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Publication Date
12 May 2023

Puget Sound as a Natural Laboratory


Story by Kristi Palmer, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities in Modeling Earth-Human Interactions

The Puget Sound region of the northwestern United States represents a lively and complex natural laboratory for studying how earth and human systems interact in a coastal environment. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) already has major studies underway in U.S. coastal regions in the Great Lakes, the mid-Atlantic, and even the Arctic.

In a one-year scoping study, “Exploring Multiscale Earth System and Human-Earth System Dynamics in the Puget Sound Region,” researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) identified the region as an area for future investigation.

The Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling (EESM) program of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research (BER) initiated the scoping study. A team of PNNL researchers developed the study through literature review, a multi-day community workshop with regional experts, and external input.

Puget Sound is in the northwest corner of the contiguous U.S. and is the country’s second-largest estuary. Home to an assortment of distinctive topographies, researchers say the region is an ideal place to broaden scientific understanding of the complex interactions among human and natural Earth systems.

Ning Sun, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Ning Sun, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“By any definition, the Puget Sound region represents a lively and complex natural laboratory for studying how natural and human systems interact in a coastal environment,” said Ning Sun, a study author and principal investigator in the Puget Sound Scoping and Pilot Study EESM project. “With its exposure to a wide range of extreme events, the region provides an excellent opportunity to investigate and improve the modeling capability of these events where they have the most significant impact.”

The region features a mountain-to-coast hydroclimate, strong influence of Pacific Ocean weather systems and climate patterns, and unique land-use history with strong rural-to-urban gradients. Therefore, says Sun, Puget Sound presents an excellent opportunity to extend understanding of the interconnectedness of land, water, atmosphere, wildlife, and humans.

Published in January 2023, the study identified knowledge gaps and modeling challenges in a wide range of extreme weather events and marked them as areas for future investigation. The mechanisms, interactions, and compounding effect of extreme events—heat waves, droughts, wildfires, atmospheric rivers, rain-on-snow events, floods—and their implications for both natural and human systems are of great interest but present challenges due to limitations in current modeling capabilities.

The study notes that the Puget Sound region could serve as a powerful testbed for improving the ability of climate models to represent the multiscale processes that drive extreme temperature events. Researchers suggested opportunities to build cross-programmatic and cross-institutional resources and collaborations to complement the region's potential DOE/EESM-funded efforts.

The researchers are also conducting a pilot study of the region. They are using multi-scale models, machine learning, and various analytical methods to improve the understanding and predictability of the region’s hydroclimate and hydrological extremes. Scientific inquiry in the Puget Sound region offers intriguing opportunities to examine interactions of diverse environmental features with human systems.

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