Measurements and observations clearly show the earth’s climate is changing, and Washington is experiencing changes consistent with those observed globally. The 2013 State of Knowledge Report on climate change in Washington State provides a summary of these changes, which include:
- Increasing temperatures
- Longer frost-free season
- Decreased spring snowpack
- Earlier peak streamflows in many rivers
- Rising sea levels
- Ocean acidification
These changes have already impacted plant and animal populations across the state, and greater changes are expected in the future. These impacts include degradation and loss of habitat, increases in major ecosystem disturbances such as wildfire and flooding, shifts in the geographical ranges of some native plants and animals, changes in the timing of life history events such as earlier migrations, and increases in the spread of invasive species and diseases. A few examples of how climate change will impact major habitats in the state are provided below – these are excerpted from The Washington State Integrated Climate Response Strategy. For more detail on observed and projected climate change impacts on species and ecosystems in Washington, see Climate Impacts Group's Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment.
Rising sea levels will increase erosion of beaches and flood coastal marshes, tidal flats and other important habitats for many species of fish and wildlife. In a study of selected sites in Washington, researchers project that a 27-inch rise in sea levels would eliminate 58 percent of low tidal areas and 24 percent of freshwater tidal areas. Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay will likely experience the greatest loss of key habitats, although the Lower Columbia estuary will likely gain habitat. Development of coastal areas and shoreline armoring (e.g., bulkheads, seawalls) prevent habitat areas from reestablishing inland.
Ocean waters are becoming warmer, altering the species found in our waters, affecting migration and breeding patterns, and increasing harmful algal blooms. Ocean acidification is a significant problem for species that depend on calcium carbonate to make shells or skeletons, including shellfish, corals and some types of plankton. This acidification could result in the decline of species that provide the foundation of the marine food web and support commercial fisheries.
Streams and rivers
Warmer temperatures—coupled with resulting reductions in snowpack and water supply, along with increased agricultural and domestic water withdrawals—are projected to further stress river systems, riparian areas and springtime pools that are critical to plant and animal survival. Rising stream temperatures and lower summer streamflows will reduce the quality and quantity of freshwater habitat for salmon and other coldwater fish.
Alpine and subalpine habitats are declining primarily because warmer temperatures allow tree lines to advance upwards, thereby squeezing alpine systems. These trends are expected to continue, leading to a substantial decline or potential disappearance of high-elevation tundra and subalpine vegetation in the Olympic Peninsula by 2100. Species that live in these high-elevation systems would need to seek alternative habitats or perish.
Washington’s arid lands include habitats ranging from shrub-steppe grasslands, dunes and the Palouse prairie. These habitats host numerous native plant and animal species. Many of these species already live near their physiological limits for water and temperature stress, and projected higher summer temperatures will further stress already vulnerable species. Increased temperatures will also benefit invasive species such as cheatgrass, which thrives in hot, open environments and crowds out native species.
WDFW has adopted a strategic approach to deal with threats of climate change. This approach aims to minimize risk to long-term investments, such as infrastructure development, salmon recovery, and habitat protection and restoration projects. Our goal is to identify specific risks of climate change early in project or program design, and make appropriate adjustments.
The agency further developed four strategic goals to guide our activities:
- Practice conservation from a landscape perspective and consider interactions of multiple stressors, including climate change.
- Meet or exceed requirements for Washington State agencies to reduce greenhouse emissions. For more on the agency’s mitigation efforts, see the report: "Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Washington State Government”.
- Ensure fish and wildlife needs, and other elements of biodiversity are considered as Washington State strives to achieve sustainable energy security.
- Provide education and training opportunities for WDFW employees, the legislature and the public regarding the effects of climate change for fish, wildlife, habitat and ecosystems.
For more information about WDFW’s climate-related activities, please contact Lynn Helbrecht, the agency’s Climate Change Coordinator.
WDFW participated on the steering committee for the development of an integrated, statewide climate response strategy, as directed by SB5560, the Climate Leadership Act of 2009. The Washington State Integrated Climate Response Strategy was completed in 2012 and outlines necessary actions to better prepare the state to respond to climate impacts on coastal communities, water resources, agriculture, forests, species and ecosystems and built infrastructure. The Strategy calls on state agencies to make climate adaptation an integral part of agency planning and to make scientific information about climate change readily available to decision makers in the public and private sectors.
WDFW co-chaired a 25 member stakeholder advisory group which met periodically over the course of a year to prioritize adaptation responses for the most significant risks to species, habitats and ecosystems. The report, developed as an interim product of the Strategy, is available here.
WDFW participates on an interagency working group which leads implementation of the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. The agency also sits on steering committees for both the Great Northern and the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Collaboratives (LCCs). The LCCs are regional networks designed to facilitate information sharing on emerging conservation issues across states (including climate change), identify priority research needs and foster collaborative regional approaches.