Pacific Salmon Climate Impact Research in the Pacific Northwest
We study how climate affects Pacific salmon and steelhead throughout their entire life cycle.
What We Do
Our research quantifies how climate both affects habitat suitability and interacts with human influences such as dams and fisheries that affect fish during their journey from the rivers to the ocean and back again.
A warming climate will alter oceans, rivers, and streams. These changes will affect Pacific salmon and steelhead in various ways at different points in their life cycle.
In freshwater, climate affects both the quantity and accessibility of suitable cold-water salmon habitats. Climate also affects the magnitude of water flowing downstream from heavy rain or melted snow. These so-called freshets carry smolts long distances through the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the ocean. Changes in stream temperature and flow alter fish development times, activity rates, growth rates, and migration timing.
The effects in one life stage often carry over into subsequent life stages. This carryover means accounting for cumulative effects is especially important. We study stage-specific processes. We accumulate those insights into life cycle models to quantify the full impacts of management options in freshwater.
In the ocean, climate influences productivity at the base of the food web and the other species that interact with salmon. A wide range of species from plankton to seabirds, whales, and sea lions affect salmon. The entire ocean ecosystem is susceptible to climate and ocean acidification. We are building ecosystem models to understand and explore management options during Pacific salmon’s marine stage to support their recovery.
Characterize relationships between the environment and fish responses
We develop innovative technologies to collect data by tagging individual fish and building state-of-the-art detection capabilities. We use these data to study Pacific salmon migration timing and survival rate. We combine fish behavior data with environmental data, mainly stream temperature. We use these data to model survival in individual life stages of salmon to inform management on particular issues, such as fisheries, hydropower operations, and habitat restoration.
These analyses reveal that wild sockeye salmon have shifted their migration timing earlier over the past century. This shift in migration timing is likely an evolutionary response to climate change. The studies have also revealed that changing their behavior (known as behavioral plasticity) is not expected to save Snake River sockeye salmon without new adaptation in the future. This species is at a very high risk of losing its anadromous (migratory) life history with ongoing climate change.
We are focusing on new work to understand better species interactions in the ocean. The marine environment has historically driven most of the coast-wide salmon population fluctuation.
Develop life cycle models
Management of endangered species relies on assessing population viability. Because of the complexity of salmon life histories, we use detailed life cycle models to assess extinction risk and compare alternative management actions. These models support Environmental Impact Statements and Biological Opinions that determine whether federal actions put salmon in jeopardy of extinction.
Assess climate vulnerability of Pacific Salmon
We assess the vulnerability of Pacific salmon and steelhead to changing freshwater and ocean conditions to understand which populations are at the highest risk. Managers can use this information to prioritize resources for climate adaptation.
Report the latest science
We monitor updates to the scientific literature each year by synthesizing global publications on climate effects on salmon. We use this science to support adaptive management in the Columbia River Basin.
Work with others
We develop online resources and have established climate teams to share our findings and coordinate our research with other scientists across NOAA, and other government agencies in the U.S. and Canada.