Environmental Issues: Washington State Climate Change Update

The Masonry Pool in the Cedar River Watershed, showing low water levels in summer 2015. Lainey Piland photo

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information recently released updated climate summary reports for each of the fifty states, looking at how climate change has affected each state, and projecting future changes as global temperatures continue to warm. As is to be expected, the news isn't good.

I perused the summary report for Washington state to see how conditions and projections may have changed since I reported on the 2014 National Climate Assessment nearly three years ago. Here are the three "key messages" of the updated climate summary:
  • Key Message 1: Mean annual temperature has increased approximately 1.5°F over the last two
    decades. Winter warming has been characterized by a far below average number
    of occurrences of extremely cold days since 1990. Under a higher emissions pathway,
    historically unprecedented warming is projected by the end of the 21st century. 
  • Key Message 2: Rising temperatures will lead to earlier melting of the snowpack, which plays a critical role in spring and summer water supplies. Along with more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, this may also lead to an increase in springtime flooding. 
  • Key Message 3: Wildfires during the dry summer months are of great concern, and the frequency of wildfire occurrence and severity is projected to increase in Washington.
The key concerns remain largely the same between the 2014 NCA and this updated summary report, but some of the figures in the recent report are new and unsettling. This one in particular drove a cold chill right through me:

This graph shows how temperatures in Washington have deviated from average (average temp represented by the straight black line), both historically (orange line), and projected future changes based on the decisions that we make right now about carbon emissions. We can see from this graph that no matter what we do, temperatures are expected to increase, and remain above, the historical average. The green shaded area represents the range of temperature increase (between 1.5 to 8 degrees F of warming) we could expect to see by end of century if we slow the rate at which we're pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And now - the scary part - take a look at that red shaded area. This represents the range of temperature increase (between 4 to 14 degrees F of warming) we could expect to see by end of century if our rate of carbon dioxide emissions continues to grow at its current pace.

Keep in mind that this graph is specific to Washington state.

Fourteen degrees of warming. Remember the drought of 2015, caused by a warmer-than normal winter and lack of mountain snowpack? That warmer-than normal winter was only 4.7 degrees F warmer than average. 4.7 degrees warmer, and it caused problems statewide for water supplies, salmon runs, forest health, and led to the state's worst wildfire season on record. If 4.7 degrees of warming gives us the Okanogan Complex wildfire, sets fire to the rainforest, gives us record-low streamflows and reservoir levels, gives us flaming-red dead evergreens on forest edges, and causes us to lose our sense of home... then what in the world will fourteen degrees of warming cause?

The idea of 14 degrees of warming is too frightening to entertain, and that's why we cannot allow it to happen. Now - more than ever given the new, climate-denying administration taking over this Friday - we need to push for climate action in our communities, in our states, and at the national level. It's time to join the movement, join the conversations, be a part of the solution. There are many ways to get involved, and if you need help getting started, take a look at organizations like 350.org or the Sierra Club, both of which are very active in the climate fight. For tips on doing your part to lower your personal carbon footprint, take a look at the articles on my Going Green page.

A report released last week indicated that humanity is running out of time to stop climate change before we surpass the 1.5 degrees C of warming considered "safe". By some calculations, we have just one year left to stop emitting carbon dioxide, or risk surpassing the 1.5 degree mark and entering into calamitous and irreversible global warming. One year is not a lot of time.

As I read these reports and consider the implications for my beloved home state, my mind keeps returning to the places I've wandered over the past year, from oceans to mountains to rivers to old growth forests. These places that inspire, restore, and literally sustain us are all at risk. They could all be lost. For the sake of our Evergreen State, for the sake of the places we call home, for the sake of our neighbors (human and wildlife) around the world... we desperately need to act.


  1. Thanks for reporting on the Lainey. Scary stuff indeed! Oh my! Will share. And think again about how I can drive less. Dang, I need to go to PCC to get some stuff for dinner. :( Too far to walk.

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing, Jill! This is definitely scary stuff, and it seems like each updated climate report is scarier than the last... evidence that we're clearly not doing enough to tackle climate change. It is empowering though, to take steps in our own lives - like driving less - that can directly impact our personal carbon footprints!

  2. Reporting on THIS. Grr typos.


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