Climate Change Scenarios
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** New climate change scenarios available (November 2005) **
New climate change scenarios were released in October 2005. The content of this page will be updated soon to reflect the new scenarios. In the mean time, visitors are encouraged to read more about the scenarios in the following documents:
- Climate Impacts on Washington’s Hydropower, Water Supply, Forests, Fish, and Agriculture (for a general overview) (Casola et al. 2005)
- Scenarios of Future Climate for the Pacific Northwest (for more technical information) (Mote et al. 2005)
- Implications of 2005 Climate Change Scenarios for Pacific Northwest Hydrologic Studies (Lettenmaier et al. 2005)
Although climate can vary naturally and will continue to do so in the future, human inputs of greenhouse gases are almost certain to cause continued warming of the planet. This warming has potentially significant implications for the Pacific Northwest (PNW) that warrant consideration in resource planning and management.
Estimates of future carbon dioxide concentrations range from a doubling of pre-industrial values to an increase by a factor of 3.5 by 2100. Using these projections of future greenhouse gases, numerous research centers around the world have used numerical models of Earth's climate system to project future global climate. The Climate Impacts Group (CIG) has examined some of these models and produced scenarios of future climate in the PNW (see Table 1 below). For details about these calculations, see our publications (Hamlet and Lettenmaier 1999; Mote et al. 2003).
Future Northwest Climate
On average, global climate system models project a future rate of warming of roughly 0.9ºF (0.5ºC) per decade for the PNW (Table 1). This is substantially more than the 0.4ºF (0.2ºC) increase per decade observed during the last half of the 20th century.
|Temperature change||Precipitation Change|
|+ 0.9ºF (0.5ºC)||+2%||- 4%|
|+ 2.7ºF (1.5ºC)||+8%||+4%|
|+ 4.7ºF (2.6ºC)||+18%||+14%|
|+ 2.7ºF (1.5ºC)||-2%||- 7%|
|+ 4.1ºF (2.3ºC)||+9%||+2 %|
|+ 5.8ºF (3.2ºC)||+22%||+9%|
The projections for PNW climate are derived from eight coupled global-atmosphere climate models: CCSR, CGCM1, CSIRO, ECHAM4/OPYC, GFDL, HadCM2, HadCM3, and NCAR PCM3 (Mote et al. 2003). The models assume an annual increase in equivalent carbon dioxide concentrations of approximately 1% per year. Changes are benchmarked from the average for the decade of the 1990s.
Additional details from the models about future changes in PNW climate include:
- Warming rates are projected to be similar in winter and summer
- Winter precipitation increases in all models
- Summer precipitation is projected to remain low
- Projected decade-to-decade variability in temperature is relatively small compared with the observed (let alone projected) rise in temperature
- Projected decade-to-decade variability in precipitation is larger than the trends for both observed (20th century) and simulated (20th and 21st century)
- Because many key aspects of climate (e.g., windstorms, heat waves) are not well simulated by models, we decline to speculate about how they may change in the future. However, droughts may become more common because even with the same precipitation, higher temperatures increase evaporation rates, reducing water available for streams and vegetation.
- Changes in the behavior of climate patterns like the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and the Arctic Oscillation (AO) are projected by most models, but the observed behavior of these patterns is not well represented in models. As a result, there is no conclusive evidence as to how climate patterns such as ENSO, PDO, and the AO may change in the future.
For More Information
Climate Change Streamflow Scenarios
To assist water resources planners and decision makers in assessing their
vulnerability to projected future climate change, the CIG has developed
change streamflow scenarios tool for converting regional historical
streamflow records into projected future streamflows for the 2020s and the
2040s. The streamflow scenarios, which are free to the public, can be directly
incorporated into existing planning methods (such as critical period analysis)
Planning for Climate Change
Decisions made today can shape future vulnerability to a variety of stresses, including climate change. An examination of the possible impacts of future climate changes provides valuable information that can be used to inform planning in the PNW. The CIG provides numerous resources, including climate change scenarios, the climate change streamflow scenarios tool, and consultancy-based climate impacts studies, to support the inclusion of climate change information in PNW resource management and planning.
What about uncertainty? Continued research on the global climate system and PNW environment will continue to expand our understanding of climate change impacts. The absence of "perfect information" should not, however, prevent planning for climate change. Good decisions can be made in spite of the uncertainty associated with projected changes, just as good decisions are made in spite of uncertainty about other factors, such as future economic conditions or rates of population growth. Careful consideration of the range of projected climate impacts, combined with an analysis of a resource's vulnerability to these impacts, will support prudent approaches to planning.
For More Information
Caveats and Cautions
Regional signal. Global climate models are not designed to simulate regional climate. Important regional features like mountain ranges and estuaries are missing. The pattern of changes in temperature, however, is expected to be (and has been in the past) fairly similar across the whole region.
Climate variables. Models simulate observed patterns of temperature better than observed sea-level pressure (a representation of atmospheric circulation and common weather features), and they simulate sea-level pressure better than precipitation. Consequently, we have highest confidence in projections of temperature change, less confidence in projections of changes in atmospheric circulation, and lowest confidence in simulations of precipitation. Other details of climate that are badly simulated in present climate, such as changes in the frequency or intensity of storms, are probably unreliable in future climates as well.
Rates of increase of CO2. Most of the simulations we examined were performed several years ago by modeling centers that chose a 1%/year scenario for growth of greenhouse gases. While the 1%/year scenario leads to unrealistically high values by the end of the 21st century, the scenario’s CO2 concentrations for the first half of the 21st century are within the range of more sophisticated modeling approaches and therefore serve as a good guide for assessing climate impacts through mid-century.
Contrasts within the region. Simulations with a regional model (a climate model with very high spatial resolution) suggest a few important respects in which climate change may differ from the projections of the global models. For example, warming may proceed more quickly at higher elevations than in the lowlands owing to snow-albedo feedback: when snow cover is reduced, it enhances absorption of solar radiation and warms the surface more (Leung et al. 2003).