history has yet to hit us.

Andrew Rice: If we shut off emissions tomorrow of carbon dioxide, for example, not only would the climate continue to warm over the next several decades, the concentration would continue to increase. It takes awhile for them to build up, takes awhile for the climate to respond to those changes and then it will take awhile for it to turn around, so it’s a big system you’re poking a stick at and watching it respond. We’re performing the experiment today and it’s happening.

Scientists are quick to clarify that the climate change is different from the way weather changes naturally. Take 1884.

“The Southwest Oregon Recorder, Volume 11, Number 13.

Tuesday, September 9th

We give it up! All our weather predictions have failed this year. We, in common with many others, predicted that, since so much rain had fallen since July, we would have a late Fall, but not so…

October 14th

Potato rot in late-planted crops

November 25th

Last week, we mentioned the fact that that up to that time, no sign of frost had assailed our ranch, and we reckon that was what brought it.

December 30th

The cold snap which preceded the rainstorm was one of exceptional severity and unusual duration.

February 10th, 1885

While our farming brethren in the Mountains and even in the Willamette Valley are struggling about on snow shoes, the denizens of these parts are preparing the ground with a view to putting in the regulation garden truck, many having already planted potatoes... “Who ever saw such a country as this?”

By the time the Scandinavians got to Denmark, Oregon, the coast had changed a lot since the first people arrived thousands of years ago.

Jon Erlandson: There’s been - in the last ten thousand years – 40 meters of sea level rise, the equivalent of over 100 feet of sea level rise, so the shoreline would’ve been several kilometers further removed from where it is today.

Jon Erlandson and his wife are both anthropologists at the University of Oregon. A few years ago, they dug in Oregon state parks, searching for remnants of ancient settlements.


Jon Erlandson: The sites on the Oregon coast are very young, almost exclusively, except for one site – and that one was a site called CU 67, in Curry County. And it was interesting, because it produced a lot of cobble tools, flake cobble tools, like this piece here. It’s probably, could be a tool for chopping.

Those artifacts only date back 500 to 1500 years. But --

Jon Erlandson: We think in all likelihood people settled the Oregon coast more than ten thousand years ago.

Why is there no evidence of them? Jon Erlandson thinks the explanation lies just off the coast, under the Pacific Ocean.

He thinks the older sites have been lost to a series of undersea earthquakes in what’s called the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Oregon coast.

Jon Erlandson: Every time there’s an earthquake, along most of the coast the ground drops a meter to two meters, and then coastal sites probably eroded away very quickly, people resettled those coastal sites, and 500 years later there’s another earthquake, and it’s progressively erasing the record of human occupations along the Oregon coast.

So the southern Oregon coast has been disappearing faster than the rest of the Pacific coast.

And Jon Erlandson fears more will be lost as the climate changes.

Jon Erlandson: Some of the most recent projections are suggesting sea level could rise three meters or more in this century – which is close to ten feet – and if you raise the sea level ten feet, there’s going to be lot of erosion along the Oregon coast, so even those historical sites that still exist in this area, which are very important repositories of scientific information and also are deeply important to living Native peoples who still connect their history to these tangible sites, these are going to be increasingly lost to coastal erosion as sea level rises.

Climate change could melt the ice at the poles like at the end of an Ice Age, sea level worldwide rises.

Christina Hulbe studies glaciers at Portland State University.

She’s been studying in New Zealand, so we talked to her though Skype about what happened during the last Ice Age.

Christina Hulbe: As that ice sheet grows, sea level is getting lower, because the water that makes the sheet is coming from the ocean. You put all that together, globally, you get about 120 meters of sea level lowering.

120 meters equals almost 400 feet.

Christina Hulbe: When we think about where the sand came from that is now on the beaches in Denmark, Oregon, it was all deposited along the coast of Oregon during that time, when sea level was a lot lower.

Since the last Ice Age, the planet has been warming up, ice has been melting and sea level has been rising.

The Ice Ages are a natural process, triggered by tiny changes in Earth’s orbit over tens of thousands of years. But Christina Hulbe says human activities are making glaciers melt much faster  – activities like burning oil, gas and coal, and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

Christina Hulbe: When we think about coastal change due to global warming right now, one of the big issues is sea level rise. And sea level is rising right now at a reasonably rapid rate - about three millimeters a year. Right now, most of that is coming from Alpine glaciers, from the little glaciers on Mt. Hood, the little glaciers in Washington and all around the planet.

Christina Hulbe: Increasingly, that signal is starting to come from Greenland and a few places in Antarctica. But for the most part, it’s mountain glaciers melting that are generating the sea level rise right now.

That melting ice causes the sea level to rise around the globe, not exactly evenly, but the Oregon coast will get its share.

Ironically, Denmark might not be affected as much as other places.

Remember that undersea subduction zone off Oregon?

Geoscientist Peter Ruggiero of Oregon State University says that actually helps raise the southern Oregon coast.

Peter Ruggiero: The land tectonic plates and the tectonic plates off of the ocean are banging into each other. It turns out that along the Oregon coast, in the southern Oregon coast, land has been rising faster than the sea has been going up over the last several decades, and so, in terms of relative sea level rise, there’s been a relative sea level drop on the southern Oregon coast.

Peter Ruggiero says Oregonians got a taste of what might happen if sea level rises a lot – the stormy El Nino years of 1997 through 1999.

Peter Ruggiero: Oh absolutely, there was many millions of dollars of damage, including houses falling into the ocean.

That was when Oregon State researchers discovered that wave heights are increasing on the Oregon coast.

Peter Ruggiero: The issue at hand is, one, we’ve developed so close to the ocean - it’s a beautiful place to live, people want to live there - so coastal communities are some of the fastest developing communities along the West coast. And, number two, what’s happening now is these processes are accelerating. And in particular, sea level rise is certainly accelerating, and the impacts of that will be felt eventually and this relatively recent discovery of increasing wave heights just compounds the problem.

Philip Mote: The world is not – the ecosystems and human societies - are really not prepared for such rapid and extensive environmental change and it would be very disruptive.

Philip Mote heads up the new Oregon Institute of Climate Change Research. He moved here from Seattle, where he studied what would happen to Washington, Oregon and the rest of the Northwest under various scenarios of rising temperatures.

He says if the world turns away from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the 21st Century will be very different from anything humans have seen: winters snows would turn to rain and plants and animals would go extinct.

Philip Mote: We’d see wholesale transformations of landscapes, dominant tree species not re-establishing after fires, invasive species - new pests and weeds, new kinds of diseases. And we know from just watching the world around us, when there is any kind of disruption, the most resilient species are the beneficiaries. So the plants – dandelions can grow just about anywhere, cockroaches, and flies and ants can live just about anywhere, so they’re the ones that are going to do really well. And it’s your delicate flowers and your very specials kinds of trees and rare mammals and so on that are going to have the hardest time of it.

But if the world agrees to tackle climate change, Phil Mote says, much of the damage could be averted.

Philip Mote: At the low end, we’d see expansion of agriculture into - farther north. We’d be able to grow more varieties of wine grapes here in Oregon. We would see modest changes in water resources and disease vectors.

When we come back, people are already working on a global climate treaty.

That’s the sound of kids riding the roller-coaster at Tivoli Park -- and hanging out in the main square of Copenhagen, Denmark.

In December, thousands of people from around the world will come here to debate the terms of a treaty to combat climate change.

The first thing you see when your plane lands in Denmark is a wind farm in the harbor.

Dorthe Nielsen says her colleagues at the Danish wind turbine company, Vestas, are already negotiating what they’d like to see in that climate treaty -not just support for wind power, but strong targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions – long-term and short-term.

Dorthe Nielsen: This can create long-term policy certainty for renewables, and policy certainty is key in deploying renewables.  It is important that such a system is designed to promote renewables because that will not happen automatically.

The U.S. Congress is debating a cap and trade plan - the Markey-Waxman bill. It could build in support for renewables. But at the moment, the bill does more to promote so-called clean coal – a technology that so far doesn’t exist.

Dorthe Nielsen points to the recently released Stern Report, which looked not just at the cost of doing something about climate change – but also at the cost of doing nothing, which is much higher.

Dorthe Nielsen: That was definitely a game-changer for the entire global community. We cannot afford not to do anything.

Denmark is part of the European Union, which has already adopted its own cap and trade system.

Today, Sweden takes over as EU president, a rotating job that will have Sweden presiding over the Copenhagen summit.

Pierre Schellekens: What we are talking about, at least, according to serious scientists, is a temperature increase, maybe of six to seven degrees Celsius by 2100.

Pierre Schellekens is the head of EU commission representation in Sweden.

Pierre Schellekens: First of all, it sounds like a long time, but it’s not. My daughter was born two years ago and if she reaches the average life length of the European woman, she’ll still be around in 2100. And secondly, it sounds like a small figure, but it’s an enormous figure. The last Ice Age we had, the temperature difference was five degrees from that Ice Age to today.

That’s five degrees Celsius – nine degrees Fahrenheit.

Individual European Union countries, including Sweden, have also adopted their own cap and trade plans – some stricter than the EU.

Pierre Schellekens sees the European Union as brokers in the climate talks.

Pierre Schellekens: I personally think the EU is the bridge. U.S. climate change policy is in flux for the moment and we are not quite sure what will come out of the different bills being negotiated. These bills, at least what I know of them, show more openness also to emerging economies than the former U.S. position.

The pressure on Congress doesn’t just come from other nations or from businesses. It also comes from individual states, including Oregon.

In fact, Dorthe Nielsen says that’s one reason Vestas chose Portland for its North American headquarters.

Dorthe Nielsen: Denmark is a leader in renewables and has shown the way for many countries, and I think it’s very much been the same for Oregon here in the United States. We generate 20% of our energy from wind, and the plan is that we by 2025 will generate 50% of electricity from wind. Here in Oregon you have a very strong portfolio standard that has done a lot to drive renewables.

Julie Schødt Lybæk-Hansen: warns of low bridge in Danish

A reminder of the impacts of sea level rise comes on a boat tour of Copenhagen’s canals.

Julie Schødt Lybæk-Hansen: The next bridge we are coming to is extremely low because the water has increased, so please keep seated and mind your heads carefully.

Most Oregonians may not know where the other Denmark is – Denmark, Oregon – but Copenhagen tour guide Julie Schødt Lybæk-Hansen does.

So you’ve heard of Denmark, Oregon?

Julie Schødt Lybæk-Hansen: Yes, of course.  I’ve heard it’s some kind of a small community with a lot of Danes, and people who like Danish culture. I also heard they eat a lot of Danish food, like traditional things like meatballs called krickadilla. And a lot of immigrants from Denmark living there.

Well, there aren’t very many people living there at all.

It turns out lots of Danes feel connected to Denmark, Oregon. And they, like the people who live there, want to protect the idea of Denmark – even as the world changes.

Patty Reese: I’m a big history buff and a believer in learning from history and I don’t want it lost.

Patty Reese wants to expand her espresso stand and open a Danish bed and breakfast. And she wants things to stay the same, too.

Patty Reese: I want something that’s in tune with the history, in tune with sitting listening to the creek flow by. I want my children and my grandchildren to come back and see Denmark, and know kind of what it was like when I grew up here.

Christy George produced our show.  Gary Schiedel portrayed J. H. Upton.

The music you heard was by the Danish group, Instinkt.

We’ll return to Denmark, Oregon, after Labor Day.