July 28, 2014

Will the Pacific Northwest be a Climate Refuge Under Global Warming?

As global warming takes hold later in the century, where will be the best place in the lower 48 states to escape its worst effects?

A compelling case can be made that the Pacific Northwest will be one of the best places to live as the earth warms.   A potential climate refuge.

Let's analyze this important question.

I will start with a clean map and highlight problematic areas as the climate warms.

Sea Level Rise

Low-lying coastal areas will be vulnerable as sea-level rises 1-2 feet during the next 85 years.  Based on USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) publications (for example, the USGS threat maps below), I have indicated problematic locations in red.  Forget Florida.

Red areas indicates regions that will experience substantial negative impacts of global warming from sea level rise

Water Availability

 Climate models are emphatic that the SW U.S. will get less precipitation and evaporation will increase as the temperature increases.  This will substantially reduce water availability for agricultural and other uses (see figure for the situation in 2050 that is in the recent U.S. National Climate Assessment). Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Florida are also heavily impacted.

Based on this document and others, I have marked up the U.S. map with yellow to indicate areas that will be highly stressed for water.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms

Although the latest research does not suggest that the number of hurricanes will increase, much of the literature is emphatic the the most intensive hurricanes will get considerably worse.  The regions influenced by hurricanes should not change much, as illustrated by the150-year hurricane track climatology (see graphic).  The SE U.S. and the East Coast are most threatened, and I note that more severe hurricanes can cause both  increased storm surge damage along the coast and heavy

precipitation/flooding in in the interior.  I have marked (in orange) additional locations that might be significantly affected by hurricanes.

Heat Waves

Heat wave can be big killers, particularly for the elderly.  Here is the temperature change maps from the latest U.S. Climate Assessment

The interior of the continent really heats up, with the West Coast moderated by the cool Pacific Ocean.  So, in the U.S. map I have put purple dots for the blank locations with substantial heat wave risk.

Other Issues

With warming temperatures, the atmosphere will hold more water vapor, potentially leading to more precipitation.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel  on Climate Change) notes considerable uncertainty on the distribution of resulting flooding, but the U.S. National Assessment notes that the biggest increases during the contemporary period has been in the Midwest (see graphic).

My own research has suggested that atmospheric rivers could be enhanced under global warming, which might result in increased flooding, but only near major rivers draining western U.S. mountains. To denote that risk I will put a few green dots on the map.  No issue for Seattle assuming the Howard Hansen dam is properly maintained.

There are many other, more minor, issues that I won't deal with here.  According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, ticks capable of  transmitting Lyme's disease could become far more prevalent in the Midwest under global warming (see graphic)


So what conclusion does one inevitably reach by studying the IPCC reports, the U.S. Climate Assessment, and the climate literature?

The Northwest is the place to be during global warming.   
  • Temperatures will rise more slowly than most of the nation due to the Pacific Ocean (see below)  
  • We will have plenty of precipitation, although the amount falling as snow will decline (will fall as rain instead).  But we can deal with that by building more reservoir and dam capacity (and some folks on the eastern slopes of the Cascades have proposed to do exactly that).
  • The Pacific Ocean will keep heat waves in check and we don't get hurricanes.
  • Sea level rise is less of a problem for us due to our substantial terrain and the general elevation rise of our shorelines.  Furthermore, some of our land is actually RISING relatively to the sea level because we are still recovering from the last ice age (the heavy ice sheets pushed the land down and now it is still rebounding).
  • There is no indication that our major storms...cyclone-based winds (like the Columbus Day Storm)... will increase under global warming.  
  • Increased precipitation may produce more flooding, but that will be limited to river valleys and can be planned for with better river management and zoning.
Temperature of the eastern Pacific, which controls Northwest weather, have been COOLING the last 35 years (blue color)

Several media outlets have noted that the Northwest and its principal city, Seattle, should be particularly good places to ride out a warming planet.  Here is an example:

Portland State University has also done a study suggesting that the Willamette Valley will be a magnet for the global warming migrants:

Yes, the Northwest may well become a climate refuge during the upcoming century.  
The big question?  

How do we keep the Californians out?   One idea is shown below.


  1. Like the last pic- you related to Governor McCall in any way?

  2. Your list paints a bleak picture for salmon. More dams, a change in precipitation patterns and river flow), and rising seas that inundate the few remaining estuaries.

  3. I am sure those in power will declare Seattle a sanctuary city for everyone, everywhere. We have SO MUCH land available for people here in the metro. What is another 2-3 million among friends. Makes sense with Seattle's zoning re: multistory, multitenant dwellings.

    Oh yeah, you think housing prices are high now, wait until the competition comes here. A living wage in Seattle will require $30+/hour, if not more....

  4. Assigning heat wave risk to places is like northern New Hampshire is a little nonsensical, given that our normal temperatures are much hotter than their heat waves. Such places may see more statistical change, but I'd much rather refuge in New Hampshire during the summer heat than in the northwest. Typical summer weather there is mid 70s to low 80s. A "heat wave" there might hit the low 90s. Whereas here, an ordinary summer day like today will give us mid 90s on the eastern slopes and mid 100s in the Columbia basin.

    Which would you rather?

  5. Hahaha! Like all good native Washingtonians, the entire time I was reading this entry I was thinking, "Yabbut, DON'T TELL ANYONE ELSE!" I see you addressed that in your last bit. ;-D

  6. I am far from convinced that the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is true. Last winter's "polar vortex" hysteria caused me to take a closer look at the issue. The you look the less is there.

    Each one of the major elements of the AGW hypothesis is shaky, starting with the causal link between the increases on CO2 levels on the last 100 years and atmospheric temperature.

  7. @ryamkajr

    Building s***loads of market-rate housing, and high-quality transit service to give those people an alternative to driving everywhere, is the way you keep living costs low while expanding the tax base. We should be upzoning the heck out of the areas around rail stations and bus lines.

  8. Exactly my premise for my dystopian serial, The McCall Initiative. And yes, ponydogwoman, as the title implies, McCall's philosophy plays into it heavily. I won't be so shameless as to leave a link. If you're curious, you can look it up on Amazon.

  9. Cliff, given your expertise in modeling, you understand the challenges of modeling a complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system.

    Both weather models and climate models are modeling the same planet Earth. You know weather models show diminishing skill the more days pass. And climate models all predict increasing global temperatures when in fact the planet's so-called warming has "paused" for about 18 years.

    All of the predictions you're repeating are based on those failed models. Why?

  10. Johannes,
    Weather prediction and climate prediction are different. Weather prediction models have a decline in skill because they depend on the initial state. Climate models are driven by outside forcing (boundary value rather than initial value problem) and don't attempt to predict the atmospheric state at a particular time.

    Climate models are not failed models...you can not expect them to get decadal variations correct, just the long-term trends..cliff

  11. In the near term I agree the NW should be paying more attention to geologists than meteorologists, but Seattle lacks an engaging geology blog. I guess on a day to day basis rocks aren't as interesting.

    Question- Might we see some impacts from ocean current changes or ocean acidification?

    1. The two are intertwined. Ocean currents help prevent ocean acidification. In the past it appears the polar water became warm enough to stop its sinking and shut off the deep ocean currents, which created anoxic oceans (super acidification if you will).

  12. Could you please provide larger versions of your maps? I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and I would like to know which areas are included in the red/high change areas.

  13. Cliff, is global warming a theory to you or a fact in which you strongly believe the projections you have posted above?

  14. Jack Bloss-

    Just as the Theory of Gravity will never become the "Fact of Gravity", so will any other theory never be upgraded to a "Fact".

    A Scientific Theory is stronger than a "fact" it is a culmination of facts the explain a phenomenon.

    A Theory is as strong as it gets in Science.

  15. Jwhorn:
    "Which would you rather?"

    As someone who lives in Seattle but has also spent many summers on the shores of Lake Winnepesaukee, I think you underestimate how humid it can get even in central NH. Not like the deep South or anything, but their worst is worse than Seattle's worst.

    In the 30 or so years I've gone there, the number of hot/humid summer days does seem to have increased as well.

    - Douglas

  16. Michael Snyder - Then there is the Law of Gravity - Sir Isaac Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation.

    I just want to say to climate change deniers that it makes no sense to hang your hat on the notion that humans aren't causing the problem. It's so much better to accept that humans ARE responsible and get on with changing our behaviour - like NOW. At this point deniers are the problem. How can those with denier mindset find inner peace in their stance?

  17. Cascadia - Declare independence now! ;)

  18. I have been blogging on interesting high-energy geology events on "GeologyInMotion.com" since 2010. Occasionally there are excursions into interesting fluid dynamics problems as well. I have recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, and as I get more informed about issues here, will orient the posts to address local issues. I greatly admire Cliff's blog, and was delighted to meet him at the Ivar's anniversary event!

  19. Cliff, I wish you wouldn't keep insisting on more reservoirs being built. Just where would you put them? Please keep in mind that much of the water already stored for irrigation is either wasted, or used for low value crops like hay.

    There are huge efficiency gains to be made before we need new dams. Just charging for water would help immensely. No one values something if it is free, and irrigation water in E. Wash. is practically free of charge.

  20. Cliff,

    I'm going up to Mt. Adams this weekend and I have been monitoring the weather forecast in that area all week on the NOAA site. They have posted mid to upper 80's all week, UNTIL TODAY.
    Now they are saying possible thunderstorms and precipitation.WHAT GIVES?

  21. Ok, thank you Michae Snyder. Really i mis-worded that question anyway. I meant, is the idea that global warming is man-made a strongly proven theory or one that is still in the hypothesis stages and needs more time to be backed by sufficient evidence?

    1. IPCC certainty that current global warming is anthropogenic is close to 100%, Jack. It's those pesky 90 million extra tons of CO2 that we're pumping into the atmosphere every day.

  22. I have read elsewhere that the Pac NW is a (relatively) good place to be during the future that awaits us/our descendants. In one sense, that is comforting.

    However, I would remind people that there is a LONG history of gigantic subduction zone quakes (the same type that triggered the deadly tsunamis that hit Indonesia/Thailand and then Japan) that have occurred in the history of the Pac NW. The last one lifted the beach at Alki some 6 feet or so and triggered a massive tsunami all along the WA coast and Puget Sound. Imagine what will happen to the bridges and roads here when it occurs....(oh, and, technically speaking, we're *overdue* for that quake to hit).

    The point being - get/stay prepared with food, water, heat - even if our moisture and temperature are *more* desirable than other areas of the country.

    Snoqualman, I hear you on the efficiency. I live in SE WA. EVERYONE here has massive green lawns. Golf courses galore. Aquifers are dropping like mad up around Odessa. It ain't gonna be pretty when water limitations hit.

  23. What do the models predict about coastal upwelling along the Washington and Oregon coasts?

    The following blog has some nice plots of tidal levels on the east coast-- data represented by David Smith, the blogger.


  24. Janney Claire Alexi-

    The meaning of a "law" in science is purely anaytical.

    A law isnt an explanation of a Phenomenon. Its simply what we can expect when calculating our understanding of what gravity is. (The calculation of the speed of dropping an object from the space needle, for example).

    So again,
    A THEORY in science is as far as it ever goes.
    Its the culmination of facts and observations that best explain a phenomenom.

    It will never be upgraded to a "LAW".

    Law and Theory are two different ballgames in the world of science.

  25. Jack Bloss-

    With all the confusion that there seems to be , the premise is rather simple, well understood, and the only major issues among scientists are how much effect/what kind of pattern changes will occur because of AGW, not whether its happening or not.

    The really quick and crude way to sum it up is this: Co2 is a green house gas, we pump millions of tons of it into our atmosphere a year.

    It gets messy when it gets political, and the poorly informed media gets its hands on it.

  26. The PNW, west of the Cascades you mean of course, right professor ? Your more basic fire-potential conditions at this point (I'm sending this form California.) notwithstanding, where looking at the broader temperature contours over the past two days, certainly basic heat wise, the thin silver of area west of the Cascades north, looks pretty narrow.

  27. It seems that you haven't accounted for the cooling effects of the Great Lakes (you have purple dots over Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo (which has never hit 100 degrees in its history, because of the cooling effects of Lake Erie). Also, having a huge cache of fresh water sort of diminishes the need for rainfall.

  28. Pennsylvania doesn't make out that bad either. Philly might see some low lying areas flooded out by the rise in the Delaware R. but that city needs a good cleansing anyway. I've been here (Philly burbs) over 20 years and we've only had one hurricane that caused any significant damage - Sandy in 2012.

    I'll take a storm that we can track for weeks and prepare for over an increase in earthquake activity and the potential of a related tsunami anyway:


  29. Michael Snyder,
    How can we jump to that conclusion so soon? I'm not trying to say it's wrong but our own records only date back a couple hundred years at best. What's to say a spike in the temperature like this one hasn't occurred before?

  30. you forgot one thing: mudslides. Climate change leads to extreme weather events, such as massive rainstorms, e.g., the mudslide in Oso: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/before-the-washington-mudslide-warnings-of-the-unthinkable/2014/03/29/0088b5f2-b769-11e3-b84e-897d3d12b816_story.html

    also ocean acidification is going to affect the fishing. But overall I agree.

  31. BTW as the Seattle sits adjacent to the Pacific Ring Of Fire it is only a matter of time before it gets wiped out by a Tsunami according to geologists. How does Upper Central Canada look?

    1. All rock. Nowhere to grow food. Pretty place, though.

  32. While I generally agree with Cliff's overall conclusions, I am not sure we will be quite as sanguine after the PDO changes phase. And the center of the "climate refuge" is actually north of us in British Columbia. So it will be the Canadians putting up the barbed wire fences to keep us out. Finally, there is one area where the Western PNW has seen huge change -- really huge change -- and that is in the increasing temperatures of our coldest cold snaps. Our coldest winter cold snaps are becoming much warmer. "Cold" in the 1950s and 60s was zero degrees F. "Cold" today is 14 degrees F. There are advantages to not having such cold extremes, such as the increasing popularity of mini split heat pumps. And there are disadvantages, such as heavy wet -- or raining -- "snow" for skiers, and increasing insect damages.

  33. Jack Bloss said...

    "How can we jump to that conclusion so soon? I'm not trying to say it's wrong but our own records only date back a couple hundred years at best. What's to say a spike in the temperature like this one hasn't occurred before"

    Lots of good answers to your questions right here.

  34. Unfortunately, the Pacific Northwest (especially from Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island) is ground zero for the overdue megaquake on the Cascadia subduction fault zone. The survivors of that, though, should have a dandy time free of the worst effects of global warming.

  35. All good, except the NW is down wind from Fukashima - both precipitation and ocean currents.

  36. Everyone realizes that if we acidify the oceans, and warm the planet we may all starve?

    It doesnt matter that we are living in a place that doesnt warm.

    Look where your food comes from, it doesnt just come from WA state.

  37. The crazy aunt in the attic for the PNW is earthquakes and volcanism which will increase as a variety of knock on effects from climate change increase or accelerate. Glacier meltoff will reduce the mass of the tectonic units resulting in increased tectonism through isostatic rebound. This may also loosen up some magmatic material, increasing the amount of phreatomagmatic eruptions including the exciting possibility of Mt. Rainier wiping out the Green River Valley with a gigantic lahar as has happened previously. Baker, Glacier, Hood, St. Helens, Adams, and who knows how many unknown volcanoes are lurking in the Cascades?

  38. Janney Claire Alexi wrote " It's so much better to accept that humans ARE responsible and get on with changing our behaviour - like NOW. At this point deniers are the problem. How can those with denier mindset find inner peace in their stance?"

    It cannot be deniers that are the problem. We live in a democracy, and if 90+% (according to the news media) of all scientist now believe that humans cause or significantly contribute to global warming, why hasn't any significant progress been made to decrease carbon dioxide release or levels in the atmosphere? With that level of support, we have enough scientific horsepower in the "believers" that we should be well along on our path toward solving the issue. No, the problem is not deniers, the problem is hypocritical "believers". I'll bet you even drove your car to work this morning.

    1. Actually, the U.S. has been statistically deemed to be an oligarchy now, not a democracy, so the rich deniers have indeed been having their way with the climate change conversation -- and they've won. (That there are thousands of armchair minions just solidifies the win of the oligarchs.) And you'd better believe that the rest of the world is pretty angry at you folks about this.

      p.s. I rode my bike. But it's not individual choices that matter. We need a complete transformation of our fossil-fuelled economic system to a zero-carbon 100% perpetual energy economy by mid-century. To get there, we need to begin our global decline in greenhouse gas emissions next year. So, wanna try for a miracle, which is the only thing that's going to give us a hope in hell of surviving the food crisis that climate disruption is creating?


  39. The rapid decline in the cost of solar energy is a source of very good news in the effort to decarbonize the electric utility system. For example, in Oregon a 15 year effort to build enough solar capacity to produce 20% of electricity from solar energy would cost between 6 and 7 billion $ and produce benefits from avoiding natural gas fired generation of some 9 billion $. This would reduce carbon emissions 100 million tons at negative net cost.

    If we would do the profitable and fun things that can reduce GHG emissions we can make lots more progress faster than most folks realize.

  40. I like your approach-- subtracting the areas that are under risk to see what's left. However, unless I missed it, it looks like you missed increased forest fires-- I'm pretty sure there are projections for increasing numbers of acres burned (until they're all burned up?), and statistically speaking, the risk of that is purely a function of having forests to burn, i.e., much of Washington and Oregon. And then you have to consider the follow-on effect of increased precipitation on denuded hillsides, esp. in the Pacific NW, with volcanic soils that don't respond well to water-logging. This will in turn impact watersheds in terms of flooding (less water absorbed by trees and root systems)and water quality (increased amount of silt in streams, and also in dams, which complicates water delivery from reservoirs.

    And on another topic, regarding "Placeholder"s comments on the polar vortex: that made the news, but what was driving it was the equatorial heat pump driving heat from the eastern and central Pacific into the arctic-- that is what was pushing all the cold air down. It's GLOBAL warming, you can't just look out your window and decide what's going on based on what you see

  41. I personally can do without an influx of people from the less civil and literate parts of the country, desperate enough to Mad Max their way through my beloved Cascadia and turn it into an overpopulated Thunderdome. I hope to be dead before that gets too bad.

  42. Tee hee. The Portland study is True. And I've already moved to Oregon from California so the fence is going up too late.

  43. Might want to rethink that given the proximity to Mount Rainier (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/savageplanet/01volcano/03/indexmid.html) and the Cascadia subduction zone. (http://blog.seattlepi.com/bigscience/2014/03/27/50th-anniversary-warning-a-megathrust-quake-like-alaskas-9-2-will-hit-seattle/#21949101=0&20077103=0&20079105=0)

  44. Along with the reparation of damages, and the loss of prime real estate, there are major economic (coastal and global) effects that will result from this increase in ocean levels.
    Examples of this will include seafood market suffering, population surplus, increased travel distance between continents (for boats) (which leads to more gas being needed and more risk of spillage) and a whole load of other things. http://apps.swsd.k12.pa.us/wordpress/jesssillyandclimatechange/

  45. As for me, this problem is the main problem of the 21st century, and certain actions must be taken! Just see and read the following post available at http://bigessaywriter.com/blog/climate-changing-or-main-problem-of-the-21st-century! Globally serious issues must be solved out!

  46. I also think a factor of warmer air/ocean temps in the future may mitigate the warming as more evaporation of ocean waters will lead to more clouds.

  47. Does anyone have an opinion as to whether Olympia, Washington or Tigard, OR are best in regards to escaping global warming in the future? And if one city might be better than the other with providing sustainable living and having enough water?

  48. I wonder if opinions have changed since these fires... second-worst air in the world after MUMBAI on Monday in Seattle.

  49. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/washington-state-carbon-tax/567523/&source=gmail&ust=1539621041956000&usg=AFQjCNEexcGUWKA9PX_ryNazMHSMyntjYw


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

More Wildfire Misinformation at the Seattle Times

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