5th National Climate Assessment – What Does It Mean for the North Sound

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Five years in the making, the fifth edition of the National Climate Assessment was released earlier this week. This assessment is a congressionally mandated report and provides the latest regional and national evaluation of where our climate has been and is moving ahead, along with the impacts.

This latest version of the National Climate Assessment unfortunately does not offer a rosy picture of where our climate is heading and what those impacts will be. Since the last assessment report was released in 2018, the number of billion dollar disasters, heat waves, wildfires, flooding events, and more continue to rise. Already this year has set a new record with 23 billion dollar disasters, breaking the record of 22 such disasters in 2020. There were 18 billion dollar disasters last year.

The effects of our warming planet continue to be felt with no end in sight through at least the rest of this century. In this assessment report, scientists now place more confidence that the warmer global atmosphere and oceans are making storms more intense, and heat waves more frequent, longer, and more deadly. Globally, the months of July, August and September were the warmest ever recorded.

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere at the start of the industrial age in the late 19th century was about 280 parts per million (ppm), based upon polar region ice core samples,. Measurements of CO2 at the weather station on Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii – in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – have been steadily rising sharply since the 1950’s. For the whole month of May of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported an average of 424 ppm at Mauna Loa, the highest ever recorded, surpassing the May 2022 average of 421 ppm.

This rising amount of CO2 and another good greenhouse gas – methane – are expected to continue to maintain the warming trend for the planet. A warmer air mass can hold more water vapor. Studies have found that today’s warmer global atmosphere can hold about 10 percent more moisture than a 100 years ago, and has resulted in greater rainfall rates leading to the many major impactful flooding events witnessed across the nation and around the world.

So what does this fresh National Climate Assessment say about the Pacific Northwest? The assessment had six key messages.

  • The consequences of extreme heat, flooding, and wildfire smoke and other climate hazards will impact everyone, but particularly those of low-income
  • Ecosystems are expected to change as the climate continues to evolve and as the magnitude and frequency of extreme events increases
  • Climate change impacts to the Northwest’s natural resource and outdoor-dependent economies will be variable, given the diversity of industries, land cover, and climatic zones, impacting these industries with cascading effects on community livelihoods and well-being
  • Recent extreme events have stressed water systems and housing, transportation, and energy infrastructure across the Northwest, and extreme precipitation, droughts, and heatwaves will intensify and continue to threaten these interrelated systems
  • The Northwest’s climate has historically been temperate and relatively mild, but shifting weather patterns are adversely affecting physical, mental, and community health, stressing health systems
  • The ongoing change in climate has disrupted sense of place in the Northwest, affecting noneconomic values such as proximity and access to nature and residents’ feelings of security and stability

At a White House briefing on the National Climate Assessment, President Biden said, “Anyone who willfully denies the impact of climate change is condemning the American people to a very dangerous future. Impacts are only going to get worse, more frequent, more ferocious and more costly.”

The key elements for the North Sound and the Pacific Northwest as this warming trend continues in the decades ahead include rising sea levels from melting ice in polar regions and glaciers, overall higher mountain snow levels meaning less snow melt runoff during the summer and fall seasons, the likelihood of more wildfires and wildfire smoke, and longer warmer summer seasons. In fact, studies have found globally, summers are now at least 3 weeks longer than back in the 1950s, shortening the other three seasons.

The Fifth National Climate Assessment is available on-line. Texas Tech University Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe and contributor to the report noted, “This year’s assessment reflects the reality that Americans can increasingly see and feel climate impacts in their own communities. Climate change is affecting every aspect of our lives.”