Northwest

Changing climate conditions have the potential to impact the Northwest's abundant natural resources, infrastructure, and diverse populations. Building the region's resilience before extreme events occur can help protect these assets.

    Key Points:

  • Climate change is already affecting the Northwest’s diverse natural resources. Proactive management can increase the resilience of many natural resources and the jobs that depend on them.
  • Existing infrastructure already faces challenges from flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, and heat waves. Adaptation strategies that have social and environmental co-benefits, or address more than one sector, can increase resilience.
  • Communities on the front lines of climate change—tribes and Indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources, and the economically disadvantaged—experience the first, and often the worst, effects.
  • The social and cultural cohesion in Northwest communities can serve as a foundation to build community capacity and increase resilience. Culturally appropriate adaptation strategies can help to increase the resilience of the region’s natural capital.

Abundant natural assets

A person snow skiing, boats in a bay, a forest trail, and a person catching a fish in a net

The Northwest offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities such as snow skiing, boating, fishing, and hiking. Click the image for credits and sources.

The Northwest is known for clean air, abundant water, low-cost hydroelectric power, vast forests, and extensive farmlands. The region also offers numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation—hiking, boating, fishing, hunting, and skiing.

Climate change is already affecting these natural assets and opportunities in the region.

The Northwest's climate has already changed

Outlines of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho

The Northwest Region includes Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Click any state name in this caption to access the NOAA State Climate Summary for that state.

On average, the Northwest Region has warmed nearly 2°F since 1900, although this varies across the region, and conditions continue to change. The impacts of warming are diverse and widespread.

  • Warmer winters reduce mountain snowpack that historically blanketed the region’s mountains.
  • As more precipitation arrives as rain rather than snow, spring runoff occurs earlier, changing the timing when streams and rivers flow.
  • As the availability of water changes, plants, wildlife, livestock, and communities that depend on flowing water must adapt to new conditions.
  • Tree-damaging beetles are actively infesting ponderosa pine trees across some forests in the Northwest. 
Green evergreen trees surrounding a patch of brown trees

During periods of extended drought, pine trees become water-stressed, and beetles can get the upper hand. Infested trees needles' fade from green to reddish-brown. In central Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington, vast mountain areas have already been transformed by mountain pine beetle infestations, wildfires, or both.

Climate is projected to continue changing

Climate models indicate the Northwest will continue to warm during all seasons, although how fast and by how much will depend on human emissions of heat-trapping gasses. 

Projected changes in weather, climate, and ocean conditions may challenge the Northwest’s natural resource economy, cultural heritage, built infrastructure, recreation, and the health and welfare of Northwest residents.

2015 offered a preview of the future

The Northwest experienced an exceptionally hot and dry year during 2015. The events of that year offer a preview of conditions that may become more common in future decades.

Rocky dry-looking riverbed with a person walking in it

A technician measures the low streamflow in Lightning Creek during the 2015 drought. The U.S. Geological Survey gathered data at hundreds of sites along rivers and streams in six western states to document the regional drought. 

  • 2015 was the warmest year on record for the Northwest. 
  • Record-low snowpack in Oregon and Washington led to water scarcity and large wildfires.
  • 90% of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho experienced moderate to exceptional drought from late June to mid-November. 
  • Low water and wildfires had negative effects on farmers, hydropower, drinking water, air quality, salmon, and recreation. 
  • Warmer than normal ocean temperatures led to shifts in the marine ecosystem, which had negative effects on the region’s fisheries and shellfish harvests.
  • Impacts from these events prompted Northwest states, cities, tribes, and others to put more focus on climate preparedness efforts. 

To learn more about climate impacts in the Northwest during 2015, see 2015-A Prelude of What’s to Come? in the Fourth National Climate Assessment » 

Lake with boats on left; same area with lake drained and no boats on right

Two views of Detroit Lake Marina in Oregon. On the left, average water level. On the right, during the 2015 drought. Click the image for a larger view.
 

Adapting to new conditions

Multiple examples of climate adaptation—making changes in our environment or behavior to adapt to new climate conditions—are happening in the Northwest.

  • New approaches for agriculture are reducing climate-related risks at the same time as they meet economic, conservation, and adaptation goals. 
  • Infrastructure issues (for instance, problems with aging stormwater systems) are increasingly being addressed with nature-based (green) solutions rather than with more traditional (gray, the color of concrete) engineering approaches. 
  • Frontline communities are building social cohesion and networks to assist groups in meeting basic needs and increasing resilience to future climate stressors. 
  • Scientists, resource managers, communities, and decision-makers across the region are working together to prepare for climate change impacts across multiple sectors and resources. 

This text excerpted and abridged from the report Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Fourth National Climate Assessment (Chapter 24: Northwest).

 

Banner Image Credit
Mt. Rainier National Park. Photo by Tony Varela Photography, via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tony-v/42097429980 Used via a Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Last modified
10 April 2022 - 5:16pm