Washington State 2050 Forecast

This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and I’d like to say hello to all our friends in Washington state.  We’ve got a pretty solid baseline outlook here for much of the state, although as with every state in the Northwest, there’s a real wild card factor.  Extreme events are estimated to have a much more significant impact on the region than underlying trends.

Let’s break that down just a little bit more.  Most of the state, the changes you’ll experience in an average year- whether you’re talking about a normal summer, a normal winter, a normal amount of rain- will be pretty small compared to the rest of the country.  But you are going to get whacked by a bunch of extreme disasters on the regular.  It’s all about what kind of risk/reward ratio you’re willing to tolerate.

In terms of highly specific, local information, you might remember that in the Oregon forecast I kinda crab about that kind of resource availability.  For Washington, if you’re interested in Puget Sound, I have the motherload available here for you, for free, right in the video description.  Fabulous local climate research, beautifully collected, one of my top finds during this project in the past six months.  And for those of you who love practical resilience work, finding solutions to things, actually doing things, you gotta check out this sweet solutions engine I found.  I found it looking for resources for Washington State, but it works for the entire American West.  It’s in the video description, I’ll show you how it works towards the end of the video.

Okay, focusing on Washington state here.  Let’s look at sea level rise.  Now, in the long range, if we can get emissions down, follow the RCP 4.5 pathway, Washington state has one of the better coastal outlooks in the nation.  By 2050, we’re looking at about a foot of sea level rise, and if we check it out, we’ll see that will have pretty small impacts.  There will be increased threats from storm surge, but most of the coastline will not look transformed as it certainly will around, say, New Jersey.  Let’s see where it will look different.  Here by Everett, these islands will become open ocean, sad loss of what looks like very pleasant recreational areas.  We expect some fairly minor impacts on port infrastructure around Seattle, compared to projected impacts for other US ports, and no real threats to housing.  Seattle has been working hard, too, to increase resilience to sea rise as well as many other climate hazards.  Seattle City Light, for example, is a national leader in working to build climate resilience into the utilities infrastructure.  If you live in this area, you really can trust that people in leadership are on this problem, very reassuring. 

If we look over here to the Olympic Peninsula, we see that much of the map is strangely blocked out.  We check out the vulnerability, it indicates it’s vulnerable, but we can’t see what’s going on.  Annoying.  But let’s check out Port Angeles, they’re willing to give us a look there, and we can see pretty mild impacts.  Even if we take it up to 3 ft, up past our hopeful limit for the area at end of century, not mid-century, it’s not bad.  And that’s what you see, just so you know, throughout every place we talked about with sea level rise in this state- even if you take it up to 3 feet, you have yes, increasing impacts by Everett, increasing challenges for the ports in Seattle, and loss of some agricultural land, but very little direct threat to housing.  Snohomish will be probably your most impacted sizable community, not right in town but it will look quite different around the town. 

There is one real exception to this largely hopeful coastal forecast, and that is Aberdeen.  That is the one part of the state where we do see a lot of inundation of housing stock, looks like this is the only place I would see the info and think, better to relocate. 

            HARDI: overall change, perhaps the least I have seen.  Look here to the east, almost no change in your plant hardiness zones, some amazing winter stability.  If we look into the area of highest change, that will be here near the coast and the Olympic peninsula.  We can see that the mild winters we’ve seen in parts of the coast will be expanding around the peninsula and expanding outward around Seattle.

            HEAT: here, we’ve got a different picture.  We see some of the best cool summer preservation I’ve seen in the US here for the Olympic peninsula and for Seattle.  This is wonderful news.  When we think of the temperate rainforests, these incredible ecosystems in this area, you have to imagine they couldn’t tolerate a real heatup.  So this is very comforting to my mind, this map.

            When we look over here inland, towards the Palouse region, you’re looking at roughly a doubling of days over 86.  So if you’ve been in Kennewick for the summer, that’s the kind of warm summer we’re going to see throughout the larger region here.  Kennewick itself will also experiencing this warming trend, but adding only maybe two more weeks to that warm summer.  And this is not such bad news for the Palouse here, we know that we’re expecting changes in line with parts of the region’s historical reality.  In the Midwest, I often have to tell folks that we’re expecting a shift where the changes will be large enough so by 2050 their home will feel more like their neighboring state to the south does today.  That’s relatable, it’s not terrifying, but it is talking about a real shift in local character that I do not believe we are seeing within the Palouse as a whole.

            So we really see the strength of Washington state that I mentioned at the beginning of the video.  The average changes are projected to be pretty small, especially compared to the country as a whole.

            And, we also start seeing the big challenge for the state.  Take for the eastern portion of the state, the winters will be as cold, but the summers will be hotter, implying, to my mind, a more extreme transition.  Let’s talk more about those extremes.  There will be more extreme, disaster-type changes in the state than have been seen historically.  That’s going to be true for heat and for cold.  There will be really bad heat waves, more summers like that bad one in 2021.  There will be strange freezes.

There isn’t a big average change predicted for precipitation, but there will be more intense rainfall when there is rain, and there will be longer periods of drought.  We also expect intensification of atmospheric rivers- they’re going to be more intense, and more frequent.  And as we saw up in BC this past year, that intensity can overwhelm our infrastructure.

That brings us to water.  There’s not a real concern about surface water being limiting towards the coast, but there are concerns about water limitations as we move towards the Palouse region.  The aquifers under that region are not as well characterized as I’ve seen in other places.  In fact, I’ve seen the peculiar claim made in many sources that it is impossible to characterize the aquifers of this region, which seems patently unlikely if not false when we look at the work the US Geological Survey has done elsewhere in the west.  Regardless, there’s a strong consensus that the aquifers here are being depleted faster than they’re replenishing, particularly the Grande Ronde aquifer, which is dropping about three feet a year, and provides water to Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington.  The universities in those cities are working actively to characterize and limit the problem, and are also doing some nice work to promote and popularize techniques to conserve and improve soil quality.

It’s worth noting that the aquifers in this region are not being depleted by agriculture, it’s home and consumer use that is driving the aquifer drop.  And people are trying to get on top of the problem, there’s increased awareness, and consumer use of aquifer water has decreased as awareness has gone up.  So we’re definitely looking at a community that has a healthy potential to respond to these changes, a community that will work together for their future.

Similar to other states, as it warms, we’re likely to see snowpack decrease, and that will cause changes in streamflow.  I want to show you a cool map on that topic:

            Page 14, climate change in Puget Sound- so cool for streamflow

            You can read a great local report: Climate Change in Puget Soundhttps://cig.uw.edu/resources/special-reports/ps-sok/embed/#?secret=ViAALlV6BS#?secret=7pN3yfPp6e

            Now, I am going to behave myself.  I am not going to go on and on about every detail I read in this report.  You’re going to have to read it yourself so we don’t let Seattle totally dominate our time here.  But seriously, Seattle.  This is the coolest.  Your work is the best. 

            Now, backing up, branching out, as we think about the changing risk profile for this region, you might want more information.  And perhaps you don’t want to read what I am afraid is a fairly long and complicated report.  How about plain-English information that looks at problems and tries to solve them, AND you can read it like 5 minutes.  You want to check out this resource!

            Good resource: Adaptation Partners – Climate Change Adaptation Library for the Western United States


            This is an incredible way to answer questions for yourself, get a deep dive into practical strategies.  Let’s walk through it together, look at some important issues for Washington State- let’s talk about fish and soil.

            Okay, wrapping this up.  I don’t know about you, but when I saw there was hope for Puget Sound, that just made me want to cry.  The Hoh is among the most powerful places I have ever been.  And it feels fragile, like it could easily be lost to a warming world.  That there is still hope for the Hoh, that’s the most resonant thing I’ve learned, for me, in my time working on this project.  And let’s not forget.  The Palouse, huge agricultural area, really pretty nice average stability.  You looked on the map I hope, saw that the changes I described here hold for the whole interstate Palouse region.  You’re looking at extreme events, to be sure, you’re looking at serious challenges, but what a rich agricultural area we have here, that will continue to produce, and will probably be able to produce even more valuable crops than it does now.  Keep an eye on the water, and this part of the state could be a big part of the solution to the problems we’ll all face as agriculture shifts over the next twenty-thirty years. 

This is Dr. Schoerning with AR, signing out.  Please like and subscribe, help get the message out there.  There is hope.  We can prepare for what’s coming.  Let’s get ready.