In the fall of 2010, Oregon State University (OSU) and the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) became the host organizations for the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC), a member of NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, a national leader in climate science and adaptation. Recently our NOAA RISA team members compiled a comprehensive report detailing what we’ve learned and accomplished as part of our first seven years of operation, a period we call CIRC 1.0.
The report, “Responding to Climate Variability and Change in the Pacific Northwest United States, Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium September 2010–August 2017, Phase 1 Final Report,” acts as a kind of mini climate assessment, reviewing the many climate impacts the Pacific Northwest is likely to face as our climate continues to change.
This post reviews—in easily consumable and shareable nuggets—just some of what we’ve learned about climate impacts in the Pacific Northwest. Enjoy!
About Climate Impacts:
Climate impacts can result from anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change, such as the notable long-term increase in average annual air temperatures in recent decades, or from natural climate variability, such as flooding resulting from periodic El Niño and La Niña events. Climate impacts and our findings around them are listed by impact.
During the 20th century the Pacific Northwest warmed by 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit), according to CIRC research. That warming has continued in recent years and is expected to continue throughout the 21st century, bringing a series of cascading effects to our landscapes, producing impacts as varied as winter flooding and raging wildfires. The growing season expanded and the coldest night of the year warmed dramatically, especially east of the Cascades, according to our research.
Precipitation projections for the Pacific Northwest don’t share the same level of certainty, or confidence, as temperature projections. Unlike temperature projections, there isn’t a consensus that our region will become either notably wetter or drier under human-caused climate change. What the climate models do suggest, taken together, is that annual precipitation might stay about the same or become slightly wetter (a small majority of models say wetter, some say drier). At the same time, our region’s summers might become slightly drier while our winters might become slightly wetter.
For a general explanation of confidence levels and precipitation projections, see our webpage: http://pnwcirc.org/science/precipitation.
Snowpack & Drought:
Mountain snow, or snowpack, acts as a natural water reservoir. By slowly melting over the summer months, snowpack provides water during what is typically the Pacific Northwest’s warmest and driest time of year. As with much of the American West, rising temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are making it far more likely that precipitation will fall more as rain and less as snow. This trend is expected to continue as temperatures continue to rise under human-caused climate change. Climate change-induced alterations of the Pacific Northwest’s hydrology have already led to water scarcities in our region.
Probably the best example of this happened in 2015 when abnormally warm winter temperatures and near-normal precipitation resulted in record low snowpack across Oregon and Washington. A good deal of CIRC research has revolved around tracking how the loss of snowpack has affected our region’s hydrology in the near term as well as how the loss of snowpack is likely to affect our region in the future.
Wildfires & Ecological Change:
Wildfires have increased in size and frequency in the western United States in recent decades. Rising temperatures tied to human-caused climate change is a significant factor. This trend is expected to continue into the future as rising temperatures make conditions ideal for larger, more destructive wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires are expected to contribute to major ecological changes, helping to shift the composition of the Pacific Northwest’s forests.
Along the Pacific Northwest coast, a combination of rising sea levels, intensifying waves, changes in storm patterns, and major El Niño and La Niña events has produced increased flooding and erosion hazards for many coastal communities. At CIRC, we are examining the impacts of numerous coastal hazards and extremes while simultaneously identifying communities along the coast that are bearing the brunt of these hazards.
Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. Other Posts by this Author.