WSU scientists highlight Northwest climate risks in national report

Seattle skyscrapers surrounded by orange smoke above cars on a highway.
Seattle was engulfed in smoke during the 2020 wildfire season. The PNW suffered from compound climate events of this extreme wildfire season followed by continued drought and record-breaking heat in 2021. Image by Jingxuan Ji on iStock.

Wildfires and record heatwaves are just a couple climate change impacts that have already hit the Pacific Northwest — and there are likely to be more, according to a U.S. Government report.

The 5th National Climate Assessment released this week paints a grim picture of the effects of human-caused climate change across the country but does offer some hope. Two Washington State University climate scientists, Deepti Singh and Kirti Rajagopalan, contributed to key portions of the Assessment.

“The climate risks we are experiencing today will increase with warming — and that depends on the emissions we put into the environment. If we want to reduce climate risks, we have the technologies and strategies that we know are effective, some of which are already being implemented, but we need to scale up our efforts,” said Singh, a WSU Vancouver researcher whose work focuses on climate change and extreme weather events.

These strategies include decarbonizing electricity production, instituting better land management, improving urban planning, increasing carbon-free public transportation, and restoring ecosystems. Although even with mitigation, Singh said, communities are still likely to experience more climate risks in the next few decades and that means they must adapt while centering equity and justice.

Adaptations include designing and updating water and energy infrastructure to deal with multiple extreme events like wildfires and heatwaves. Cities or states can also adapt by increasing green infrastructure and disaster preparedness resources in underserved communities that often experience disproportionately higher climate risks.

Singh served as an author on Climate Trends chapter of the report, and lead author on the Compound Effects chapter, which deals with back-to-back extreme events that create extra challenges. The Pacific Northwest experienced this type of cascading event with an extreme wildfire season in 2020 followed by continued drought and record-shattering extreme heat the next year.

That heatwave in 2021 led to more than 1,400 heat-related deaths in the region. The subsequent wildfire season resulted in losses of economically important fishery species and damages exceeding $38.5 billion according to the Assessment.

These types of events the region has already experienced will likely continue, said Rajagopalan, who was one of the authors on the Assessment’s chapter focused on the Northwest. Climate in the region is expected to impact multiple dimensions: ecosystems, regional economies, human health, infrastructure and even the region’s heritage and people’s sense of place. Since some communities are more vulnerable than others, the report emphasizes taking a social justice approach in adaptation measures.

“Climate change tends to amplify other issues,” Rajagopalan said. “For example, in human health when there are existing problems, those are exacerbated by more frequent exposure to heat or wildfire smoke.”  

Rajagopalan, whose research focuses on agro-ecosystem modeling, sees a mixed future for agriculture in the Northwest. On the one hand, climate change not only threatens crop production by itself but also affects a whole range of agriculture-related issues from water availability to pests and diseases to the health of key pollinators like bees.

“There are opportunities too, and that’s something we tend to forget,” said Rajagopalan. “Unlike other parts of the U.S., some of the negative impacts are a little bit muted in the Pacific Northwest, and from an agricultural perspective that actually positions us well competitively.”

A map of western Washington showing locations around Ferndale and Bellingham where climate events happened. Then six smaller photos with details showing flooding and heat damage
(Top) satellite image of western Washington (left top row) Flooding on November 16, 2021, in the Nooksack River is shown. Flooding is expected to become more frequent and severe as a result of more intense rainfall and rain-on-snow events. (middle left) Non-native invasives such as the European green crab disrupt food webs as their distribution expands with warming coastal waters. (middle center) Postfire debris flows are expected to become more common with increased wildfire and precipitation intensity. (middle right) Large areas across the Northwest—such as in Idaho—are prone to increased risk of wildfires. (bottom left) Aspen is sensitive to high air temperature, leading to more dying aspen groves. (bottom center) Increases in the distribution and density of non-native invasive grasses, such as cheatgrass, exacerbate wildfire risk. (bottom right) Seedlings are more sensitive than mature trees to heat stress and drought. Satellite image: (top) Lauren Dauphin and Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory. Photo credits: (middle left) ©Emily Grason; (middle center, middle right, bottom left) ©Charlie Luce; (bottom center) ©Erica Fleishman; and (bottom right) Colorado State Forest Service.

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