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National Climate Report: 5 Trends for the Pacific Northwest

Following the release of the federal National Climate Assessment last week, experts in Washington state say that although the window for countering the negative impacts of climate change is narrowing, there's still time.

Seattle skyline with Mt. Rainier in background
Adobe Stock/kenmc3
(TNS) — The trend is clear: Earth is warming because of our longstanding reliance on fossil fuels.

As our cars, buildings, refineries, large industries and power plants burn fossil fuels, emitting harmful and noxious greenhouse gasses, the planet will continue to warm, according to the federal government's latest National Climate Assessment, published last week.

Like the rest of the world, the Northwest is at risk. Washington, Oregon and Idaho are home to some 14 million people and 43 Native American tribes. The region is already experiencing climate change and more will come in the decades ahead, the state's climatologist and one of the report's authors told The Seattle Times.

But the region is not without influence or options.

In the coming years, polar ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, weather disasters like wildfires and floods will become more common and more intense, the report says. Food sources are at risk, so is the stability of the global economy as well as the longevity — and even the quality — of our lives.

These changes won't happen overnight, Washington state climatologist Nick Bond said. You might not notice them every day, every month or even every year. But they are happening and the poorest among us, in communities of color and rural areas, are likely to suffer the worst.

"Climate change is inexorable," Bond said.

States like Washington are scrambling to cut greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and painlessly as possible, with mixed degrees of success and local opposition. Others resist the change or even lay the groundwork for the continued reliance on the fossil fuels that have brought us to this point.

The faster the U.S. and the rest of the world cuts emissions, the quicker the risks diminish, the report says. The immediate benefit — and the benefit to future generations — will "far outweigh" the costs those changes would impose.

We still have time to shape our future, for better or for worse.

"Although the window is narrowing, it's still open," said Deepti Singh, a climate scientist with Washington State University and one of the assessment's many authors.

The federal climate assessments, published about every five years, contain information compiled by hundreds of scientists and experts looking to explain the effects of climate change on the U.S. and examine what the future might hold.

Here are five things to know about the Northwest from the latest National Climate Assessment:

1. Rising temperatures

Average temperatures across the Northwest have risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, the report says. Extremely hot days are becoming more common. In the best-case-scenario, average temperatures will increase by 4.7 degrees by 2080 or 10 degrees in the worst-case scenario.

While some areas across the world could become uninhabitable, Bond said the Northwest likely won't degrade quite as badly.

"We're going to be in a much different place, but it's not like we'll all be boiled alive and cooked in our own juices," Bond said.

Hotter temperatures will mean more frequent and severe heat waves, less snowpack, more frequent drought, increased wildfire risk, diminishing stream flows and more common debris flows and landslides.

Bursts of more-extreme rainfall will become more common and reach farther inland, adding to flooding risk.

Ocean temperatures will increase too. Already, they're up 1.2 degrees from 1900, and they'll increase between 4.6 degrees to 7.3 degrees by the end of the century.

2. The consequences of climate change won't be spread evenly

The people most at risk of extreme heat, wildfires, smoke, flooding and more are those who already suffer from historic and systemic inequalities. Low-income communities, communities of color, tribal and Indigenous populations and rural areas dependent on natural resources will suffer the most, the report says.

Heat waves will kill more people, wildfire smoke will cause or exacerbate respiratory or cardiovascular problems and potentially lead to cancer; infectious diseases and diseases spread by insects will become more common; and environmental hazards like toxic algal blooms will pose a greater risk, the report says.

Extreme heat and wildfire smoke can even lead to premature births or underweight babies, the report says.

"We're all experiencing those hazards," Singh said. "However, some of us have the ability to stay indoors when it's smoky outside. Some of us have the capacity to have air conditioners. Some of us have the ability to purchase expensive air-quality filters."

Those that don't, those who live or work outside and those who have fewer resources, including money, face more danger, Singh said.

Climate change will also exact a mental and emotional toll, Singh added. This includes symptoms like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress but also a loss of a sense of place or community.

3. There will be winners and losers in the plant and animal kingdoms

Plants, animals, fish and insects must also face the changing climate. What happens with them will disrupt food chains, generational cycles, soil contents and even the landscape itself.

For example, rising temperatures in the Salmon River in central and eastern Idaho could rise more than other rivers downstream, cutting nearly half the waterway's streamflow during the Snake River sockeye salmon migration season.

Marine heat waves have already killed billions of crabs and other marine creatures. They're also particularly deadly for sea birds.

Warmer water temperatures will mean more toxic algae blooms, Singh said, which will diminish water quality in salt and freshwater systems.

Extreme heat on land poses severe risks for natural plant life. Increasing and worsening wildfires can transform once-forested areas into shrub lands, the report says.

Other species will benefit, Bond noted. Certain aquatic species will thrive in warmer waters or, for example, areas once filled with Douglas firs will instead be peppered with Ponderosa pines.

Invasive species are also likely to gain easier footholds, Bond said.

"Things are going to change," he said. "There are going to be winners and losers."

4. Our food sources and regional economies are at risk

If a warming climate poses a risk to the Northwest's natural environment, it also threatens the region's agricultural systems.

The region includes nearly 139 million acres of public and private cropland, grasslands, pastures, rangelands and forests, the report said, and its agricultural industry pumps billions of dollars into the economy (more than $6 billion in 2021).

Many crops in the Northwest depend on cooler air to grow properly and in desirable quantities, the report says. Fruits and perennial crops are less likely to flourish in the southern portions of the region, though they may gain ground to the north.

"While increasing temperatures in some regions may present new economic opportunities, such as winegrape growing in Puget Sound, other climate-related impacts such as wildfire smoke may impede these emerging industries," the report says.

The lack of water will also cut into crop yields, the report says. Winter wheat, spring wheat and barley yields declined between 2020 and 2021. Forage crops, on which cattle and other livestock rely, will also decline.

Fisheries, which already face season cancellations and diminished catches will see populations decline further, the report says. Not only are the warming marine temperatures harmful but ocean acidification and toxic algae blooms exacerbate the stress.

"Further population declines, especially of Pacific salmon, will have additional consequences for Tribal communities reliant on fish for subsistence, ceremonies and health," the report says.

"These have impacts on peoples' livelihoods, peoples' food sources, tourism, the economy," Singh said.

While climate change is projected to halve the snow season in portions of the Cascades by the end of the century, cutting into winter sports, the report notes that the change might also expand access for activities like hiking and camping. The demand for warm-weather activities like cycling and boating might also increase.

5. We must adapt our cities, roads and electrical grid

Cities, towns and even the wires bringing electricity to our homes are vulnerable, the report says.

Think of Harbor Island in Seattle or even downtown Olympia, Bond said. These are exceptionally low-lying areas susceptible to rising ocean levels and put at further risk by inevitable high tides and storms.

Farmlands might become inundated by saltwater, Bond said.

"There might be examples of places we might have to give up," Bond said.

Other areas will be at risk of drought, wildfire, heat waves, floods and landslides, the report says.

As they're currently designed and built, many cities trap heat, creating the urban heat-island effect, especially in areas with large buildings and less green spaces, Singh said. Small changes won't be enough.

"What we need is not just providing everybody with an air conditioner. hat's only going to make the problem worse," she said. "We need transformative adaptation. We need large-scale changes to our urban environment."

The location of homes and buildings, the materials with which they're built and the roads connecting them all, must be reconsidered, the report says.

That adaptation doesn't end with cities and towns, though, Singh said. The region's electrical grid needs work too. Not only is it at risk of extreme weather, which could in turn spark devastating wildfires, but much of the grid isn't prepared for the ever-increasing demand for electricity as the nation shifts away from fossil fuels.

The region is already looking to build like wind farms and solar arrays but many more will be needed.

In broad strokes, the National Climate Assessment provides glimpses of the world to come and the options we have to protect our future.

Perhaps the most notable change in this latest report is the strength of which its authors underscore humanity's influence on the climate, Bond said. Washington might produce a fraction of global greenhouse gasses but its influence can be much greater, particularly with statewide attempts to cut dependence on fossil fuels, he said.

"We can kind of lead the way and show how a reduction can be accomplished," he said. "That would be a legacy that people in our state should be proud of."

Freeing ourselves from a reliance on fossil fuels can mitigate the worst effects of climate change in the decades to come, Singh said. But those changes will also yield immediate benefits like cleaner air and water.

Nationally, our emissions are slightly falling, though Washington's latest data show an increase locally, which is a good sign, Singh said. But much more work is needed.

"We have a choice here in the level at which the planet warms," Singh said. "I wouldn't say we're on track but we're moving in the right direction."

© 2023 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.