Written by Christopher Walter and Kelsey Bray
It’s no secret that holiday planning and traveling can be stressful, but 2022 was especially hard – extreme winter weather and flooding hit Washington in December, impacting more than a dozen counties. Homes and businesses were flooded and there was extensive damage to public utilities and power systems. In January, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation to help local officials address the damage.
The headlines were shocking, but not entirely surprising. It’s likely already on your mind because of spring rains picking up.
Washington is expected to experience increased flooding caused by climate change. There are moderate to severe weather events each year, and significant floods in 2006, 2007 and 2009. The extreme weather in 2009 led to avalanches and landslides, causing more than $72 million in damages. Around 500 homes were damaged or destroyed and 44,000 people were evacuated, according to the National Weather Service.
It may seem hopeless, but there are things we can do right now to help slow the rate of climate change and adapt to the impacts we can’t avoid.
Climate change in the Pacific Northwest
Human activities like burning fossil fuels and clearing forests are primarily responsible for climate change, which is beginning to cause long-term shifts in global weather patterns. Atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane continue their unrelenting rise, causing measurable increases in global average air temperatures. While the goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep that increase below 2.7°F to avoid severe consequences, temperatures are projected to rise on average between 2.5-3.4°F over pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, many of us have only a vague sense of what is normal, which is understandable because our climate varies year to year. While this can sometimes mask our perception of climate change, the evidence shows that we are already experiencing long-term warming. In addition to rising average temperatures, we are seeing declining snowpack, shrinking glaciers, a longer frost-free season, earlier spring snowmelt and more nighttime heat waves.
Regional models predict a number of concerning changes to our precipitation and hydrology as a result. We can expect more of it to arrive during our rainy season, along with a shift in higher-elevation winter precipitation from snow to rain and increasing frequency and severity of rainstorms. Conversely, we are likely to see more frequent and intense periods of drought during summer and a growing risk of extreme heat events.
Impacts on communities and ecosystems
This will have serious implications for many of the human communities, native species and life-giving ecosystems here in the Pacific Northwest.
A wetter rainy season with more frequent and intense rainstorms will lead to even more of the severe river and coastal flooding that upends lives, damages homes and businesses and threatens essential public infrastructure like roads, wastewater systems, levees and dams. It will increasingly impact our farmers and our food supply by eroding farmland, waterlogging fields and threatening the health and safety of livestock. Heavy rainfall will overload our rivers and streams, destroying sensitive aquatic habitat through high-velocity scouring, and polluting our waterways with sediment and contaminants from agricultural and urban runoff.
Rising temperatures will increasingly replace winter snow with rain in the mountains, reducing the snowpack that replenishes our shrinking glaciers and provides the snowmelt that has historically kept many of our rivers and streams flowing and cool during summer. The greater threat of drought and a growing population all increase the potential for summer water shortages. Rising stream temperatures and falling streamflow will have serious implications for aquatic species and ecosystems, particularly our iconic, beloved and already beleaguered Northwest salmon and the orcas that rely on them for food.
Changes in temperatures and precipitation will also affect our mental and physical health. In addition to increasing risk of injury and exposure to toxics or hazardous substances in floodwaters, we can expect higher rates of respiratory and heat-related illnesses and water- and food-borne diseases. Not to mention the added stress that will come from dealing with damage, disruption and tragedy. This is especially true for vulnerable populations like Black, Indigenous and people of color, children and the elderly, immigrants and people with low income, as well as those who already struggle with mental or physical health challenges or who simply work outdoors.
As if that were not already enough, all of these challenges will carry an economic impact, even for people not directly affected by extreme weather events. Climate impacts to farming, fishing, buildings and infrastructure, hydropower production, water supply, healthcare – all will increase our cost of living while at the same time lowering our quality of life. For that matter we can expect some recreation impacts, too: for instance, none of this bodes well for the Washington ski season.
How Forterra is addressing the climate crisis
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, it helps focus on the things we can control. To address climate change, we need to reduce our emissions and increase carbon sequestration. Forterra’s approach is two-fold: restoring our ecosystems, which are natural carbon sinks, and facilitating sustainable new development that both builds social equity and has a smaller carbon footprint.
Through our community real estate program, we apply our expertise in negotiation, financing and entitlement to support local communities in fostering well-being. One example of this is cross-laminated timber (CLT), a wood panel product made by gluing together layers of lumber stacked in alternating perpendicular directions. CLT reduces the cost of construction to make homes more affordable, creates new jobs in struggling rural communities, enhances forest health and stores more carbon when paired with sustainable harvesting. Learn about our work with a CLT modular prototype here.
Trees and other plants literally ‘eat’ carbon dioxide straight out of the atmosphere. Native plant communities also provide habitat for fungi and microbes that sequester carbon in the soil. Given the incredible size and longevity of our native conifers, Pacific Northwest forests are some of the most powerful carbon sinks on the planet. Through our Evergreen Carbon Capture program, Forterra has planted 61,093 trees in more than 151 locations. These trees will sequester more than 305,465 tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes.
We’ve conserved 275,000 acres of natural, agricultural and recreation land to date. On several of those properties, Forterra and partners are working to restore and re-create healthy and resilient ecosystems that can store more carbon and better protect us from the impacts of flood, drought and extreme heat. As an added bonus, keeping land in its natural state prevents conversion to residential or commercial uses that emit carbon rather than sequester it.
These are just a few examples of how Forterra is addressing the climate crisis. Learn more about our programs here.
How you can help
You are an integral part of Forterra’s work. We depend on community members to help us continue bringing about powerful, practical and positive change. That can be with a donation, keeping up with our efforts on social media or by spreading the word about us to your friends and family.
You can also tackle the climate crisis locally. Find simple ways to mitigate your impact, like taking the bus or unplugging devices when you’re not using them. Plant trees and other native plants that pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and provide other ecosystem services like cleaning our air and water, or bolstering pollinator species. Ask elected officials what they’re doing to address climate change, and check to make sure they follow through.
We’re in this together. With your help, we’ll continue to scale land-based solutions to address the climate crisis and support equitable, green and prosperous communities.
The information in this blog post is from a literature survey of publications from the Centers for Disease Control, climate.gov, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and more.