Climate change is altering our oceans and the Earth’s frozen regions — known as the “cryosphere” — which include glaciers in Washington’s Cascade Range and Olympic Mountains and seasonal snowfall across the state.

The changing cryosphere and warming ocean are already affecting our communities, economies and the environment. Continued warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is expected to pose increasing challenges to infrastructure, industry, livelihoods and more — across Washington and the world.

Drawing from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2019 Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, as well as research from the Climate Impacts Group, this brief addresses the following:

  • What is the cryosphere and why is it important?
  • How are the ocean and cryosphere being affected by human activities?
  • What are the environmental, financial and social costs of these impacts — for Washington as well as globally?
  • What can we do to prepare our communities for the impacts of climate change?

This nine-page brief is intended to provide an accessible overview of this topic for regional planners, land managers, scientists and members of the public. If you are inspired to take action to prepare for climate change in your community, CIG also provides resources and tools designed to guide climate-savvy decision making at the local and regional level. Particularly relevant to the topic of this brief are:


Shifting Snowlines and Shorelines: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere and Implications for Washington State

Suggested Citation

Roop, H.A., G.S. Mauger, H. Morgan, A.K. Snover, and M. Krosby, 2020. “Shifting Snowlines and Shorelines: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere and Implications for Washington State.” Briefing paper prepared by the Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington, Seattle.

Technical changes made in the version updated 01/2020: (1) Caption of Figure 5 updated to indicate that observed sea level rise at Seattle includes a local vertical land movement component; (2) Projected decline in statewide average mid-century spring snowpack corrected to 38 to 46% on page 6 (previous version said 23 to 29%, which is the projection for the Puget Sound basin).


To download the report figures, click on the figure you want then right click and select “save image as” to save to your device. You can also download a folder with all of the figures below. Please cite the Climate Impacts Group when using these figures. See the contact information below if you have questions about the briefing graphics.

Figure 1Everyone on earth depends directly or indirectly on the ocean or cryosphere. Data sources: Global based on 2010 population: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, 2019 (; National based on 2013 population: 4th National Climate Assessment, 2018; (; Washington based on 2010 population in coastal counties: NOAA, 2018 (

Figure 2Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global temperatures have increased due to human activities. The green line shows atmospheric CO2 increasing from about 290 parts per million (ppm) in 1880 to about 410 ppm today. The blue line shows global average temperature increasing approximately 1.8ºF (1.0ºC) during the same time (plotted compared to 1951-1980 average). Data sources: Temperature: NASA, 2019; (; CO2: NOAA, 2019 (,

Figure 3Since the industrial revolution, global sea surface temperature has increased as a result of human activities. The purple line shows global annual sea surface temperature compared to the average global mean sea surface temperature for the period 1971–2000. Data source: NASA, 2019 (

Figure 4: Globally, the ocean and cryosphere are already experiencing the impacts of human-caused climate change. Sea level is rising, marine heatwaves are intensifying, Arctic sea ice is declining and thinning, glaciers and ice sheets are losing mass, oceans are acidifying and coastal habitats are disappearing. Data note: sea level rise likely range = 5.1–8.3 inches (0.12–0.21 m).

Figure 5: In Washington state, long-term changes observed in our local ocean and cryosphere reflect the influence of warming. These changes are expected to worsen with continued warming. Data sources: Sea surface temperature for NE Pacific and glacier change: Mauger et al., 2015 (; WA State snowpack: Mote et al., 2018; Historical sea level rise: NOAA, 2019 ( Data note: sea level rise at Friday Harbor = 4.0 (± 0.9) inches (10.2 ± 2.3 cm); Seattle = 9.7 (± 0.7) inches (24.6 ± 1.8 cm) including local vertical land movement.

Figure 6Limiting warming to 2.7ºF (1.5ºC) can only be achieved if action is taken to significantly reduce global CO2 emissions well before 2030. The sooner greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, the less drastic mitigation efforts will need to be. Figure modified from Snover et al., 2019 (

Table 1: The likely amount of relative sea level rise by 2050 and 2100 for three locations along Washington’s coastline for low (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) greenhouse gas scenarios (relative to 1991–2009 sea level). The sea level rise projections represent the 17-83% probability range, known as the ‘likely range.’ For example, the likely range of sea level rise in Aberdeen by 2050 under a high greenhouse gas scenario is 0.2-0.7 feet. This means there is an 83% chance that sea level will increase 0.2 feet or more and a 17% chance that sea level will increase 0.7 feet or more by 2050. Projections are available for 171 locations in coastal Washington. Miller et al., 2018 (

Download ALL Snowlines and Shorelines Graphics.


Please contact Heidi Roop or Amy Snover and with questions about this project.

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