Atlantis Effect? Rising Sea Level Worries Wash. Shoreline Areas

September 5, 2007

Washington’s low-lying capital city is a bit nervous in planning a new $38 million City Hall near the shoreline of Puget Sound, fearing that global warming and rising waters could submerge much of the downtown in this century and create looming insurance issues.

Climate change experts say one of the most profound and visible effects of global warming will be felt along the thousands of miles of shoreline along the Pacific Coast and the Sound, where even a rise of a few feet can submerge vast acres of prime farm, forest, businesses and residential land, sending folks heading for higher ground and new ways of coping.

Experts predict the global sea level rise could increase as much as 23 inches in the next hundred years.

Living on the southernmost shores of Puget Sound, Olympia leaders and townspeople are used to keeping watchful eye on the sea, since tidal surges can waterlog or threaten a downtown built on mud-flats and fill.

One of the state’s epicenters of environmental activism, Olympia wrote its first sea-level assessment 14 years ago and created global warming panels even before that. The city holds community “call to action” forums, complete with scary map projections of how downtown would look like under various scenarios.

Planners already are thinking about ways to armor the town’s most endangered shoreline, and hope never to abandon the peninsula jutting into Budd Inlet.

The issue was brought into stark relief by the council’s recent debate over whether to build the new city hall on prime Port of Olympia land — or head for the hills. The city decided to build in harm’s way, raising the project two feet above current flood level, but conceding that water may lap at the doorstep before the end of the century.

The vote to brave the tides was a considered a symbolic gesture, too. The unacceptable alternative, says Mayor Mark Foutch, is to essentially abandon the downtown core, which includes the community center, farmers’ market, regional sewage treatment plant, child-care center, and an entire business and housing district.

The Capitol Campus is uphill, safely on a high plateau, but the city’s drinking water supply at nearby McAllister Springs is in danger of being contaminated by salt water, so new wells are planned.

“We’ve got some real vulnerability here,” says Rich Hoey, the city’s director of water resources and an adviser to the governor’s climate change panel.

But if Olympia is lit up over the whole issue, other coastal areas seem more blase. Recent news of a new sea-level report, and dramatic potential damage, caused a brief flurry of attention, and then nothing further, coastal leaders and scientists said.

“I think people are still in denial,” says House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, who lives nervously on the Grays Harbor waterfront. “They haven’t taken it to heart — or else they think they’ll be dead and gone by the time it happens.”

Recent scientific reports, including one from the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggest a global sea-level rise of between seven and 23 inches by the turn of the century.

The rise is tied to heating and expansion of the ocean, melting of the polar ice sheets and storm surges that can affect tides by at foot or more.

“Seven inches may not sound like much, like gentle lapping, but it can involve storm damage, erosion problems and other effects in the coastal areas,” says Janice Adair of the state Department of Ecology.

Lara Whitely Binder of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington says increasingly severe storm damage will be the first warning signs — and that some parts of the region already have gotten a taste.

Sea-level changes will vary along the Pacific Coast, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the inland waters, Adair says. Some regions, like the Seattle area, are mostly on higher elevations with rocky shorelines, and others, like Olympia, Dungeness Spit, and some of the state’s islands, are low-lying and exposed.

A report compiled by scientists for the National Wildlife Federation this summer predicted beaches where sea and rivers meet will be inundated and eroded for a 65 percent loss, up to 44 percent of tidal flats will disappear, marshes and other critical habitat will be overrun and familiar sights like Dungeness Spit will be whittled away.

“Given the vast expanse of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and in Puget Sound and the critical role that vulnerable coastal habitats such as marshes, tidal flats and beaches play in the region’s ecology and economy, sea-level rise is likely to have a profound impact on the Pacific Northwest,” the wildlife group’s scientists conclude.

Adair and Binder say rising seas would require communities to deal with a variety of challenges as the salt water encroached on drinking water wells, farmland, sewage plants, housing, roads, rails, homes and businesses.

In the tidal zone, fisheries, wildlife habitat, shellfish beds and recreational activities could be hurt.

Coastal planners are looking at potential impacts on ports, the Skagit Delta, Fidalgo Island and estuaries such as Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

For people still building or buying near shoreline, Binder says “It would be wise to ask what is your comfort level with risk over the next 50 or 60 years?”

A building boom is under way in parts of coastal Washington, including Ocean Shores, with little apparent fear of the sea level in 40 or 50 years. As with people building in flood plains, there’s a big issue looming for insurance companies, political leaders and homeowners.

“With sea levels changing, one has to ask if we can guarantee people they will be safe and secure if they build in these areas,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Over the coming years, average people will have to get use to adapting, Adair says.

“We need to talk about climate change and adaptation,” she says. Climate change, including sea change, is “poised to be part of everyday government decisions. The train is leaving the station. You can stay on and help steer it, or let it run over you.”

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