Growing evidence shows that climate change is greatly impacting our region’s ecological systems. Existing stressors like invasive species, pollution, floods, droughts, wildfires, and coastal erosion will worsen. New stressors will further the threat to our ecological systems.
Understanding climate change impacts to Washington’s resources allows the department to respond appropriately to changing conditions.
How will climate change affect Washington’s species and habitats?
The Climate Impacts Group’s 2013 State of Knowledge Report summarizes changes that have already impacted plant and animal populations across the state; greater changes are expected in the future. Climate change is projected to impact Washington’s major habitats.
Rising sea levels will increase erosion of beaches and flood coastal marshes, tidal flats, and other important habitats for fish and wildlife. Development of coastal areas and shoreline armoring (e.g., bulkheads, seawalls) prevent habitat from reestablishing inland. Sea level rise will eliminate low tidal areas and freshwater tidal areas.
Ocean waters are warming. This will change the species found in our waters, affect migration and breeding patterns, and increase harmful algal blooms. Ocean acidification is a big problem for species that depend on calcium carbonate to make shells or skeletons - shellfish, corals, and some plankton. These species are the foundation of the marine food web and may decline with ocean acidification.
Streams and rivers
River systems, riparian areas, and springtime pools critical to plant and animal survival will be under greater stress as temperatures rise. The reduced snowpack and water supply, and increased agricultural and domestic water withdrawals will further the stress. Rising stream temperatures and lower summer stream flows will reduce the quality and quantity of salmon habitat.
Forests will be affected by increasing air temperatures, changes in precipitation, reduced snowpack, and decreased soil moisture. There may also be changes to the growing season, more frequent and severe fires, shifts in species composition, and the spread of invasive species. More frequent and intense storm events may increase blowdowns and damage from flooding, landslides, and erosion.
Alpine and subalpine habitats are declining primarily because warmer temperatures allow tree lines to advance upwards, which squeezes 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 shrub-steppe grasslands, dunes, and the Palouse prairie. These habitats host many native plant and animal species that already live near their physiological limits for water and temperature stress. 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.
How is WDFW responding to climate change?
The department adopted a policy to help us respond to the risks of climate change. This guidance includes principles for climate smart conservation and for limiting risks to the department’s investments due to impacts of climate change. The department has implemented projects to support this policy:
Designing climate change-resilient culverts and bridges - The department’s water crossing guidance now considers stream changes due to climate change. We will help you design culverts and bridges using future stream condition data to avoid project failure and fish blockage.
Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Species and Ecological Systems - The department assessed the vulnerability of 268 species of greatest conservation need and 80 ecological systems.
Statewide planning for climate change
The department was involved in developing Washington State’s Integrated Climate Response Strategy. The strategy outlines necessary actions to prepare the state to respond to climate impacts on coastal communities, water resources, agriculture, forests, species and ecosystems, and built infrastructure.
The department co-chaired a stakeholder advisory group that prioritized adaptation responses for the most significant risks to species, habitats, and ecosystems.
National and regional planning for climate change
The department helped develop the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. This unified nationwide effort reflects shared principles and science-based practices for addressing threats of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants, and their natural systems.
Learn more about impact of climate change on habitats:
- Washington Department of Ecology’s The Washington State Integrated Climate Response Strategy.
- University of Washington Climate Impacts Group's Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment.