With craggy shorelines, volcanic mountains, and high sage deserts, the Northwest’s complex and varied topography contributes to the region’s rich climatic, geographic, social, and ecologic diversity. Abundant natural resources – timber, fisheries, productive soils, and plentiful water – remain important to the region’s economy.
Snow accumulates in mountains, melting in spring to power both the region’s rivers and economy, creating enough hydropower (40% of national total)46 to export 2 to 6 million megawatt hours per month.148 Snowmelt waters crops in the dry interior, helping the region produce tree fruit (number one in the world) and almost $17 billion worth of agricultural commodities, including 55% of potato, 15% of wheat, and 11% of milk production in the United States.149,150
Seasonal water patterns shape the life cycles of the region’s flora and fauna, including iconic salmon and steelhead, and forested ecosystems, which cover 47% of the landscape.151 Along more than 4,400 miles of coastline, regional economic centers are juxtaposed with diverse habitats and ecosystems that support thousands of species of fish and wildlife, including commercial fish and shellfish resources valued at $480 million in 2011.152
Adding to the influence of climate, human activities have altered natural habitats, threatened species, and extracted so much water that there are already conflicts among multiple users in dry years. More recently, efforts have multiplied to balance environmental restoration and economic growth while evaluating climate risks. As conflicts and tradeoffs increase, the region’s population continues to grow, and the regional consequences of climate change continue to unfold. The need to seek solutions to these conflicts is becoming increasingly urgent.
The Northwest’s economy, infrastructure, natural systems, public health, and vitally important agriculture sector all face important climate change related risks. Those risks – and possible adaptive responses – will vary significantly across the region.11 Impacts on infrastructure, natural systems, human health, and economic sectors, combined with issues of social and ecological vulnerability, will play out quite differently in largely natural areas, like the Cascade Range or Crater Lake National Park, than in urban areas like Seattle and Portland (Ch. 11: Urban),91 or among the region’s many Native American tribes, like the Umatilla or the Quinault (Ch. 12: Indigenous Peoples).153,154 As climatic conditions diverge from those that determined patterns of development and resource use in the last century, and as demographic, economic, and technological changes also stress local systems, efforts to cope with climate change would benefit from an evolving, iterative risk management approach.155