From the fall of 2012 until the spring of 2016, much of the Northwest was mired in severe drought. Ski areas closed. Agriculture was hit hard. And wildfires ripped across the landscape. But during this past winter sections of the Northwest got especially soggy, with both Seattle and Portland registering their wettest winters on record. The extra precipitation—during one of the largest and most unpredictable El Niños on record—led to flooding and helped dampen the drought in some parts of our region.
Northwest Climate Magazine
Subscribe to the Northwest Climate Magazine for free.
Leave it to Beavers
The North American Beaver (Photo courtesy of hehaden, Flickr Creative Commons.)
Our changing climate is altering Northwest watersheds at an increasing rate. Many watersheds are suffering from drying streams, changes in vegetation, and loss of habitat connectivity for fish, wildlife, and plants. These changes threaten our natural and cultural resources, inspiring researchers from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast to better understand, conserve, and restore natural systems using science, traditional knowledge, and good old trial-and-error. Now they’re turning to an unexpected and hardworking ally—the North American beaver, a remarkable water engineer.
Turning Conservation on its Head
The realization struck me as I drove the winding mountain highways along rivers and streams through Montana and Idaho to my home in Boise. Those of us in the conservation community working with cold-water species had been thinking about the problem in the wrong way. We had the world upside down!
Conservation Priorities in the Big Empty
Late April in the Tallest Town in Oregon: On the heels of several days above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, giant wet snowflakes whipped sideways as I stepped inside the real estate office to drop off my rent. I started to converse with my landlady, an elderly rancher with a sharp ability to tell a story about people in landscapes. (We’re withholding her name for privacy reasons).
Conservation Priorities in the Big Empty: Similar Efforts Elsewhere
If you’re interested in learning more, similar efforts around the country include the Arid Lands Initiative of eastern Washington and the Southeast Atlantic’s Conservation Blueprint. Practitioners from these regions use project outcomes to strengthen funding proposals, place individual projects in a landscape context, and use shared strategies across political boundaries. By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders and developing priorities at a landscape scale, stakeholders can identify research and data gaps, and fill them through cooperative research efforts.
Science Without Borders
Connectivity and Climate
On a grey Monday in the middle of March, Dr. Meade Krosby and I drive north from Seattle. Outside our windows, suburbia gradually gives way to farmland, and we begin to glimpse forest in the distance.
Lessons in the Ashes: What Makes a Megafire?
There is no strict scientific definition of a megafire, but better understanding how they develop is critical to future planning. The term “megafire” is generally applied to fires with unusually large impacts to ecological and/or human communities. Due to a range of factors including climate change, human development in the urban-wildland interface, and a legacy of fire suppression, megafires are becoming more common across the American West.
Lessons in the Ashes
Before Crystal Kolden became an assistant professor of Geography at the University of Idaho she fought wildfires. Originally a history major, Kolden says she had no interest in the career paths of lawyer or history teacher that lay before her. So after graduation, she headed off to the El Dorado National Forest near Lake Tahoe. There, she worked in timber and recreation until someone handed her a giant metal can with a curled prong at the end. The can, called a drip torch, is used to light fires during prescribed burns. “And that was it,” says Kolden. “I fell in love with fire.”
Can We Keep Salmon in the Nooksack?
Deming, Washington is a town nestled among ferns and evergreens at the base of Mt. Baker in the North Cascades. Its tiny size belies its cultural significance as the ancestral home and current government headquarters of the Nooksack Indian Tribe. For thousands of years the Nooksack have lived here, relying on resources of the Nooksack River watershed like salmon, bracken fern, wild carrots, berries, and clams. The upper reaches of the river are cold waters, fed by mountain glaciers. But glaciers in the North Cascades are disappearing.
Can We Keep Salmon in the Nooksack?: Mapping Columbia River Basin Tribal Adaptation Capacity
The mighty Columbia River drains 166,400,000 acres as it flows from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia to the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington. For generations it has provided critical habitat for many species of fish, wildlife, and plants that Tribes refer to as “first foods.” First foods are central to the indigenous way of life, vital not only for subsistence, but also for spiritual and ceremonial practices.
Experiencing Climate Boot Camp
Standing near the Nisqually glacier while listening to National Park Service geomorphologist Paul Kennard and geologist Scott Beason discuss the impacts of climate change on Mt. Rainier glaciers, I felt the effects of climate change in a deeply profound and different way. I had known glaciers were retreating but hadn’t realized that this process had been underway since before the 1970s. Nor did I know just how much glaciers had suffered in the
Pacific Northwest just this past year alone from the unusually warm temperatures.
From the Editorial Board
We hope this new annual publication, the Northwest Climate Magazine, will help share our stories about climate research and improve coordination and collaboration among federal, state, tribal, university, and non-governmental groups across the Northwest. Collaboration is central to our shared goal of building resilience to climate change for our region’s natural and human communities.
High and Dry?
Each year from Mt. Rainier to Mt. St. Helens the seasons run their cycle as the snow perched atop the Northwest’s majestic, high elevations melts, eventually winding its way to the Pacific Ocean. Along its gravity-propelled journey, this water fills montane lakes and streams, providing essential habitat for species such as alpine frogs and salamanders, while also feeding streams carrying young salmon—not to mention fresh water for towns and farms—downstream. Sadly, this process is now threatened by climate change, which has been diminishing the region’s snowpack. Especially imperiled are montane amphibians.
Shoring Up for Climate Change
From 1965 to 2000, Tillamook County, Oregon saw massive beach erosion. Neskowin’s beach was a hotspot for this erosion, losing roughly 2 meters (10 feet) of its beach a year to the Pacific Ocean—about 70 meters (230 feet) in total from 1965 to 2000. Here beach-protecting rocks, known as riprap, have been placed in front of a Neskowin home to slow the process. (Photo: Patrick Corcoran, Oregon Sea Grant)
By 2100, depending on the local terrain, sea levels along the Northwest coast will rise by anywhere from less than half a meter (1.5 feet) to as much as one-and-a-half meters (4.5 feet), according to current research. This means that by century’s end, the Pacific is likely to inundate the coast by as much as 50 meters (164 feet) in some places. The conclusion is inescapable: the Northwest’s coastal communities are at risk. But Neskowin residents and others in Oregon’s Tillamook County aren’t letting the dire projections drown their hopes. Instead, they’re adapting. And they’re getting some help from the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC).
FOR many millennia, slow-growing whitebark pines have held a place of special influence in their rugged alpine communities. These hardy conifers often live for centuries, thriving in the rocky windswept environment near the tree line in the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, and Sierra Nevadas. In recent years, things have changed. Whitebark pine populations are now declining steeply throughout their range. Climate change, disease, and the mountain pine beetle (a native species whose numbers have exploded in recent years) are largely to blame.
Pining Away: Whitebark Pines, Grizzlies, and Surprising Signs of Ecosystem Resilience
WHITEBARK pine seeds weigh 10 to 60 times more than the seeds from other trees in the same forests. By weight they’re roughly half fat and 20 percent protein. They can last for a year or more when buried. Unsurprisingly, they’re a precious fall and winter food source for high mountain birds, squirrels, and foxes. Grizzly bears also eat piles of whitebark pine seeds, digging up and then devouring underground caches made by red squirrels.
Back to the Futures
The project is Integrated Scenarios of the Future Northwest Environment, a collaborative venture that brought together scientists from several separate Northwest climate research organizations. Integrated Scenarios’ goal was deceptively simple: explain what the latest climate science says about the Northwest’s future climate, vegetation, and hydrology. Getting the answer would take some doing.
What follows is the story of Integrated Scenarios and, hopefully, something more.
Back the the Futures: Integrated Scenarios’ Findings
Temperature: End-of-century temperature projections resulting from Integrated Scenarios’ model runs range from a balmy 2° Fahrenheit uptick to a stifling 15° F surge, compared with the average temperatures for 1950 to 1999. But whether large or small, these spikes in the mercury are expected to have serious consequences for Northwest hydrology.
“Our Bodies and Our Spirits”
Traditional foods are more than meals for North America’s Tribes and First Nations; they are a way of life. But due in part to climate change, these natural and cultural resources are at risk. Here in the Northwest, Indigenous communities and several regional climate research organizations are hoping to change that.
Climate change is rapidly altering freshwater systems across the Northwest as air temperatures warm, patterns of precipitation and snowmelt change, and droughts and wildfires increase in frequency and intensity. Many species, including the Chinook salmon, westslope cutthroat trout, and native bull trout are at risk.
Fortunately, managers still have a time to implement conservation measures with the potential to yield high future dividends. Here are three stories illustrating how climate researchers are helping.