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9 images of climate impacts and adaptation in the Pacific Northwest

Remnant snowpack (Image 1 of 9)

In the Pacific Northwest, mountain snowpack is a critical water resource as it feeds the rivers and creeks throughout the summer. In the winter of 2014–15, the snowpack was 20 percent of normal, a record low. On the upper right of the image is remnant snowpack of the now extinct Lyell Glacier.

Salmon shallows (Image 2 of 9)

A salmon returning to the Skagit River in northwestern Washington fights its way upstream to spawn in a side channel with only a few inches of water.

A fine line (Image 3 of 9)

State fishery managers issued emergency rules restricting or closing recreational fishing on more than 30 rivers in Washington due to the drought. The low flows, combined with high water temperatures, can be deadly for the cold-water dependent salmonid species migrating upriver in late summer and early fall. The lighter rock “bathtub ring” on the canyon walls on the far side of the photo illustrates how far the water level had dropped. By restricting fishing, managers avoid exacerbating the stress on salmon populations and can support ecological integrity.

Water management (Image 4 of 9)

Diablo Dam is one of three dams on the Skagit River that combined provide 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity. While dams are obvious barriers for fish, they also make it possible to retain water in drought years and regulate flows to ensure fish survival in critical spawning reaches. Such flexibility boosts a region’s ability to respond to a changing climate.

Mixed bag for potato farmers (Image 5 of 9)

More than 90 percent of the red potatoes grown in Washington come from the Skagit Valley, where dry years can actually be good because they tend to have fewer disease outbreaks than wet years. Potatoes are one of more than 80 crops grown in this valley. This diversity supports a highly adaptable and resilient agricultural system.

West side rarity (Image 6 of 9)

Wildfires on the west side of the Cascade Mountains are unusual; the burn cycle in these forests characterized by heavy rainfall is typically more than 100 years.

In 2015, however, the 7,000-acre Goodell Fire was just one of numerous fires burning in the area. The abundant lichen forest floor cover here can act as dry kindling during extreme drought years, and — unlike the ponderosa pine in eastern Washington forests, which are adapted to fire — thin-barked cedars in west-side forests are extremely vulnerable to fire. Old trees such as this one burn from the inside, so even after heavy rains returned in late August, the Goodell fire continued to smolder for weeks.

Smoke in Bellingham Bay (Image 7 of 9)

The city of Bellingham is built around a horseshoe-shaped bay on the Salish Sea. Due in part to its predominately marine weather, the city is rated as one of the best in that nation for air quality. But on several occasions this summer the air was rated unhealthy as smoke blew in from wildfires across the British Columbia border or from eastern Washington fires.

Banned barbecues (Image 8 of 9)

In response to the extreme fire risk, Washington issued a statewide fire ban on all public lands in late June. The ban included charcoal briquettes and barbecues in coastal picnic areas of Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.

Fire on Jumbo Mountain (Image 9 of 9)

A small wildfire on the flanks of Jumbo Mountain near the bucolic town of Darrington, Washington, flared up numerous times over a few weeks. Due to the steep terrain the fire had nowhere to go, so was not actively managed. The snowpack atop Whitehorse Mountain on the right feeds the unregulated Stillaguamish River, which was critically low for local tribes and farmers that rely on the river flows in late summer.


Residents of the Pacific Northwest begrudgingly refer to the month of June as “June-uary,” a reference to the fact that the wet weather can often make it feel like midwinter. But this past June, Seattle had less rain than Phoenix.

Even more significant is that last winter there was very little snow. That’s especially important for the Pacific Northwest, one of the few parts of the U.S. where mountain snowpack, not man-made reservoirs, provides most of the water storage capacity. While there were near-normal levels of precipitation, most of it fell as rain rather than snow, because it was also the warmest winter on record.

Climate scientists have dubbed the summer’s drought “a dress rehearsal for the future.” These conditions are predicted to become average by mid-century as glaciers recede and mountain snowpack responds to even minor warming.

The impacts of drought in this characteristically wet region were similar to those of drought in other parts of the country. Washington had the worst fire season on record, with even remote coastal rainforests going up in flames. More than a million fish died in the state’s hatcheries due to disease related to high temperatures and low water levels. And farmers without water rights lost entire crops.

But the drought also offered a chance to explore what climate resilience really means in practice. While it’s clear there is no how-to manual or one-size-fits-all solution for building resilience to climate impacts, the experience validated three core guiding principles: diversity, integrity and innovation. However complex the conceptual framework behind resilience theory is, these principles offer simple guidance. The more diverse a system, the more it can respond to change. The more intact an ecosystem or the more innovative solutions available, the greater ability a community will have to weather change.

In our day-to-day world, climate change often seems intangible and abstract, and climate resilience is more a buzzword than a practice. The images here attempt to bring sharper focus to both climate impacts and what it means to put climate resilience into practice. View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: Julie Morse produced this article as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. Her mentor for the project was Washington-based photographer, producer and designer Benjamin Drummond.

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