What We Do

Reducing climate risks requires robust and reliable information that people can use when making decisions.

The University of Washington Climate Impacts Group is widely recognized for scientific discovery, as an experienced creator of impartial and actionable science on identifying and managing climate risks, and as a catalyst and supporter of regional efforts to build climate resilience.

Our Approach

The Climate Impacts Group develops and delivers scientific information that is both useful to and used by the decision making community by fully integrating research with stakeholder engagement. Our approach involves:

  1. Identifying climate-related information needs and areas of concern in partnership with resource managers, planners and policy makers;
  2. Advancing scientific understanding of regional climate and climate impacts through interdisciplinary research;
  3. Developing, delivering, and supporting the application of targeted information and tools;
  4. Developing, testing, and delivering guidance for climate-smart planning and management; and
  5. Enhancing community understanding and capacity to address climate impacts, risks, and responses through outreach and engagement with natural resource managers, planners, policymakers, non-governmental organizations, businesses, the media, and others.

We work on spatial scales ranging from local communities to the entire western U.S. region, with most work to-date focused on the Pacific Northwest. Research at the Climate Impacts Group is primarily supported by project-based grants and contracts from federal, state, and local sources.

Ongoing Engagement

The Climate Impacts Group has wholly integrated outreach and engagement into its operating model, breaking with academia’s traditional “loading dock” approach to science (where scientific information is produced and “put out there” for people to find, interpret, and apply on their own). Climate Impacts Group team members regularly work with the media, give presentations, meet with stakeholders, and provide one‐on‐one technical support on the interpretation and application of research findings to decision making. Since our founding in 1995, we have developed close connections with the public, private, and tribal groups and agencies responsible for managing Pacific Northwest communities and natural resources. Our integrative approach helps ensure that our work is both useful to and used by stakeholders as they make decisions shaping our society’s resilience to climate impacts.

Our Expertise

Expertise within the Climate Impacts Group’s core staff and its affiliated network of scientists and technical experts includes climate dynamics, climate and hydrologic modeling, ecosystems modeling, impacts and vulnerability assessment, adaptation planning, and climate communications and outreach. These expertise are used to examine questions about climate impacts and risk management across a range of sectors, including:

  • water supply and wastewater management;
  • hydrologic extremes (drought, flooding);
  • hydropower production;
  • forest productivity and wildfire risk;
  • biodiversity and habitat restoration;
  • sea level rise and coastal hazards;
  • infrastructure and the built environment;
  • transportation; and
  • public health and urban air quality.

Our Impact

Developing Decision-Relevant Science to Answer Pressing Needs

Groundbreaking insight on natural variability. Climate Impacts Group research has been instrumental in understanding how natural variability affects water, snowpack, forests, and other natural resources in the Pacific Northwest. The Climate Impacts Group identified and defined the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)”, a major climate driver with wide-scale impacts on natural resources in the western U.S., Canada, and eastern Russia. The Climate Impacts Group also demonstrated how warm phases of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and PDO increase the probability for reduced snowpack, streamflow, flooding, salmon returns (PDO only), and coastal and near-shore habitat quality; increase the probability for drought and forest fires; and contribute to increased tree growth and ecosystem productivity at higher elevations (with the opposite effect at lower elevations).

Informing long-range planning for water supply and hydropower resources in the Western U.S. Climate Impacts Group projections of future climate and hydrologic conditions have been used to support planning related to renegotiation of the U.S./Canada Columbia River Treaty (Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation), the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan (WA Department of Ecology and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation), the Columbia River Basin Long Term Water Supply and Demand Forecast (WA Department of Ecology), and long-term operation of Seattle City Light’s Skagit and Boundary hydroelectric projects.

Determining the vulnerability of at-risk species. Data and analysis from the Climate Impacts Group and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station projects a 63% decrease by 2099 in the cold and snowy habitat relied upon by wolverines for denning. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited these findings in its initial decision to list the wolverine under the federal Endangered Species.

Reducing risks associated with flooding, sea level rise, and coastal hazards. The City of Anacortes incorporated projections of future changes in streamflow and flood risk, developed by the Climate Impacts Group , in the design of their new $65 million water treatment plant. Sea level rise projections from the Climate Impacts Group were used by the Port of Bellingham to guide redevelopment along the Bellingham waterfront and by King County—the sixth largest county in the U.S.—to reduce the vulnerability of wastewater treatment infrastructure to sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Identifying threats to public health. Climate Impacts Group-affiliated researchers have examined the impacts of climate change on air quality and public health, finding, for example, that the morbidity and mortality rates are expected to increase in Washington State with more frequent extreme heat events.

Assessing threats to transportation systems and infrastructure. The Federal Highway Administration, the Washington State Department of Transportation, and Sound Transit, a central Puget Sound public transit agency, are all using Climate Impacts Group research to identify and prioritize climate change related risks and to inform adaptation options for highways, roads, and transportation infrastructure in the western U.S.

Developing strategies for adapting public lands to a changing climate. Climate Impacts Group research, data, and technical assistance was integral to U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service adaptation planning, which sought to address issues of access, increased risk of wildfire and insect outbreaks across 6 million acres in the northern Cascades.

Strengthening Regional Capacity to Plan and Manage for Change

Providing comprehensive data analysis for long-term planning. In partnership with federal, state, and provincial funders, the Climate Impacts Group developed a comprehensive suite of peer-reviewed hydrologic climate change scenarios showing past and projected climate and hydrologic conditions for locations across the Pacific Northwest for use in climate risk assessment and long-range planning. These data, which are available to the public for free, have been used in long-range planning efforts around the region (the PNW Hydroclimate Scenarios Project).

An integrated assessment of impacts on Washington State. At the request of the Washington State Legislature, the Climate Impacts Group developed the first comprehensive assessment of climate impacts on Washington state and identified climate change consequences of practical concern (the Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment, 2009). The Legislature consequently directed all Washington state agencies to develop plans in response to these findings.

Translating and synthesizing science for decision-making. The Climate Impacts Group has played a key role in producing, translating, and synthesizing regional climate impacts science for state, regional, and national climate assessments. This includes co-leading the development of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment and the 2013 Northwest Climate Assessment Report, and producing updated technical summaries for decision makers on Washington state climate change impacts based on new assessments of climate science and climate impacts at the global and national scale (State of Knowledge of Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation in Washington State (2013)).

Developing guidance for adaptation planning. Climate Impacts Group has developed guidance for practical, science-based approaches for identifying and reducing climate risks, including the groundbreaking 2007 guidebook, Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments. With more than 3000 copies provided worldwide, the guidebook has served as a template for climate change planning documents and training curricula developed by NOAA and the World Bank. The Climate Impacts Group also partnered with NOAA to develop guidance for choosing and using climate change scenarios in Endangered Species Act decision processes. The guidance addressed choices related to global climate models, emissions scenarios, and downscaling techniques; scenario availability and associated uncertainty; and the development of processes for considering climate change in decision-making and scientific assessment.

Providing technical support for adaptation planning. The Climate Impacts Group regularly provides technical guidance, review, and analysis to support adaptation planning. For example, the Climate Impacts Group provided a risk assessment approach, climate change projections and technical guidance for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s Climate Change Initiative, considered one of the nation’s premier examples of tribal adaptation planning. The Climate Impacts Group has also provided technical guidance for adaptation planning work for the State of Washington, the City of Seattle, and King County, Washington.

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