April 3, 2013

UW group part of national report, meeting on adaptation to climate change

News and Information

A string of record-breaking summers and a massive storm in New York City have brought new attention to the effects of climate change and prompted discussions about how to safeguard cities and crops. A University of Washington group that has focused on this question for almost two decades is part of a new report and first-ever national meeting on adapting to the effects of a changing climate.

Amy Snover, director of the UW’s Climate Impacts Group, is one of four co-authors of a national report released this week that outlines the state of adaptation to climate change in the United States. She wrote the chapter on adaptation in the urban environment.

“The past is an increasingly poor guide to the future,” Snover writes. With changes in temperature, precipitation patterns and sea level, she writes: “plans, policies, infrastructure and expectations… must be adjusted accordingly.”

The State of Climate Change Adaptation in the United States

Snover’s chapter on urban adaptation starts on pg. 56

Overall, the report concludes that despite widespread interest in climate change, most public projects do not take climate change into account, and those that do are still in the risk-assessment and planning stages – be they building higher seawalls to deal with rising seas, changing zoning codes in anticipation of bigger floods, or including climate change in strategies for municipal water supplies.

“If you want to talk about something that’s changed on the ground to prepare for a changing climate, there are few examples nationwide,” Snover said. But she believes things are changing. “Funders are beginning to put a high priority on implementation, rather than just planning.”

The new report provides a snapshot of current climate adaptation work and resources. It was sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and written by university researchers and lead author EcoAdapt, a Seattle nonprofit that maintains a database of adaptation tools and case studies.

Snover’s chapter draws on her 15 years of experience working with scientists, government agencies and community groups. Examples come from Chicago, San Francisco, Florida and the Pacific Northwest, which Snover describes as a leader in preparing for climate change. For instance:

  • King County has been concerned about climate change effects for more than a decade, and has integrated climate change into wastewater treatment plant design, flood protection and other projects.
  • The City of Olympia began in 1993 to look at climate change impacts to its downtown, including sea-level rise and flooding, and has recently included ocean rise in the city’s comprehensive plan.
  • Seattle Public Utilities has examined how to protect drinking-water supplies from climate change, and created an early warning system for extreme precipitation and urban flooding. The agency works on climate-change preparations with municipal drinking water utilities nationwide.
  • The Swinomish Tribal Community has examined climate change’s impact on shellfish, fish, cultural sites, flooding hazards, wildfires and road access to its Fidalgo Island tribal lands. It is evaluating ways to protect key low-lying areas from sea-level rise.
  • The Washington State Department of Transportation is part of a federal pilot program to consider climate change’s impacts on critical transportation routes.

Many of the Northwest projects used analyses done by the UW’s Climate Impacts Group.

Snover is also speaking this week at the first National Adaptation Forum in Denver, Colo. Her session, “Adaptation in the Coastal Context,” considers strategies and goals in coastal areas.

“With sea-level rise, there’s inevitable loss,” Snover said. “So what does successful adaptation to climate change look like? We know the risks we’re planning for, but do we know where we’re trying to end up?”

She will also describe at least one project that has reached the implementation stage: A 237-acre redevelopment project at the Port of Bellingham designed to accommodate sea-level rise.

The meeting is being put on by EcoAdapt, the MacArthur Foundation and other nonprofit organizations.

“We have the knowledge, data and tools necessary for understanding local impacts and developing local strategies,” Snover said. “Preparing for the inevitable impacts of our changing climate, and strengthening our resilience to variability and extremes, are the key challenges for this decade.”

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For more information, contact Snover at 206‐849-0639 or aksnover@uw.edu.

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