Confronting Climate Change in Washington

Current Impacts and Future Risks

Published Mar 12, 2015


Washington residents, like people across the country, are seeing impacts from global warming. With the Pacific Northwest having warmed at least 1.3°F since 1895, climate change is already being felt in the Evergreen State.

Shellfish hatcheries are failing because of an acidifying ocean, record-breaking wildfires are destroying forests and communities, and declining snowpack and earlier snowmelt in the mountains are jeopardizing summer water supplies.

Unless we make deep and swift cuts in heat-trapping emissions, future changes to our climate could be dramatic. Climate models project Pacific Northwest temperatures to increase between 3°F and 9°F by the end of the century compared with the end of the twentieth century.

The actual warming—and the magnitude of its resulting impacts—will depend on whether we reduce or continue to increase our global emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other heat-trapping gases.

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification occurs when the ocean absorbs large amounts of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels.

Faster-than-expected ocean acidification has become a serious Northwest concern. Increased acidification will alter the marine food web, threatening culturally and commercially significant marine species such as oysters and Pacific salmon.

Ocean acidification is already responsible for declines in hatchery production in Washington's Pacific inlets, posing a major threat to the state's shellfish industry.

Diminishing and uncertain water supplies

Since 1950, the average snowpack on April 1 in the Cascade Mountains has decreased by about 20 percent. Declines in snowpack are projected to continue as temperatures warm and more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In addition, the timing of the snowmelt will shift and become out of sync with communities' needs. Snow is already melting as many as 30 days earlier than in the mid-twentieth century, reducing summer stream flows in many Northwest snow-fed rivers. This means that less water is available during the hotter months when water demand tends to be highest.

Greater risk of wildfires and forest damage

A car drives past a wildfire.
WA DNR/Flickr

Forest mortality due to fire and insect outbreaks is already rising in Washington. In the coming decades, warmer temperatures, declining snowpack, and changes in soil moisture are expected to lead to a long-term transformation of the state's forest landscapes.

Due to warmer and drier summer conditions, the typical annual area burned by fire in the Northwest is projected to double by the 2040s and quadruple by the 2080s.

Climate solutions in Washington

The emissions choices we make today—in Washington and throughout the world—will shape the climate our children and grandchildren inherit. Washington has made a start, but must do more to meet this important challenge.

The state has set goals of reducing heat-trapping emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. To achieve those goals and contribute to national and global efforts to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the state should:

  • Establish a price on carbon pollution for the companies responsible for a majority of the state’s emissions.
  • Increase the use of clean fuels, such as biofuels and electricity, to reduce oil use and the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels.
  • Expand the market for electric vehicles by extending consumer purchase incentives and expanding charging infrastructure, and join other states in requiring automakers to produce advanced-technology vehicles.
  • Improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings, agriculture, and industry.
  • Increase the use of renewable sources of electricity and reduce reliance on polluting sources such as coal and natural gas.

 This fact sheet was originally published in 2015, but was updated and rereleased in August 2018.

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