Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest
The states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho always referred to as the Pacific Northwest have experienced a whole range of changes in atmospheric conditions over the last few decades. The weather regime of the region to the east of the Pacific and to the south of the state of British Columbia is considerably influenced by the key physical features in the area (the Cascades Mountain Range, the Olympic Mountain Range) as well as the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. However, due to a number of natural and human-based causes, the climate of the region has been greatly altered, especially the temperature and precipitation patterns. Research established that if all factors remain constant, these changes are expected to exert their impact in the future thus significantly affecting people, environment, and human activities on the given territories; for instance, in hydrology, forests and vegetation, as well as oceans and marine life. Climate change has led to reduced snow cover, increased sea levels, desertification and wildfires on the east of the Cascades. Therefore, these changes are likely to alter the way people and other living things live, particularly the marine life, and affect such activities as agriculture, settlement, power production and construction. Climate change is a situation that needs to be addressed and handled before it results in irreversible scenarios in future.
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Climate change (herein synonymous to global warming) is real, and it is a concern all over the globe. The changing atmospheric conditions (climate change) is greatly attributed to the gradual increase in average global temperatures (global warming), which is a result of the interaction between many natural and human activities (Ahrens, 2014). The global warming phenomenon is attributed to the imbalance between the incoming radiation from the Sun (insolation), the radiation reflected back and the heat energy radiated back by the Earth surface. Just as real as this phenomenon is in the rest of the world, it is real in the Pacific Northwest as manifested in such scenarios as rising sea levels, melting glaciers, heightened bushfires, altered precipitation regimes, modified species’ regimes and infestation of timber by insects. Climate change has manifested itself in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA over the last half-century or so, impacting people, other living things, the environment and the activities humans indulge in.
Background of the Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is washed by the Pacific Ocean to the east, the state of British Columbia to the south and spans over three states, namely Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Key features in the Pacific Northwest that are akin to the region’s weather and climatic patterns include the Cascade Range, the Rocky Mountains, the Columbian River Basin, forests, sage deserts, and most importantly the Pacific Ocean (Dalton, Mote, & Snover, 2013). Figure 1 is a map showing the geographical landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
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Weather and Climate of the Pacific Northwest
The region experiences a Mediterranean type of climate characterized by rainy winters and dry summers. The weather patterns in the Pacific Northwest are greatly influenced by the myriad of features peculiar for the landscape. The Cascade Mountain range and the Olympic Mountains considerably affect the precipitation and temperature patterns with their Western slopes being colder and wetter compared to the Eastern lee slopes that are hotter and drier throughout almost the whole year (United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2017; US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), 2011). In fact, on the high end of the Columbian Basin-Plateau, desert-like conditions may be observed. With a coastline spanning over 7o of latitudes (729 km and 7139 km of tidal shoreline), the Pacific Northwest coast exudes a diversified range of atmospheric conditions (Dalton, Mote, & Snover, 2013). The region also has some naturally occurring fluctuations in weather, which encompass the El Nino (the Southern Oscillations) ENSO, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation PDO phenomenon (FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). During the ENSO (El Nino) and PDO warm intervals, winters and springs in the Pacific Northwest tend to be warmer and wetter in contrast to colder and drier seasons during the cold phases of the ENSO (La Nina) and PDO (Abatzoglou, Rupp, & Mote, 2014; FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). Hence, this is the brief outline of weather and climate in the Pacific Northwest.
Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest has experienced drastic changes in the temperature and precipitation. In the last 100 years, the average annual temperature in the Pacific Northwest have increased by 1.3o F and it is projected to rise further by almost 3-10o F over the next 100 years, especially in the summer (Abatzoglou, Rupp, & Mote, 2014; FWS, 2011; Tomlinson, 2014). The precipitation in the Pacific Northwest has generally declined over the same period as it can be seen from the total amount of snowfall as well as total precipitation amounts in the form of snow (FWS, 2011; Tomlinson, 2014). The Cascades have recorded plummeting numbers of snowpack and stream-lows over the last few decades. In April 2015, the state of Washington is reported to have hit a record low in snowpack value in over 74% long-term monitoring stations (FWS, 2011; Mote & Salathe, 2010; Dalton, Mote, & Snover, 2013). In the coming century, the average and total annual precipitation figures in the Pacific Northwest are even likely to vary. The estimates reveal a 30% decline in summer precipitation coupled by heavy but less frequent rains (FWS, 2011; Mote & Salathe, 2010; Dalton, Mote, & Snover, 2013). Thus, these projections serve as a warning to the individual, local, state and federal conservation frontiers of the changing climatic regimes in the Pacific Northwest.
|Change in Temperature (oF)||Change in Precipitation (%)|
(+1.1 to +3.3)
(-9 to +12)
(+1.5 to +5.2)
(-10 to +12)
(+2.8 to +9.7)
(-11 to +20)
Table 1. The Average and Range of estimated changes in Temperature and Precipitation in the Pacific Northwest. Table 1 is excerpted from The Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment, University of Washington, Climate Impacts Group, June 2009.
Areas Where Climate Change has Manifested Itself in the Pacific Northwest
The fluctuations in temperature and precipitation have and will continuously lower the snowpack values, and this has ostensibly affected stream flow amounts, and the water quality in the region. The heightened temperatures will yield greater precipitation in winter in the form of rain instead of snow, particularly in the mid-elevation basins (with winter temperatures close to the freezing point) (FWS, 2011; Old, 2016; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). As a result, there has been less winter snow cover, higher flows in streams during winter, early spring snowmelt, early peak spring stream-flow and summer stream-flows in rivers dropping scenarios that are expected to continue in the future. In the Cascades, for instance, snowpack has been recorded at around 25% in the last 40 to 70 years with the decline attributed to a 2.5o F rise in the winter temperatures in the same period (FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). Therefore, there has been and will be a significant shift in seasonal stream flow timing.
From the conducted studies and their consequent results, it is revealed that the Pacific Northwest forests have experienced vegetation changes. The manifestations are dramatically different, showcasing expansions and diebacks at the same time due to the unpredictability of the temperature precipitation changes, their interactions and their effect on drought trees or otherwise modification of annual productivity (FWS, 2011; Old, 2016; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). Forest growth is supposed to thrive in the few coming decades but in some cases, rising temperatures could suppress the ability that trees have to capitalize on the heightened winter precipitation and high amounts of carbon dioxide.
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Moreover, these changes in climate may even result in species make-up shifts and/or species density alterations. Numerous species are more likely to exist individually rather than in colonies (FWS, 2011; Old, 2016; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). With climate change, local populations and species are threatened by potential extinction. The species with poor abilities of dispersal are more exposed to hardships in spatial distributions in trying to adapt to the changing climate (FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). Biodiversity tends to be lost in the event that species migrations are outpaced by environmental alterations.
Bushfires and Forest Fires
The Eastern part of the Cascades has already seen the cases of bushfires and forest fires, which are attributed to the heightened summer temperatures coupled with early snowmelts in spring, which are likely to continue in the future. Over the last half-century, wildfires have shown an increase in frequency, especially in the last 15 years in the steppe and forests of the Pacific Northwest (FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). Currently, the probability of having over 2,000,000 acres getting burnt is 5% and this figure may rise up to 33% by 2080 if no mitigation measures are introduced. The severe droughts and increased temperatures have also induced the growth in number of some species, such as the mountain pine beetle, which poses the risk of fires.
Rising Sea Levels
As the oceans thermally expand and the snow-capped mountain glaciers melt alongside the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets, the sea level rises and no changes are seen in the coming years. It is estimated that by 2100, as documented in the Consensus on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment, the sea level would increase by between 0.6 and 2.06 feet with more precise studies indicating the rise of between 2.6 and 6.6 feet (FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). The inundating of freshwater wetlands by salty seawater is likely to lead to the brackishness of coastal wetlands. Furthermore, the higher stand of seawater adversely influences the freshwater forming new brackish and freshwater wetlands.
With the increase in carbon and other greenhouse gases emissions, the oceans absorb a greater percentage of carbon dioxide, methane and sulfur dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels and other natural activities such as volcanicity. As emissions rise as well as precipitation in the form of rainfall, the rainwater is also likely to absorb most of these gases hovering in the atmosphere; additionally, some of the latter serve as the nuclei for rainclouds to condense (FWS, 2011; Oregon Institute for Water and Watersheds, 2012). Therefore, this infers a considerable amount of acidic gases getting absorbed, which eventually fall as acid rain raising the acidity in rivers, lakes and eventually in the ocean. Nevertheless, several acids are absorbed from pesticides and fumigants used in agricultural applications, and the dire consequences are the lowered PH values in streams and the ocean.
The Impacts of Climate Change on the Environment, Human Beings, and Human Activities
Impacts on Water Resources
A dependable water supply is important for energy production, agriculture, and ecosystems. However, this natural water storage on mountain glaciers may be adversely affected by climate change. The early snowmelt has significantly reduced the snowpack measurements by 20% at its peak time over the last 60 years (EPA, 2017). Instead of snow, the rainfall precipitation lowers the moisture content in soil, accumulation of snow, and the amount of water a snowmelt makes available for use. Floods are also likely to result into stream flow volumes increasing from winter rainfall and peak snowmelt during spring and summer. Water management will be severely strained as competition for water strengthens. Since over 40% of the national HEP is generated in the Pacific Northwest region, the imminent water crisis in the region can hinder production and lead to greater economic losses (EPA, 2017).
Impacts on Coastal Resources
The Northwest coastline is being destroyed slowly by climate change. With the rising sea levels as well as associated storm and wave surges, people living along the Northwest Coast are at risk of death, destruction of property, infrastructure, and ecosystem (EPA, 2017). Marine life is also under threat from warm and acidified waters (EPA, 2017). Seattle, for instance, has most of its areas projected to fall below sea level in high tides, ceteris paribus; hence, this could mean flooding, erosion, and seawater inundation that endanger infrastructure and life on the coast. In case organisms are unable to migrate inland due to topography and human infrastructure, some coastal habitats are likely to disappear. Small forage fish and shorebirds are the organisms, which are mostly affected by this eventuality. Harmful algae bloom in warmer more acidic waters, and this could lead to closing the beaches and declined poor of shellfish.
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Impacts on Ecosystems and Agriculture
Forests, agriculture, and fisheries are threatened by increased temperatures, changed stream flows as well as greater numbers of pests that are the result of climate change. Because of the latter, forests have become hotter and drier, moisture content of the soil is reduced. Thus, forests are more flammable and more susceptible to insect infestation, however unable to adapt to the changes, ceteris paribus may disappear over time, and this could result in a strained timber (revenues and bioenergy markets) considering that over half of the region is covered with forests (EPA, 2017). In the short run, agriculture will benefit from the heightened downpour and carbon dioxide levels but in the long run, scarcity of water for irrigation, increased pest numbers and weeds will have an adverse impact on crops hence leading to low yields (EPA, 2017). Local salmon populations are also threatened by climate change due to the interference with their migration patterns as well as their breeding grounds.
In the Pacific Northwest, the region dotted with diverse geographic and ecological phenomena covering the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, climate change has significantly manifested itself. The area where weather and climate are greatly influenced by the diverse features such as the Cascades Mountain range, the Olympic Mountain range and the Pacific Ocean has seen alterations in precipitation and temperature regimes. Additionally, these changes have been evident in a wide range of territories, particularly the melting mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, more stream flows, greater number of insects, wildfires, and acidification of the oceans. Nevertheless, the latter have in turn affected human life, the environment, and anthropogenic activities such as settlement, agriculture, commerce, and construction. If no measures are implemented, these effects are expected to be more adverse and destructive in the future.