On a cold, sunny day in Glacier Bay, Alaska, I stood aboard a small ship in a line of self-consciously beaming adults as we were sworn in as Junior Rangers. Before we received our choice of a button or a patch, but after our activity booklets had been signed by Ranger KayLynn — in the tradition of camp counselors and pop stars, she did not disclose her last name — we were asked to state one thing we could do at home to change the world. Almost all of our responses had to do with reducing our carbon footprints.
We had spent the day touring Glacier Bay, learning about how climate change is eroding natural phenomena and ecosystems like the electric-blue giants and raucous bird colonies around us. It would have been challenging to make it to lunchtime without feeling at least a little guilty about one’s Amazon Prime habit, and by the end of the day, passengers aboard the Wilderness Explorer were making promises to quit plastic, to go solar, to vote, to — as Ranger KayLynn put it as she led us in our swearing-in — “go forward and change the world.”
Our experience wasn’t unusual. In many ways, the National Park Service and outdoor-recreation industry represent the front lines of climate impact in the Northwest. National parks and forests are sites of education and impact monitoring, their infrastructure and very survival challenged by a warming planet.
And in Washington, where outdoor recreation plays an outsize role in local economies and communities, we’re likely to feel these impacts keenly, as the fallout from climate change reduces our access to the outdoors, alters our ability to take part in longstanding seasonal activities like skiing and fishing, and changes the very landscapes of our state.
Climate impacts — from the Cascades to the coast
In Washington state, outdoor recreation is a way of life, a high-profile industry, and a major economic contributor. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Forest Service collected in a 2014 report, 1,038,229 people visited Mount Rainier in 2011 and spent more than $33 million within 100 kilometers of the park. “Access to national forests also provides significant economic benefit to the region,” states the report. “In the past decade, half of visitors live within 80 km, and average visitor spending is $13 billion per year in and near national forests nationwide.”
This prominence and popularity make the industry’s vulnerabilities to climate change especially visible. “Outdoor recreation means you’re recreating in the wild, in the environment, which we’re used to looking a certain way,” said Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, which conducts scientific research on the effects of climate change in the Pacific Northwest. From the vegetation we expect to see growing, to the amount of snow we rely on for winter sports, to the water levels we consider normal — “All of these things are driven by climate,” she said, and as climate change worsens “they’re not going to be the same.”
When it comes to activities that will be impacted, “Skiing is an obvious one,” said Snover, because the Northwest’s mountains “aren’t particularly high” and warming raises the snow line. “Rising temperatures will ultimately decimate our mountain snowpack,” meaning less snow, more rain in mountain areas, and a shorter ski season.
According to the Washington State of Knowledge Report released in 2013 by the Climate Impacts Group, a shorter ski season can mean a longer one for wildfires. Contributing factors include increasing summer temperatures and drier conditions, but earlier snowmelt “should lead to earlier onset of the fire season.” The area impacted by fires will also grow. The report cites one set of fire models projecting “an increase to 0.8 million acres in the 2020s, 1.1 million acres in the 2040s, and 2 million acres in the 2080s, under a medium greenhouse gas scenario,” and California studies showing “that fine particulate matter concentrations in the air were higher and more toxic during wildfires that occurred in 2003 and 2007.”
Poor air quality caused by wildfires means fewer days when outdoor activities are practical or even possible. “Our summers are precious times,” said Snover, but wildfire-related risks and closures will make outdoor recreation in summertime increasingly uncomfortable and unhealthy in Washington. Decreased snowpack could also mean earlier access to trails, presenting management challenges in national parks and forests.
Marine recreation and coastal activities like razor clamming and fishing will also be affected. Ocean acidification (Snover refers to it as “climate change’s evil twin”) and toxic algal blooms will disrupt shellfish harvesting. Freshwater fisheries will also be impacted; rising temperatures “could become lethal to salmon.”
According to the Washington State of Knowledge Report, rising sea levels will result in “inundation of lowlying areas, increased storm surge reach, flooding, erosion, and changes and loss of habitat types.” Vulnerable areas could include the Northwest Olympic Peninsula, home to a number of coastal camping areas.
As far as hunting is concerned, the Northwest-focused section of the Fourth National Climate Assessment lists amid its findings the surprising prediction that “some game species, such as deer and elk, may thrive.” (But these animals are in the minority: According to the same report, species that are endangered, threatened, or dependent on snow “are generally negatively impacted by changes in climate,” which can alter food chains and destabilize “the balance among competing species or predator-prey relationships.”)
Climate change will also impact access to the state’s popular wilderness areas. As outlined in the report released by the USDA and the Forest Service, climate change will hinder travel to and within Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park Complex, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park.
“Climate change has already affected ecosystems and the built environment in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), and these effects are projected to intensify in future decades,” reads the report. “Impaired access to public lands reduces the ability of land managers to preserve, protect, and restore resources and to provide for public use of resources.”
This is partly due to glacial recession caused by climate change, which leaves “unconsolidated material in steep terrain, which become mobile with precipitation and melt water from glaciers. With heavy precipitation, this material can transform into debris flows that pull in additional material. Deposition of sediment downstream leads to aggradation (rising of the riverbed level) and avulsion (change in river course) of streams and rivers.”
In Mount Rainier National Park, aggradation has already been observed, increasing the risk of flooding and damaging roads.
Though many of these projected impacts extend far into the future, Snover said that current ramifications bear out previous concerns. “There have already been changes … that are right in line with what we expect,” she said.
“We still have time”
The current data paints a sobering picture, but “We’re not going to get there immediately,” said Snover, noting that “even pretty late in the century, we could still have years with a snow season [as long as it is now].”
The Northwest-focused section of the Fourth National Climate Assessment supports this assertion. While natural climatic variability could worsen the effects of climate change, the report states that it may also reverse them — at least temporarily. “[I]n the last 5 years, a series of unusually cool and wet springs have resulted in high spring snowpack in the Cascades, despite continued expectation of declining spring snowpack trends at longer time scales,” it reads.
But even taking into account these anomalies, the impacts of a transforming environment on outdoor recreation can only be prevented through addressing climate change at its root, said Snover. “Temperatures are going to continue to increase until we reduce net carbon dioxide emissions to zero,” she said, but “a happy secret” is “how much preparation for a changing planet is going on.”
In the Pacific Northwest, this takes many forms — ski organizations shifting Nordic trails to higher elevations in the Methow Valley and Cabin Creek; the formation of programs like the North Cascadia Adaptation Partnership, a collaborative effort between the National Park Service and the Forest Service to integrate climate-change adaptation into forest-management plans; education resources on climate-change impacts “that are being seen on the landscape” at North Cascades National Park; climate-change adaptation plans for specific national forests like Olympic National Park; and — yes — Junior Ranger induction ceremonies.
Snover cited the Okanogan Forest management plan as one particular success story in this area. Climate change was built into the plan because of public interest in the issue. “We still have time to really notice what we value and see what we can do to save it,” she said.
Snover’s sentiments echoed the urgency Ranger KayLynn instilled in her charges aboard the Wilderness Explorer. As Junior Rangers, we committed to appreciating, learning about and sharing stories about national parks — stories that acknowledge climate change, and the threats it poses to the Northwest’s status as a haven for outdoor recreation. If nothing changes, the science is clear: Stories may someday be all we have left.