Climate Change

Photo Credit: John Gusman


Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT) has developed a Vulnerability Assessment to explore expected impacts from climate change to key tribal resources.

At the outset of the assessment, LEKT organized and held a community survey in the summer of 2019. This survey was followed by community luncheon at the Tribal Center on August 7, 2019. These conversations resulted in the development of the following vision statement for the climate change vulnerability analysis:

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe climate change vulnerability assessment shall support
the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in understanding vulnerability and risk to natural
resources, cultural practices, economy, and health and wellbeing in a changing climate.

Based on community input the assessment was also organized into four themes:

  • Natural Resources
  • Built Environment
  • Cultural Places and Practices
  • Community Health and Wellness

LEKT climate change vulnerability was assessed in consultation with local and regional experts, by conducting a review of scientific literature and some geospatial analyses using a framework described in more detail in the report. This assessment resulted in the following key LEKT climate change vulnerability findings.

Key Findings

The vulnerability assessment resulted in the following key findings:

  • Natural Resources
    • The predicted loss of winter snowpack and associated late spring/early summer runoff are expected to result in fundamental changes to the Elwha River ecosystem.
    • Lower baseflows in the Elwha River during the late summer and early fall will mean less water available for aquatic habitats and human uses.
    • Chinook salmon in the Elwha River are recovering now that the dams have been removed but are highly vulnerable to predicted seasonal flow changes.
    • Nearshore species are expected to be impacted by ocean acidification which has significant implications for certain life stages and food webs.
    • There is adaptive capacity in many of the terrestrial plant and animal species that suggest they will persist with little overall change in frequency. Locations may shift, and there is uncertainty about how species will react over time.
  • Built Environment
    • Much of the transportation and utility infrastructure that the tribe relies upon will be resilient to climate change.
    • Much of the low-lying portion of the LEKT Reservation is dependent on flood and erosion protection provided by the Federal Levee along the Elwha River. The Federal Levee has recently been updated, but the improvements did not consider future increases in peak flows, so the level of protection it provides is expected to decrease over time.


Notable climate exposures and impacts:

For the Lower Elwha Reservation, average annual temperature is projected to increase by about five degrees Fahrenheit (°F) by the middle of the century and more than 8°F by the end of the century (Krosby et al., 2020) . Projected changes in seasonal temperatures are arguably more important for projecting impacts for both species, habitats, humans and human systems. Warming is expected to occur during all seasons, with the largest temperature increases, of as much as 10°F, projected for the summer months by the end of the century. Increasing temperatures will increase the growing season as well as heat waves, the number of extreme heat days, and fire risk.

For the LEKT reservation area, the number of days per year where fire danger is “very high” or “extreme” is projected to increase by about 35% by the 2050s, to about 50 days total per year (Krosby et al., 2020). “Extreme” fire danger days are expected to increase about 57% to almost 20 days total per year under the higher future scenario (RCP 8.5).

For the Lower Elwha Reservation, average annual precipitation is projected to increase by 2.3 inches or about 9% by the end of the century. The winter seasonal precipitation, from October – March, is projected to increase by nearly 3 inches and fall more often as rain than snow. In contrast, already relatively dry summers, from April – September, are generally projected to be drier by the end of the century.

Warmer temperatures will shift an increasing amount of the Elwha River watershed’s precipitation from snow to rainfall during winter months. Snowpack melt rates during summer months will also increase. As a result, the Elwha River will experience intensified summer lower flows and higher stream temperatures. These hydrologic changes are compounded by projected increases in winter precipitation and decreases in summer precipitation, all of which have the potential to negatively affect salmon, and other riverine species, at critical life stages (Grah and Beaulieu, 2013). As winter precipitation increases, average streamflow and peak flood flows will also increase in magnitude between 4 inches and 20 inches for the lower and upper areas of the Elwha watershed on an annual basis, respectively (Elsner et al., 2010).

Coastal areas and the marine waters of the LEKT’s usual and accustomed areas are a critical component of the Tribe’s sense of place and play an irreplaceable role in their traditions and cultures. Sea level rise will exacerbate existing risks and vulnerabilities along the shoreline, such as bluff erosion, storm surge, coastal flooding, and groundwater saltwater intrusion (Miller et al., 2018). Local relative sea level in Port Angeles is rising at a rate of about 0.016 inches, which is equivalent to a change of just 0.1 feet (4 centimeters) if extrapolated over the last century (NOAA, 2020). Local relative sea level rise is likely to rise by 1.2 to 2.5 feet from the 1991-2009 sea level average by 2100 under RCP 8.5.

Ocean acidification (OA) has the potential to negatively affect a variety of culturally and economically important marine species in the Pacific Northwest; however, some species are more studied than others. The direct biological impacts of OA can result in changes to development, growth, reproduction, and behavior of a variety of species. The extent of these changes varies by species. For example, ocean acidification has been demonstrated to significantly reduce the size of shrimp and mussel larvae, degrade shell integrity in mussels, and cause developmental delays in oyster larvae. In general, the most negative impacts of OA are observed in marine organisms with calcium carbonate structures, such as shellfish. However, changes in water chemistry may also disrupt nerve function in fish, while other species that use CO2 to photosynthesize, such as seagrasses and algae, may benefit.

Adaptation Planning

The next steps to build resilience to the climate vulnerabilities can take many forms, ranging from identifying stand-alone actions that the Tribe can pursue, to the integration of climate change considerations into existing tribal plans, policies, programs, or actions. The Tribe must be opportunistic and strategic about making these changes to target incremental improvements over time. It was strongly recommended that adaptation effort include climate projections in the next update to the Hazard Mitigation Plan along with pursuing future funding opportunities to develop a holistic adaptation plan.

It will take creativity, innovation, and collaboration to respond to climate change. It will take commitment to continue to track current and emerging risks, develop goals and metrics of success, and continue to find or dedicate funding to take action. It will take rising to the challenges that climate change creates for natural resources, infrastructure, and community health not only on the Reservation, but throughout the region. The Lower Elwha Klallam people are resilient and have been adapting to changes for thousands of years and have shown a commitment to continuing to adapt by investing in this project and facing climate change directly. This project represents a big step in the community’s continuing journey to adapt and build community resilience.

Report: LEKT Climate Vulnerability Assessment.pdf

Other Online Resources:

University of Washington Climate Impacts Group:

North Olympic Development Council Climate Change Planning

Washington Sea Grant Sea Level Rise Resources

Sea Level Rise Projections