The Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC)
CIRC's most recent annual progress report (Period of Performance: 9/1/16 - 5/31/17)
CIRC Briefing Sheet (2017)
Mission & Vision
The Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC) is a science-to-action team funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a proud participant in NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, a national leader in climate science and adaptation. We are a mix of scientists from disciplines as varied as atmospheric and social sciences. Our RISA team members include outreach specialists and communicators. Our goal is to create the best available science and through our research help the Pacific Northwest respond to climate change and climate variability.
To do this, our NOAA RISA team acts in a supporting role for communities, policy makers, and resource managers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana, collaborating directly with these groups and individuals as part of our Community Adaptation efforts. To reach a broader audience, CIRC researchers have leveraged the results of our initial phase of funding to develop a series of Climate Tools, free online services and applications that allow users to apply the latest climate science and data in their conservation and adaptation efforts. While doing this we continue to work hard to improve the state of our science through our Modeling and Analysis efforts. CIRC team members regularly publish the results of our research and projects in peer-reviewed academic journals and participate in the writing and editing of both regional and national climate assessments.
CIRC is based at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis, Oregon. Our researchers can be found across the Pacific Northwest, including at the University of Idaho, the University of Washington, and the University of Oregon. We are hosted at OSU by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS).
From ocean-side homeowners troubled by rising sea levels to farmers and city dwellers responding to current and projected water scarcities resulting from declining snowpack due to rising temperatures, everyone in the Pacific Northwest holds a stake—is a stakeholder—in climate change, its impacts, and its disruptions. What’s more, everyone in the Pacific Northwest holds a stake in finding solutions to the wicked problem that is climate change. CIRC’s goal is to make our research relevant to our stakeholders as they plan for an uncertain future and respond to climate impacts in the here and now. To do this, CIRC has three major areas of focus: Climate Impacts; Modeling and Analysis; and Coproducing Actionable Knowledge with Stakeholders.
As the words climate and impacts in our name suggest, our NOAA RISA team focuses on tracking and quantifying how climate change and variability have impacted and are projected to continue impacting the Pacific Northwest into the future. Climate impacts are effects on human communities and natural systems that result from changes in the climate. Climate impacts can result from anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change (such as the notable long-term increase in average annual air temperatures) to climate impacts that result from natural variability (such as flooding resulting from El Niño and La Niña events).
CIRC Focuses on Climate Impacts related to:
- Snowpack and Drought
- Wildfires and Related Ecological Changes to Vegetation
- Coastal Hazards, including Flooding, Erosion, and Sea Level Rise
Modeling and Analysis
To better understand climate and its many impacts, researchers frequently employ powerful analytical models. This is true of much of the work that CIRC does. In fact, it’s very much a focus of our efforts. Our NOAA RISA team’s understanding of current and projected climate impacts results in large part from our efforts to advance the state of the science in modeling and analysis.
CIRC’s Modeling and Analysis:
- Evaluated Global Climate Models
- Developed Advanced Downscaling Methods for Global Climate Model Data
- Honed the Techniques used in Regional Climate Modeling via Distributed Computing
- Created a Simplified Approach for Understanding Future Changes in Watersheds
- Created a Modeling Framework to Determine the Cumulative Impact of Multiple Coastal Hazards
Coproducing Actionable Knowledge with Stakeholders
Climate change is often referred to as a “wicked problem.” One reason: the uncertainties associated with future climate change make it difficult, if not impossible, for communities to make long-term decisions. At CIRC, we’ve taken on this wicked problem by employing a social science approach called the coproduction of knowledge in many of our projects. Through this process our team of climate and social scientists engage with select communities concerned about climate change and, working together we produce climate adaptation plans tailor-made for their landscapes, needs, and concerns. These teams, made up of our regional stakeholders and CIRC scientists and outreach specialists, are called knowledge-to-action networks, or KTANs. Through the creation of KTANs, CIRC researchers have helped advance the state of science concerning how best to apply the coproduction of knowledge in climate adaptation efforts.
CIRC’s initial funding period began in September 2010 and ran until August 2017. This initial phase we call CIRC 1.0. Our second funding phase, CIRC 2.0, began in September 2015 and continues to this day. Because there is some overlap between CIRC 1.0 and CIRC 2.0, we have categorized our projects very roughly by funding periods: CIRC 1.0 Project, CIRC 2.0 Projects, and Continuing Projects, or projects that extend through the two funding periods.
CIRC 2.0 Projects
Climate Data Mining
CIRC’s Climate Data Mining team is currently creating predictive models and what we’re calling decision support tools, that is tools that will aid regional decision makers from municipal utilities to farmers and ranchers, as they respond to climate change and its potential hazards in our region. To do this, our team members are collecting data from federal, state, and municipal repositories and then sifting through that information using sophisticated data mining techniques empowered by machine learning. The goal is to discover useful patterns and relationships and turn them into science that can be put to work for our fellow Pacific Northwest community members as we plan for climate change.
Grays Harbor Coastal Futures
Starting in 2015, CIRC team members began reaching out to coastal communities in Grays Harbor County, Washington, to see if we could help them become more resilient in the face of coastal hazards. Our goal in Grays Harbor was to give the community the ability to visualize the many probable paths that lie ahead of them. In Grays Harbor that means aiding local community members as they envisioned how drivers of change—from rising sea levels and growing seaside storms to population shifts—will affect their futures. Elements from the project have been incorporated into the Grays Harbor Coastal Futures Explorer, a free, online tool that describes the project’s results.
Northwest Climate Toolbox
The Northwest Climate Toolbox transforms raw climatological, meteorological, and hydrological information into a series of easy-to-navigate tools that allow users to plug in their location on a map and visualize data for that location. Tools in the Toolbox include visualizations of historical data (going back decades); short-term, seasonal forecasts (on the order of months); and long-term, future projections (on the order of decades to the year 2100). Still more tools track wildfire danger and track how plant growing zones are expected to shift as the climate warms. Designed with farmers as well as forest and water managers in mind, the Toolbox is intended to help the Pacific Northwest respond to and prepare for potentially costly impacts to its agriculture and natural resources both today and under future climate change.
Continuing CIRC Projects
The Climate CIRCulator
Since 2012, CIRC has published The Climate CIRCulator, a periodic email and website-based newsletter highlighting our NOAA RISA team’s projects. The CIRCulator also acts a clearinghouse for the latest climate science relevant to the Pacific Northwest. Our team of communicators and research scientists review peer-reviewed journal articles, translating the specialized content for a general readership.
Coping With Drought
Starting in the fall of 2011 and lasting until the winter of 2016, much of the Pacific Northwest experienced an historic drought. As our region continues to warm under climate change, droughts and other extreme hydrologic events, including floods, are expected to severely impact the Pacific Northwest’s economy. The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) is a groundbreaking, national inter-agency effort aimed at making our nation more resilient to droughts, floods, and related climate impacts on a region-by-region basis. Functioning as a kind of scientific and policy think tank for all things drought-related, NIDIS is housed in NOAA. Under the guidance of NIDIS and its funding mechanism, the Coping With Drought Initiative, CIRC team members led by researcher Kathie Dello have aided our region’s response to drought and related hazards through the development of online drought monitoring tools, the hosting of webinars, widespread media engagement, and through extensive local outreach that included collaboration with state, county, and municipal governments. Using NIDIS and Coping With Drought funding, CIRC team members led by researcher Bart Nijssen developed the UW Drought Monitoring System for the Pacific Northwest, a free online tool that tracks in near-real time drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Data from the Monitor are currently being used in the US Drought Monitor, a comprehensive national drought monitoring effort and online climate tool.
CIRC 1.0 Projects
This project, led by the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, was designed to help the Pacific Northwest’s forests adapt to climate change impacts. The Adaptation Partners engaged with managers, stakeholders, and scientists, helping create climate vulnerability assessments and climate action plans for a series of forests across our region. CIRC team members worked on two of these efforts: the Blue Mountains Adaptation Partnership and the Northern Rockies Adaptation Partnership.
Big Wood Basin Alternative Futures
The Big Wood River Basin comprises more than 3,000 square miles lying in the center of the lower half of Idaho. As with much of the American West, the Big Wood is facing potential water scarcities as warming temperatures lead to less mountain snowpack, altering the region’s hydrology. In 2012, the CIRC RISA team started working with community members in the Big Wood to help them investigate and respond to changes that the basin is likely to experience as the climate changes. The result was the Big Wood Basin Alternative Futures project. Working together with local farmers, business owners, policy makers, and conservation groups, the CIRC team created an interactive and integrated model of the Big Wood Basin using the Envision computer-modeling platform developed by CIRC researcher John Bolte. The model ran a series of sophisticated simulations informed by local know-how and our team’s scientific research, empowering local residents to glimpse how drivers of change—projected temperature increases, population growth, changes in the local economy and farming practices, and policy responses—could affect the Big Wood’s water resources in the future.
County and Municipal Climate Adaptation
As part of CIRC 1.0 our NOAA RISA team participated in several climate adaptation efforts with our Pacific Northwest stakeholders in city and county governments. These efforts included:
- Benton County, Oregon, Climate and Public Health Adaptation Planning: From 2012 to 2014, Benton County Health Services was selected as one of five counties in Oregon to participate in the development of a local Climate Health Adaptation Plan. Funding was provided by grants from the Oregon Health Authority and the Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pilot their Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) Framework. CIRC and the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) provided input to a Climate Change Health Risk Model for Benton County.
- Eugene and Springfield Hazard Mitigation Plan: CIRC provided climate information and scenarios to help develop a risk assessment tool for the Oregon cities of Eugene and Springfield.
- City of Portland Adaptation Plan: We provided climate scenario and adaptation information for a climate assessment for the City of Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon.
- The North Coast Climate Adaptation: Starting in 2013, the North Coast Climate Adaptation project was a joint effort between CIRC, Oregon Sea Grant, Oregon State University Extension Service, and the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development to create an adaptation project built on the state of Oregon’s 2010 Climate Change Adaptation Framework. Working with federal, state, and local decision makers, the North Coast Climate Adaptation project categorized and prioritized climate risks identified for the northern coast of Oregon.
Integrated Scenarios of the Future Northwest Environment (Integrated Scenarios) employed the latest climate science to understand what the Pacific Northwest will look like under climate change throughout the 21st century. Our RISA team made the project’s findings and data available through a series of free, web-based tools that allow users to visualize changes in climate, hydrology, and vegetation across the Pacific Northwest’s many and varied landscapes. Integrated Scenarios data may also be downloaded for free online. The project was a joint venture between CIRC and the US Department of Interior Northwest Climate Science Center and was carried out as a working partnership by Oregon State University, the University of Washington, the University of Idaho, and the Conservation Biology Institute.
National and Regional Climate Assessments
Climate assessments aggregate, weigh, and judge the myriad climate reports and studies available, forming them into a whole that helps us glimpse the many ways climate change is likely to impact our lives. Because these impacts are expected to vary from region to region, climate assessments tend to highlight regional impacts. This was true of the Third National Climate Assessment, which covered in detail the impacts expected in several US regions. CIRC researchers, led by CIRC Co-Principal Investigator Philip Mote through his role in the National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee, participated in writing and editing the assessment’s chapter covering the Pacific Northwest. Our team, led by CIRC researcher Meghan Dalton, then extended the information in the chapter in a full-length book covering the Pacific Northwest: “Climate Change in the Northwest: Implications for Our Landscapes, Waters, and Communities.”
Multivariate Adaptive Constructed Analogs (MACA) Downscaling Method & Dataset
As their name suggests, global climate models (GCMs) are concerned with the big picture. GCMs are highly complex computer programs that model the whole of Earth’s climate system. They do this by dividing the globe into large three-dimensional, box-like cells. Inside these cells atmospheric processes, such as the formation of clouds, are simulated. GCMs, however, tend to be very coarse in their resolution. This means that they often miss important key local features, including mountains and how they shape climate across the landscape. This is where downscaling comes in. Downscaling takes the coarse low-resolution data from GCMs and turns it into high-resolution data that accounts for local landscape features and local climate. For CIRC 1.0, University of Idaho researcher John Abatzoglou developed and honed a downscaling method called the Multivariate Adaptive Constructed Analogs, or MACA, method.
Piloting Utility Modeling Applications (PUMA)
ThePiloting Utility Modeling Applications (PUMA) project is a first-of-its kind climate adaptation effort spearheaded by members of the Water Utility Climate Alliance(WUCA), a coalition of ten of the nation’s largest water providers, including the Pacific Northwest’s own Portland Water Bureau (PWB) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). PUMA has a simple but ambitious goal: help municipal water providers plan for climate change by putting climate science into action at the local level. CIRC participated in the national PUMA/WUCA activities over a period of years, as well as two research projects in the region. Both PWB and SPU had PUMA projects, partnering with CIRC to help them understand how climate changes—from a loss of snow to wildfires—might affect their ability to provide water to their customers. CIRC’s PUMA participants, made up of hydrologic and atmospheric scientists, aided teams of engineers at the two water providers by furnishing them with climate and hydrologic data tailored for their watersheds.
Regional Climate Modeling and Distributed Computing
Regional climate models (RCMs), as their name suggests, simulate climate for specific regions of the planet. Because they cover a smaller area than the entire planet, they can provide information at higher spatial resolutions (i.e., finer detail) than global climate models can using the same amount of computational resources. Finer detail alone, however, does not necessarily translate to more certainty in local projections of climate change. In fact, the opposite tends to be true: More “noise” in the form of natural climate variability frequently accompanies more detail. From basic statistics we learn that the most straightforward way to find a robust signal in noisy data is to increase our sample size. In data collection, we can increase our sample size by running an experiment many times. In modeling, we do this by running multiple simulations. Unfortunately, this kind of computing power is often beyond the resources of many research teams. Enter distributed computing.
With participation from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI), CIRC researchers Philip Mote, David Rupp, and Sihan Li completed a unique RCM project that involved simulating the regional climate of the Western United States with the help of thousands of volunteers who ran the team’s climate simulations on their personal computers. The project was called weather@home, employed the Hadley Centre’s regional climate model HadRM3P, and was completed through the distributed computing effort climateprediction.net. This allowed the researchers to create what’s called a superensemble, which is essentially multiple model runs employing different initial conditions (the precise state of the atmosphere and land surface at the start of a simulation) and perturbations of the RCM’s physics, creating what was, in effect, thousands of experiments.
Tillamook County Coastal Futures
Initially funded by NOAA’s Coastal and Ocean Climate Applications (COCA) program, Tillamook County Coastal Futures joined CIRC’s portfolio in 2011. Using the innovative Envision computer-modeling platform developed by CIRC researcher John Bolte, CIRC worked with homeowners, planners, and government officials in Tillamook County, Oregon organized under Tillamook County knowledge-to-action network. Through our knowledge-to-action network, we developed what amounted to a series of high-tech thought experiments, empowering community members to visualize how climate change and local planning could affect their natural and human landscapes. During these meetings our NOAA RISA team identified key stakeholder desires, concerns, and outcomes, such as having access to the beach, creating resilient infrastructure, and protecting homes and businesses. With these end points in mind, the CIRC team then worked with community members, developing a series of probable future scenarios that mixed policy choices with future climate and sea level rise projections that extended throughout the 21st century. By combining multiple drivers of change and policy options in differing combinations, residents in Tillamook County were able to glimpse how their choices could help them adapt to their landscape’s coastal hazards now and into the future.
Willamette Water 2100
Oregon’s fertile Willamette River Basin is the state’s most populous as well as one of its most important forest and agricultural regions. Anticipating how water supply, land use, and water scarcity in the basin are expected to change in the 21st century under the drivers of climate change, population, and economic growth is the subject of the Willamette Water 2100 (WW2100) project. Like many places in the West, the Willamette River Basin faces water scarcity resulting from declining snowpack. Among the project’s key findings, researchers learned that under climate change, rising temperatures are expected to reduce snowpack, creating less than favorable conditions for existing forests while increasing the frequency of wildfires. Urban water demand could double as the basin’s urban populations rise throughout the 21st century. However, water demand for agriculture could stay about the same or even slightly decline as farmlands near high-growth urban areas are converted for urban use. Primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, WW2100 employed the same Envision modeling platform used by CIRC researchers in the Big Wood Basin and Tillamook County.
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