Residents of the Northwest list the inherent qualities of the natural environment among the top reasons to live in the region. The region is known for clean air, abundant water, low-cost hydroelectric power, vast forests, extensive farmlands, and outdoor recreation that includes hiking, boating, fishing, hunting, and skiing. Climate change, including gradual changes to the climate and in extreme climatic events, is already affecting these valued aspects of the region, including the natural resource sector, cultural identity and quality of life, built infrastructure systems, and the health of Northwest residents. The communities on the front lines of climate change—tribes and Indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the economically disadvantaged—are experiencing the first, and often the worst, effects.
In this assessment, the Key Messages explore how climate change could affect the interrelationships between the environment and the people of the Northwest. The extreme weather events of 2015 provide an excellent opportunity to explore projected changes in baseline climate conditions for the Northwest. The vast array of climate impacts that occurred over this record-breaking warm and dry year, coupled with the impacts of a multiyear drought, provide an enlightening glimpse into what may be more commonplace under a warmer future climate. Record-low snowpack led to water scarcity and large wildfires that negatively affected farmers, hydropower, drinking water, air quality, salmon, and recreation. Warmer than normal ocean temperatures led to shifts in the marine ecosystem, challenges for salmon, and a large harmful algal bloom that adversely affected the region’s fisheries and shellfish harvests.
Strong climate variability is likely to persist for the Northwest, owing in part to the year-to-year and decade-to-decade climate variability associated with the Pacific Ocean. Periods of prolonged drought are projected to be interspersed with years featuring heavy rainfall driven by powerful atmospheric rivers and strong El Niño winters associated with storm surge, large waves, and coastal erosion. Continued changes in the ocean environment, such as warmer waters, altered chemistry, sea level rise, and shifts in the marine ecosystems are also expected. These changes would affect the Northwest’s natural resource economy, cultural heritage, built infrastructure, and recreation as well as the health and welfare of Northwest residents.
The Northwest has an abundance of examples and case studies that highlight climate adaptation in progress and in practice—including creating resilient agro-ecosystems that reduce climate-related risks while meeting economic, conservation, and adaptation goals; using “green” or hybrid “green and gray” infrastructure solutions that combine nature-based solutions with more traditional engineering approaches; and building social cohesion and strengthening social networks in frontline communities to assist in meeting basic needs while also increasing resilience to future climate stressors. Many of the case studies in this chapter demonstrate the importance of co-producing adaptation efforts with scientists, resource managers, communities, and decision-makers as the region prepares for climate change impacts across multiple sectors and resources.
Northwest: Key Messages
- Natural Resource Economy
Climate change is already affecting the Northwest’s diverse natural resources, which support sustainable livelihoods; provide a robust foundation for rural, tribal, and Indigenous communities; and strengthen local economies. Climate change is expected to continue affecting the natural resource sector, but the economic consequences will depend on future market dynamics, management actions, and adaptation efforts. Proactive management can increase the resilience of many natural resources and their associated economies.
- Natural World & Cultural Heritage
Climate change and extreme events are already endangering the well-being of a wide range of wildlife, fish, and plants, which are intimately tied to tribal subsistence culture and popular outdoor recreation activities. Climate change is projected to continue to have adverse impacts on the regional environment, with implications for the values, identity, heritage, cultures, and quality of life of the region’s diverse population. Adaptation and informed management, especially culturally appropriate strategies, will likely increase the resilience of the region’s natural capital.
Existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure already face challenges from flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, and heat waves. Climate change is projected to increase the risks from many of these extreme events, potentially compromising the reliability of water supplies, hydropower, and transportation across the region. Isolated communities and those with systems that lack redundancy are the most vulnerable. Adaptation strategies that address more than one sector, or are coupled with social and environmental co-benefits, can increase resilience.
Organizations and volunteers that make up the Northwest’s social safety net are already stretched thin with current demands. Healthcare and social systems will likely be further challenged with the increasing frequency of acute events, or when cascading events occur. In addition to an increased likelihood of hazards and epidemics, disruptions in local economies and food systems are projected to result in more chronic health risks. The potential health co-benefits of future climate mitigation investments could help to counterbalance these risks.
- Frontline Communities
Communities on the front lines of climate change experience the first, and often the worst, effects. Frontline communities in the Northwest include tribes and Indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the economically disadvantaged. These communities generally prioritize basic needs, such as shelter, food, and transportation; frequently lack economic and political capital; and have fewer resources to prepare for and cope with climate disruptions. The social and cultural cohesion inherent in many of these communities provides a foundation for building community capacity and increasing resilience.
The “Northwest” publication is available as a downloadable PDF at nca2018.globalchange.gov.