Forecasts and Planning Tools

Planning for Climate Variability and Change

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Why Plan For Climate Variability and Change?

Climate variability and change present both challenges and opportunities for Pacific Northwest (PNW) resource managers. Increased winter precipitation may, for example, fill reservoirs sooner but the additional precipitation could also increase the risk of winter flooding. Effectively managing the consequences of climate fluctuations requires:

  1. understanding how climate variability and change affect resource management, and
  2. integrating approaches to manage these impacts into near-term operational and long-term strategic planning.

In other words, planning for climate variability and change.

Climate Variability

Many resource agencies are accustomed to responding to seasonal to inter-annual variations in climate. Water resource management agencies may, for example, have drought management plans that are initiated when conditions warrant. These responses may incur significant costs, however, such as lost agricultural crops or increased fish mortality if instream flow requirements cannot be met.

Research conducted by the CIG finds that patterns of natural climate variability such as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) influence PNW climate in ways that allow researchers to skillfully predict shifts in the odds for distinct climate conditions (e.g., wet vs. dry, or cool vs. warm) in select seasons. This predictability has contributed to the development of climate forecasts (e.g., the ENSO forecast) and climate-based resource forecasts (e.g., streamflow forecasts).

By taking climate forecasts into account and adjusting operational practices to reflect potential conditions, resource managers are better positioned to meet resource management objectives that might otherwise be compromised as a result of different climate conditions. Climate forecasts may also enable managers to anticipate and capture the benefits associated with possible climate conditions. In both cases, the lead-time provided by the forecasts gives managers the opportunity to anticipate and plan for potential climate-induced changes.

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Climate Change

Climate change considerations have historically had a difficult time getting on the agenda of many public and private institutions for a wide variety of reasons, including:

Public concern about climate change, the consensus of the scientific community that human activities have and will continue to change the climate, and information on regional-scale climate impacts from organizations such as the CIG are contributing to a shift in PNW policy making environments to include climate change concerns. The increased interest in preparing for climate change is particularly important in the PNW given the region’s dependence on climate-sensitive natural resources (e.g., snowpack, salmon, and forests) and natural resource-based economic activities (e.g., agriculture, timber production, fishing, and recreation/tourism).

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Planning for Climate Variability and Change

The ultimate objective of planning for climate variability and change is building the capacity required to efficiently manage climate impacts before and as they occur. This may entail modifying existing policies, practices, and procedures to provide the flexibility necessary to adjust to short-term and long-term changes in climate. In some cases, new policies may need to be developed. Building adaptive capacity may also involve constructing new infrastructure designed to mitigate projected impacts. In all cases, building adaptive capacity to climate variability and change is expected to evolve over time. Resource planners should be open to regular re-evaluation of policies and practices in light of known and projected climate impacts.

Integrating information on climate impacts is in many ways a type of risk-management. How well, for example, does a particular system currently respond to climatic stresses (e.g., warmer temperatures, summer drought)? How might this response change given the added stresses of population growth and climate change? What new risks may emerge as a result of climate change? Taking these and other questions into consideration, what is the risk tolerance for the impacts of climate variability and change? If the risk tolerance is low, proactive consideration of these impacts is warranted.

A key question to consider in any planning exercise is whether the decisions being made are robust given what is known (and not known) about climate variability and change in the PNW. Would decisions involving traditional assumptions about the quantity and timing of streamflows, for example, still meet their intended objective if conditions fell outside the assumed boundaries and/or became more variable? Because decisions made today will often shape future vulnerability to climate change, considering these possibilities may improve an organization’s ability to meet management objectives even as climate variability, climate change, and population growth affect resources.

Getting Started

A fundamental starting point for building adaptive capacity to climate variability and change is becoming familiar with what is known (and not known) about PNW climate and climate impacts. Research publications, media reports, and other documentation from research groups such as the CIG provide a wide variety of resources at varying levels of technical depth. The CIG also gives presentations to interested organizations throughout the PNW. To request a presentation, contact CIG Outreach.

Another important step is recognizing known or potential climate impacts in the scope of planning activities and planning documentation. Including climate impacts in the scope of planning activities helps to ensure that climate impacts will be considered to some degree in the planning process itself. Climate impacts should also be recognized in planning documentation even when not included in the original scope. This language, which may be as simple as acknowledging that climate variability and change can affect resource availability and use in ways that need to be considered, lays the foundation for future consideration of climate impacts even if the organization is unable to conduct more in-depth technical assessments at that time.

Avenues for planning for climate variability and change are diverse. In most cases, adaptive capacity will be developed by adding climate variability and change into traditional planning processes. Examples include but are not limited to:

In these cases, climate variability and change simply become additional facets to be considered in the planning process rather than the focus of the planning process in its entirety.

If detailed planning studies are not an option, some insight into the potential consequences of climate variability and change may be gained by examining how resources have been affected by past climatic events. How has a particular system responded during past El Niño years, for example, compared to normal years? Is the system sensitive to changes in temperature and/or precipitation? Consider the Snotel graphs for Ollalie Meadows, Washington (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

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Normal Conditions for Ollalie Meadows, WA [graph]

Figure 1 Normal Conditions for Ollalie Meadows, WA (Water Year 1995). Temperature, precipitation (green lines), and snowpack (blue lines) were near normal during WY1995. Ollalie Meadows sits at an elevation of 3,700 feet.

click image to enlarge

Unusually Warm Conditions for Ollalie Meadows, WA [graph]

Figure 2 Unusually Warm Conditions for Ollalie Meadows, WA (Water Year 1992). Near normal precipitation (green lines) but temperature was +3.5°F (+1.9°C) warmer than usual, reducing total snowpack (blue lines).

Snowpack at Ollalie Meadows is noticeably sensitive to increases in temperature even when precipitation is normal. How were natural and human systems affected by these changed conditions? What stresses emerged during 1992 or similar years as a result of the warmer temperatures and/or loss in snowpack? How might this response differ in a decade if population growth is a concern? While this type of analysis provides only a rough approximation of what climate variability and climate change could mean for a particular area or resource, it does, nonetheless, provide some level of information from existing sources that may be helpful to planning purposes.

Technical Studies

Technical planning studies can provide resource managers with important details on how climate variability and change can affect specific resources of interest, such as a municipal water supply or hydropower system. These studies allow researchers and resource managers to evaluate:

Climate change studies frequently focus on changes projected for the decades of the 2020s and 2040s, time periods well within the planning horizon for many major planning efforts. Examples of technical planning studies conducted by the CIG and partner agencies are available.

More about Planning for Climate Variability and Change

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For additional information on, or assistance with, planning for climate variability and climate change, please contact CIG Outreach.