Friday, September 30, 2016

Musings: Last Chance Tourism

Mount Baker still covered in white, Summer 2016

Last chance tourism is the latest trend for globe-trotting travelers. The "last chance" doesn't refer to getting in on a good deal on airfare at the last minute, or scoring a seat on an overbooked expedition after being on the waitlist forever. Nope, last chance tourism is something a bit more somber: it has to do with climate change.

As Earth warms, we're witnessing the face of the planet change forever. Some areas are melting, some are parched, some are drowning. Ecosystems are shifting and changing and many species are in decline. Unique and irreplaceable places are being lost at an alarming rate, and it is to these places - the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica, low-lying tropical islands like the Maldives - that tourists are flocking, in order to see these places before they disappear forever. Because let's face it: once the ice fields of Antarctica melt, they're not coming back anytime soon.

A recent article from the Sierra Club explains the paradox of last chance tourism. These already- sensitive places are struggling with the effects of climate change, and now the influx of tourists is putting further pressure on the imperiled ecosystems. The tourists may be hastening the demise of the very places they're racing to see before they're gone forever.

The article got me wondering: how would last chance tourism apply to our home here in Washington state? What are we losing to climate change? What places do we need to visit, what hallmarks of the region do we need to witness before they're gone? Here are a few that I came up with...

Mountain snow

With mountain snowpack less than half of normal, the winter of 2014/2015 gave us a grim look into the future, as winters will become warmer and average freezing levels race ever-higher up the slopes of the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Warmer weather means that precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, leaving the mountains with very little of that cold white stuff we're used to seeing them swathed in during the colder months.

Less snowpack is bad news for everyone. During the hot summer months, ecosystems rely on water supplied by the slowly-melting snowpack to feed rivers and streams. No snowpack means no supply of water during the summer. And during the cold winter months, the skiers and snowboarders who flock to the mountains also rely on snow - it's kind of hard to ski without it. And with our mountain passes and ski areas located near the freezing level, it won't take much warming to push that freezing line to a higher elevation and leave those ski areas warmer, soggy, and snowless.

Don't miss out: enjoy the sight of snowcapped mountains on the horizon, and get up there to play in the white stuff while you still can.


With carefully timed migration and spawning, and with their requirement for cold water, salmon species are especially susceptible to a warming climate. As the climate changes, the volume of water in rivers and streams will change from what the salmon are adapted to. The Pacific Northwest is projected to see more days of intense heavy rainfall, which will flood salmon spawning streams; damaging nests and washing away eggs. Additionally, the lack of snowmelt feeding into rivers and streams during the summertime leaves the water shallower and warmer: not a good thing for these coldwater fish. These conditions also facilitate the spread of disease and parasites among salmon.

Salmon have already suffered greatly due to human activity. I'm sure we've all heard the quotes from the Native tribe histories, where the salmon were once so numerous in Pacific Northwest rivers that you could walk across their backs to cross the river. Thanks to damming rivers and overfishing, salmon populations have plunged. Many species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Now as the climate changes, one-third of salmon habitat will be too warm for these species to inhabit by the end of the century.

Want to make a difference for salmon? Find a conservation organization or check with your county conservation district for streamside planting events, where native plants are put in the ground along creeks and rivers to provide shade and cool the water for salmon.

Don't miss out: sit on the banks of a nearby river or creek and watch these amazing fish return from their long journey to spawn a new generation of salmon. Your county or local watershed might even have salmon spawning events and a map of viewing locations, like Salmon SEEson in the Lake Washington Watershed.


Okay, the forests here in our Evergreen State are not going to disappear, but they are going to change from the forests that we've grown to know and love, as they face threats from warming temperatures and increasing populations of harmful insects.

It's no secret that the hotter, drier summers we're expected to face in the coming decades have a negative impact on trees. Last year's drought left our forests with parched conifers and thirsty decidious trees - couple that with the hotter temperatures (which speed evaporation of water from needles and leaves) and you have some seriously stressed trees. It has become commonplace to see little western red cedars or doug firs along forest edges or in highway medians that have died due to drought stress, their needles an unnatural flaming red. Even now, a year later, trees are still succumbing to the effects of drought stress - even the bigger trees. Hot, dry weather also creates perfect conditions for wildfire. Wildfires are expected to burn larger areas and cause more damage in the coming decades, and will surely consume their fair share of forestland in Washington state.

Insect pests are another threat to forests in our state. Many species of bark beetle exist in our region's forests, and these tiny pests have the power to kill entire stands of mighty trees. The warmer winters (lack of freezing weather), and the hotter, drier summers that leave trees already stressed and vulnerable are the two major factors contributing to the success of these insects. On the east coast, the wooly adelgid is responsible for decimating eastern hemlock trees, and in California nearly 30 million trees have succumbed to the pine bark beetle. We should be prepared for these scenarios to play out in the forests here in Washington as well.

Don't miss out: hike, walk, sit, study, soak in the forests that give the Evergreen State its name.


Fall is a season of change, and this season itself will change along with the warming climate in coming years. Hold on to your pumpkin spice... autumn is going to look a little different. This Grist article outlines a few of the ways climate change will affect autumn across the country. Here in Washington, one big change that we're noticing already this year is in the leaves. Normally we can expect a splendid show of oranges, reds and yellows as the leaves on deciduous trees turn color and drop to the ground. It is these colors - the wading through ankle-deep drifts of gold with a canopy of the same spreading out overhead - that really speaks autumn to us.

However, you may have noticed that things are a little less spectacular this year, especially in regard to many bigleaf maple trees in the area. Some maples are dropping their leaves early, and others have leaves that aren't changing color at all, but rather shrivel and turn brown on their branches before dropping to the ground in crispy heaps. Researchers are pointing to last year's drought and the continued warmer weather this year as a likely culprit for the bigleaf maple's fall foliage bust. The stressed trees simply don't have the resources to keep their leaves, and are forced to drop them early and hope for rain. As hotter, drier summers (and perhaps drought conditions) become the status quo in the coming years, we may need to get used to seeing less of those fall colors we love.

Don't miss out: enjoy those autumn hues in their full glory. 

There are many other wonders and places in the Pacific Northwest threatened by climate change, but the list above is a big-picture look at some of the most noticeable ones. And while nothing will happen overnight and while not all of those listed above will disappear completely, many of these losses are already in progress - although it might be a long "last chance," the day will still come when mountain snow, forests, salmon, and autumn are forever changed, along with our climate.

We will have to adjust to a new normal, but we don't have to face an inevitable goodbye to these hallmarks of Washington state, if we can find a way to act on climate and minimize the impacts of climate change on this beautiful place we call home. Let's keep that in mind as we go about our daily lives - in the personal choices we make, and in the leaders we elect - so that we don't have to become "last chance tourists" in our own home.

For more on the anticipated effects of climate change in Washington, check out my summary of the 2014 National Climate Assessment


  1. Oh this makes me so sad. What a trenchant post. I hadn't heard of that term Last Chance Tourism, but wow, it makes sense. Are you familiar with the Dark Mountain Project out of England? Will send you a link. I've indeed noticed the withered brown bigleaf maple leaves falling early, before turning. Glaciers...going, going....almost gone in some places and gone already in others. Heavy sigh.

    1. Thanks for mentioning the Dark Mountain Project, Jill! I hadn't heard of it, but just found their website. Sounds fascinating, in a dark sort of way. I think it's interesting to explore not just the science and data of climate change, but also the narratives that examine the reality of what it means to inhabit this changing world... and to know that our species is responsible for making it so. It's heartbreaking to realize. But it's also important not to lose hope, because there are yet things that we can do... places and people and ecosystems we can still save.

      I found this Aldo Leopold quote today, and it reminded me of the spirit of this blog post:

      “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
      ― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac