Rain Replaces Snow as Puget Sound Warms

OLYMPIA, Washington, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have been rising faster than the global average, finds a new report commissioned by the Puget Sound Action Team. Lake Washington is warmer, there is evidence of rising temperatures in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and snowfalls are giving way to rain. The scientists say now is the time to learn to adapt to these changes.

The report, prepared by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, is the first detailed assessment of how climate change has affected, and will continue to affect, the Puget Sound environment.

A warming climate has already "profoundly altered the Puget Sound environment," the research team writes, saying that "bigger, more severe problems" are likely to be in store for the region.

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Washington state's Mt. Rainier as seen from the Seattle Space Needle. (Photo credit unknown)
“Climate change is clearly a force to be reckoned with,” said Brad Ack, director of the Action Team. “It’s like a slow-motion natural disaster. This report shows that change is already happening and that more changes are inevitable. We need to begin to plan for and adapt to these changes now.”

Led by Amy Snover, Ph.D., and Phil Mote, Ph.D., researchers from the Climate Impacts Group combed through years of climate records and scientific literature, and conducted research of their own.

Their report, “Uncertain Future: Climate Change and its Effects on Puget Sound,” focuses on the consequences of a warmer climate on the larger Puget Sound ecosystem, including what the future might hold for snowpack, stream flow, water quality, precipitation patterns, air and water temperatures, plants and animals.

They found that Puget Sound river and stream flows are changing, and glaciers in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains have been retreating for over 50 years.

The researchers project that Puget Sound waters will warm in the future, potentially putting many species at risk including plankton, the foundation of Puget Sound’s food web.

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A bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, at Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, North Puget Sound, Anacortes, Washington (Photo courtesy )
“Increasing our capacity to cope with the large-scale climate impacts facing Puget Sound is a critical challenge,” said Ack. “The ultimate impact will depend not only on future levels of greenhouse gases but also on choices we make in the region."

"By incorporating the projected effects of climate change into our planning, management and development, we may be able to increase the Sound’s and our society’s resilience to climate change," he said.

Changes that the researchers predict include more of the region’s winter precipitation will be rain rather than snow, increasing flooding in Puget Sound watersheds.

The rate of sea-level rise in the Pacific Northwest is projected to be faster than the global average, and is likely to increase both the pace and extent of the erosion and nearshore habitat loss already affecting Puget Sound shorelines, especially in south Puget Sound.

Lower summer and fall flows and warming waters, along with increases in winter flooding, could further stress Puget Sound salmon. The research group predicts the increased likelihood of algal blooms and low oxygen concentrations in bottom waters.

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An orca, or killer whale, takes a look at Puget Sound. (Photo courtesy NFSC NOAA)
"Changes caused by a warming climate are likely to reverberate across the Puget Sound ecosystem in complex and unpredictable ways, disrupting crucial interactions between Puget Sound plants and animals and their environment," they said.

“This report is a good first step toward getting us to the needed policy discussions about how we can adapt to the coming changes,” said CIG Director Edward Miles. “One of our most immediate needs is to develop the institutional capacity to manage both the rates and magnitudes of change on the horizon.”

The report stipulates that in order to plan for the climate of the future, policy makers, planners and resource managers should recognize that the past may no longer be a dependable guide to the future, and take actions to increase the adaptability of regional ecosystems to future change.

The report concludes that climate change in the Puget Sound region is inevitable.

Human activities during the past 150 years have committed our planet to a changing climate in the 21st century, the researchers conclude. They point out that because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades, and because the ocean takes centuries to relate with the atmosphere, even if humans stopped emitting carbon dioxide today, warming would continue for many decades.

Ack says the Action Team will begin work now to incorporate this report’s projections into the state’s environmental management agenda for Puget Sound. “This new reality needs to be a part of our decision-making process, and we will do our part to ensure that happens,” he said.

This report is based on a more technical report called “The Foundation Document.” Both publications can be found on the Action Team website, www.psat.wa.gov/climatechange or the Climate Impacts Group website, www.cses.washington.edu/db/pubs/abstract460.shtml.

Conferences later this month both north and south of the U.S.-Canada border will address climate issues.

Climate and Fisheries: Impacts, Uncertainty and Responses of Ecosystems and Communities is set for October 26-28 in Victoria, British Columbia. Find out more at: http://www.fishclimate.ca/

The Future Ain’t What it Used to be: Planning for Climate Disruption, is scheduled for October 27 in Seattle. For more information, visit: http://dnr.metrokc.gov/dnrp/climate-change/conference-2005.htm