UW Today

October 29, 2014

Fires and floods: North Cascades federal lands prepare for climate change

News and Information

In a country that boasts an awe-inspiring system of national parks, the Pacific Northwest may be especially lucky. But even remote parks and forests can’t escape the problem of human-induced climate change.

mountain lake

Lake in the Picket Range of North Cascades National Park.Victor Mesny Photography

Future shifts could affect everything from how people access the parks to what activities are possible once they arrive – not to mention the plants and animals that call those places home.

For a report released this week, University of Washington scientists worked with federal agencies to pinpoint natural resources sensitive to a warmer climate in the North Cascades region, and outline detailed management responses to minimize the adverse impacts on land and in water.

The report, “Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in the North Cascades region, Washington,” was led by the U.S. Forest Service’s Portland-based Pacific Northwest Research Station. It is the largest climate change adaptation effort on federal lands to date.

The partnership took a wide view for managing federal lands in the North Cascades. Participants in the North Cascadia Adaptation Partnership were the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the North Cascades National Park Complex and Mount Rainier National Park. The UW’s Climate Impacts Group provided scientific expertise.

“It‘s critical that we work across agency boundaries to ensure that techniques for responding to climate change are effective,” said editor David Peterson, a UW affiliate professor of environmental and forest science and a research biologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

In a region famous for its snowy peaks and lush greenery, the report emphasizes impacts related to hydrologic systems. Watersheds in the North Cascades are expected to become increasingly dominated by rain rather than snow. This will cause more fall and winter floods on much of the roughly 10,000 miles of roads in the North Cascades.

person standing at road edge

A ranger surveys the damage to Nisqually Road after Nov. 2006 floods at Mount Rainier National Park.National Park Service

“Events like the floods of 2006 that closed Mount Rainier National Park for six months affect both access and infrastructure,” said Randy King, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park. “If there are techniques that can reduce the damage, we need to take a hard look at them.”

Possible adaptation tactics for federal lands identified in the report include hardening stream crossings with rocks, stabilizing stream banks, designing culverts for higher flows and upgrading bridges to deal with higher flows.

Co-author Ronda Strauch, now a UW graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, first looked at landslides and climate change as a federal scientist participating in this report. She since began a UW doctorate funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Northwest Climate Science Center, a regional center co-led by the UW, to look at climate change, flooding and roadways.

The report also addresses increased wildfire and insect outbreaks east of the Cascades as a result of a warmer climate. On the heels of a record fire season in Eastern Washington, the authors offer recommendations for how to contain future fires and fast-track forest restoration.

“If you think about the big fires this past year – the Carlton Complex fire, the largest fire in Washington state history – that could become the new normal in the next 30 to 40 years as it continues to warm,” Peterson said.

The report suggests more widespread forest thinning and prescribed burning to help stop future wildfires from spreading out of control.

Peterson led the three-year project with co-editors Crystal Raymond, a former Forest Service climate scientist now with Seattle City Light, and Regina Rochefort, a science adviser with the National Park Service based in Bellingham. Both earned their doctorates at the UW.

Other UW contributors include Joshua Lawler, associate professor of forest resources, who provided science on how climate change will affect wildlife. Nate Mantua, a UW affiliate professor in fisheries and now a research scientist at NOAA, and Maureen Ryan, a former UW postdoctoral researcher, provided expertise on climate change and fish.

“This report is a meeting of current science about future changes with on-the-ground practitioner knowledge about what our natural resources look like, what the management challenges are, and what opportunities they have to prepare for those changes,” said Amy Snover, director of the UW Climate Impacts Group. “The really important output of this report is a practical list of adaptation tactics that are consistent with the changes we expect.”

Other co-authors are Kailey Marcinkowski and Michael Case at the UW; Lee Cerveny at the Forest Service; Jeremy Littell, a former UW researcher now with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steven Klein, a forester at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Alan Hamlet, a former UW researcher now at the University of Notre Dame. The work was funded by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station.

###

For more information, contact Snover at 206-221-0222 or aksnover@uw.edu and Peterson at 206-732-7812 or wild@uw.edu.

Adapted from a press release from the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service media contact is Rachel LaMedica, 503-808-2279, rmlamedica@fs.fed.us.

Tag(s):