Outreach, Classes, and Seminars

The Pacific Northwest Climate CIGnal

The Climate Impacts Group (CIG) issues a quarterly electronic newsletter designed to provide updates on regional climate and climate-related research, meetings, and topics of interest to Pacific Northwest (PNW) decision makers and resource managers. The first newsletter was distributed in January 2005.

To subscribe to the newsletter, please visit the CIG's "climateupdate" list serve home page. You can also subscribe to the newsletter by sending a blank email to the following address: climateupdate-subscribe@mailman.u.washington.edu.

The Pacific Northwest Climate CIGnal

Issue #24, Winter 2011

In this Issue

  1. Climate Outlook
  2. Climate Change Research Factored into Endangered Species Act Determination for Wolverines
  3. Recap of Recent Washington Dept. of Ecology/CIG Webinar on Hydrologic Extremes
  4. King Tides Explained and How They Provide a "Sneak Peak" at Future Sea Level Rise
  5. OCCRI Releases Assessment of Climate Change Impacts On Oregon
  6. The Global Climate Summary for 2010
  7. New Climate Adaptation Plans and Planning Resources
  8. Washington-British Columbia Agreement on Coastal Impacts Outreach
  9. Updates to the West-wide Hydrologic Forecasting Tool
  10. CIG in the News

1. Climate Outlook

The December equatorial Pacific Ocean climate exhibited "moderate-to-strong" La Niña [cold El Niño / Southern Oscillation (ENSO)] conditions (NOAA). Cold ENSO "is currently near its peak and is expected to persist into the Northern Hemisphere Spring 2011 at a lesser intensity." Read more on the outlook for the Pacific Northwest...

2. Climate Change Research Factored into Endangered Species Act Determination for Wolverines

The CIG and the U.S. Forest Service recently collaborated on a study examining threats to wolverine habitat from climate change (McKelvey et al. 2011, in review). Wolverines (Gulo gulo) are solitary, burrowing mammals in the weasel family that depend on snowy, alpine conditions for den digging and young rearing. Once common throughout California, Utah, Colorado, and the Great Lakes states, trapping practices and habitat fragmentation have reduced the wolverine's current range to north-central Washington, northern and central Idaho, western Montana, northwestern Wyoming, and Alaska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates the current wolverine population at less than 300 individuals.

The McKelvey et al. study was used by the FWS to determine if the wolverine should be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The primary threat to wolverines is the impact of a warming climate on its alpine habitat. McKelvey et al. used downscaled global climate models to evaluate changes in snow cover in three basins: the Columbia, the Upper Missouri, and the Upper Colorado River Basins. The study projects a 63% decline in snow cover by the close of the 21st century (2070-2099). Remaining habitat is likely to become more fragmented, resulting in fewer and smaller populations.

On December 13, 2010, the FWS ruled that while wolverines warrant protection under the ESA, they are "precluded" from a listing because other species have a higher priority. The FWS has placed the wolverine on the candidate species list for ESA protection and will review the wolverine's ranking on an annual basis. More information on the FWS determination is available here.

Referenced paper: McKelvey, K.S., J.P. Copeland, M.K. Schwartz, J.S. Littell, K.B. Aubry, J.R. Squires, S. A. Parks, M.M. Elsner, and G.S. Mauger. 2011 (in review). Climate change predicted to shift wolverine distributions, connectivity, and dispersal corridors. Submitted to Ecological Applications.

3. Recap of Recent Washington Dept. of Ecology/CIG Webinar on Hydrologic Extremes

On December 3rd, 2010, the Washington Department of Ecology (WA DOE) hosted a webinar featuring recent work by the Climate Impacts Group (CIG) on quantifying the effects of climate variability and change on hydrologic extremes in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). The purpose of the webinar was to convey to natural resource managers and policymakers the physical interactions between a changing climate and shifts in extreme hydrologic events, i.e., flooding and low flows.

Alan Hamlet from the CIG established the premise of the webinar by pointing out that future hydrologic extremes will not adhere to past or observed risks due to a changing climate. In light of these shifting baselines, the CIG has devoted much research to investigating future climate and hydrologic scenarios, and to how regional managers and decision-makers might apply the new projections to their systems.

In the course of the presentation, Alan noted that higher annual peak streamflows have been observed over the last 25 years in some basins, indicating a change in flood risk. Many of the large precipitation events associated with extreme floods are caused by "atmospheric rivers", commonly referred to as the "Pineapple Express". These events arise from narrow corridors of warm, moist air that form over the ocean and produce flooding rains when they hit land. In the PNW, the flooding can be exacerbated by melting snow from the "rain-on-snow" that occurs during these events. It is important to note, however, that the overall amount of precipitation associated with very large Pineapple Express events tends to be the dominant driver of flooding (relative to the influence of melting snow on flooding).

Information on potential changes in 21st century extreme high (e.g., 100 year floods) and low (e.g., 7Q10 flows) was presented for different basin types using information available from the CIG's Columbia River basin and coastal drainages hydrologic climate change scenarios project. For example, the average increase in 100 year flood flows for the Snohomish River at Monroe for the 2040s is +20% under the A1B greenhouse gas emissions scenario (see floodstats_daily summary products here). Generally speaking, 100 year flood magnitudes (Q100 values) are projected to systematically increase in many areas of the PNW due to increasing precipitation and rising snowlines. The levels of extreme low flow events (7Q10 values) are projected to systematically decline in many areas due to loss of snowpack and projected drier summers.

In addition to the research updates, the CIG's Lara Whitely Binder gave a brief update on the Department of Interior's (DOI) announcement that the Universities of Washington, Idaho and Oregon will jointly support the DOI Regional Climate Science Center for the Northwest.

Approximately 200 people participated in the webinar either in person (~80 people) or online (at least 120 people). Participants included staff from various state agencies, regional universities, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geologic Survey, U.S. Forest Service, tribal representatives, public utilities, environmental groups and consulting groups. For more information on the webinar, the agenda and both presentations are linked here.

4. King Tides Explained and How They Provide a “Sneak Peak” at Future Sea Level Rise

Recent "king tide" events have drawn the public's attention to what future sea level rise may look like generally in the Pacific Northwest. "King tide" is a popular term used to describe unusually high tide events. King tides occur when the moon's orbit is closest to the Earth, resulting in low tides that are especially low and high tides that are especially high. In the Pacific Northwest, the most significant king tides occur throughout late December, January and February. The most recent king tides in the southern Puget Sound region, for example, occurred during January 22-25, 2011.


Figure 1. Predicted (in blue) water levels at Tacoma for the period Jan. 17 – 30, 2011. Data source: NOAA Tides and Currents (http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/).

While tidal predictions take into account the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon, actual tides may differ depending on the influence of local weather. A major factor is the atmospheric pressure at sea level, which exerts an "inverse barometer effect", whereby sea levels rise with falling pressure due to the reduced weight of the atmosphere on the ocean's surface. Another factor that can cause observed tides to differ from predicted tides is the direction of surface winds. Sustained winds from the south during the winter tend to force ocean water coastward, raising water levels locally. Finally, warmer water temperatures cause surface waters to expand, contributing to higher than predicted tides.

All of these factors affect sea level during El Niño winters. For example, we know from historical observations that observed sea level in the PNW during El Niño winters is typically up to one foot higher than predicted because of the boost that comes with El Niño winter weather (i.e., sustained low atmospheric pressure in the Gulf of Alaska and the PNW coast, increased south wind, and a warm coastal ocean). During the El Niño winter of 2009-10, an unusually strong and unusually large atmospheric low pressure system in January 2010 resulted in observed tides exceeding predicted tides by two feet at the Tacoma gaging station between January 18 and 23 (Figure 2). (See photos of the 2010 January king tides).


Figure 2. Predicted, observed and the difference (observed – predicted) of water levels at Tacoma for the period Jan. 5 – 25, 2010. Data source: NOAA Tides and Currents (http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/).

This year's La Niña conditions are less favorable for the type of king tide events witnessed in 2010. Given that upper ocean temperatures are cooler than normal, the main factors that would contribute to king tides this winter are winds from the south and lower than normal atmospheric pressure, as occurred on January 17th (Figures 3 and 4). King tides in the southern Puget Sound region were predicted for the period of January 22 to 25. Tides were predicted to surpass the levels seen earlier in the week by about one to two feet in Tacoma (Figure 1, blue line), however the tides on the 22nd to the 25th of January were lower than predicted due to the rise in barometric pressure (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Predicted, observed and the difference (observed – predicted) of water levels at Tacoma for the period Jan. 17 – 28, 2011. Data source: NOAA Tides and Currents (http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/).


Figure 4. Barometric pressure observations at Tacoma during the period January 15 – 28, 2011. Data source: NOAA Tides and Currents (http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/).

The one to two foot increase in sea level observed during king tide events provides an analog of how 21st century sea level rise may look in the PNW (absent any changes along the coastline). For the three regions of Washington State analyzed in Mote et al. 2008, the projected medium change (with range) in sea level in 2100 is +2" (-9 to +35") for the Northwest Olympic Peninsula, +11" (+2 to 43") for the central and southern coast, and +13" (+6 to 50") for Puget Sound.

To help document this "sneak peak" at the future, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia have initiated king tide photo projects. For more information on these projects, visit the king tide photo pages for Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. See also how property owners are having to adapt to king tides: "When waters start to rise: State's highest tides of year coming this weekend", January 21, 2011, Tacoma News Tribune.

5. OCCRI Releases Assessment of Climate Change Impacts On Oregon

In 2007 the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 3543, mandating that the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) assess climate change science as it applies to the state and the potential impacts of climate change on the State of Oregon. The resulting report, released in December of 2010, summarizes the prevailing research on climate change and its effects on the state's biological, physical, and social resources. Much of the report references prior research on climate change in the western U.S. completed by the CIG and the California Climate Action Team. According to the report, Oregon can anticipate the following climate conditions in the 21st century:

In terms of the changes in natural and social resources due to climate change, Oregonians can expect the following:

A copy of the full report is available here.

6. The Global Climate Summary for 2010

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its annual global "State of the Climate" in January 2011. Some of the highlights from State of the Climate 2010 include the following:


A few key regionally manifested climate conditions in 2010 include the following:

All conclusions in the January report are based on preliminary data. The full report can be accessed from this link.

7. New Climate Change Adaptation Plans and Planning Resources

States, tribal, and local governments are continuing to move forward on adaptation planning. Recent reports include the following:

Recent adaptation planning resources include:

8. Washington-British Columbia Agreement on Coastal Impacts Outreach

Washington State and British Columbia have signed an agreement to work collaboratively on awareness and outreach activities related to climate change impacts on coasts. According to the agreement signed on February 2, 2011, Washington's Department of Ecology and the Province of British Columbia will:

A copy of the agreement is available here.

9. Updates to the West-wide Hydrologic Forecasting Tool

The streamflow forecast normally included in the quarterly newsletter is on a brief hiatus while the University of Washington's West-wide system that provides the forecasts is being updated. In collaboration with Princeton University's East-wide drought monitoring system, the UW's west-wide forecasting system will be expanded to incorporate the continental United States for the National Hydrologic Prediction System. You can read the details about the updates to the forecasting system here. We anticipate that the CIGnal will resume the inclusion of the streamflow forecast when these considerable updates are completed in July 2011.

10. CIG in the News

Recent media stories featuring CIG research and/or researchers include the following:



Posted February 8, 2011