Where the Ocean Meets the Land

by Patrick Mazza

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Last month, we reprinted part five of a six-part series titled “Hot Water: A Snapshot of the Northwest’s Changing Climate” that Whatcom Watch ran from December 1999 to May 2000. Below is part six. All six parts of the series are available on the WhatcomWatch website.
Start athttp://www.whatcomwatch.org/old_issues/v9i5.html#story8

If El Niño is a dress rehearsal for global warming, then a crucial scene in the play unfolded during the 1997-98 El Niño when an upscale development on an eroding coastal bluff at Oceanside, Ore., threatened to slide into the Pacific. El Niños typically push the ocean up 2-10 inches in the Northwest. Higher tides and storm surges eat at the base of coastal cliffs. Over the winter months this is exactly what was happening beneath The Capes. When the danger became apparent, 34 homeowners, including former Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, were red-tagged out of their dwellings. The threat later receded, but four homes closest to the edge were still posted no-entry a year later.

Just a few inches of ocean might not sound like much. But they can represent a threshold, one of those “last straws,” that set off big and sometimes hairy changes. Those are in prospect. Elevated ocean levels that lap at the Northwest coast for short periods during El Niños are projected to become business as usual over the next century. As a permanent condition, their effects will be compounded. Because of both melting glacier ice and the expansion of water as it warms, world sea levels have already risen 4–10 inches over the past century. Three inches more are expected by 2020, eight by 2050 and 20 by 2100. Those are “best guess” estimates — high end is around three feet. In any case, sea levels will continue rising for hundreds of years while higher temperatures melt ice caps and work their way through the deep oceans.

As the ocean increasingly crowds coastal bluffs, chances for landslides will increase. If global warming brings more intense rainfalls, turning hillsides into muck, those odds will multiply. The Capes exemplified that. Storms from above and sea from below together conspired to undermine bluffs.

Small rises in sea level add height to tides and significantly boost storm surges. Starting from a higher platform, surges can flood more turf. A 75-year storm a century from now will be able to do the kind of damage a 100-year storm does today. Flooding could spread far inland when higher surges and tides back up rivers gorged with storm runoff. Low-elevation river valleys in the Puget Sound and along the Oregon Coast might be especially hard hit.

As seas rise some land will also be rising, but other places will be sinking. It’s the natural course of geological history. For the British Columbia coast, the upward push of the earth will cancel out as much as 16 inches of climbing waters. But the Puget Sound is settling by six inches per century in Seattle, nine around Tacoma, and five around Olympia. Put 20 inches more water on top, and some areas around the Sound are clearly in a precarious position.

“Olympia is perhaps the most vulnerable place in the Puget Sound area to sea level rises,” notes Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans Philip Mote. “Large areas of downtown would be inundated by 2100 under current projections of sea-level rise without substantial investment in building dikes.”

A special concern surrounding sea level rise is tidal marshes, whose contribution to biological productivity is far out of proportion to their size. They are food and shelter for wildlife including oysters, clams, ducks, geese, salmon, herring and smelt. In Western Washington alone, coastal wetlands play a vital part in the lives of 212 animal species. Development has already eliminated vast reaches of the marshes. Rising sea levels could take out much of what remains. If water ascends only 13 inches in particularly vulnerable Puget Sound, 40 percent of its tidal flats would go permanently under the wave. Oregon’s coastal marshes, now limited to Coos and Tillamook bays, could drown under a 1-3-foot rise.

Wetter winters and hotter summers … fewer salmon … more forest fires and less forest cover … a disrupted water cycle with snowpack cut in half … too much water in rivers in winter … more floods and mudslides … too little water in summer … an increase in drought years … a squeeze on hydropower and farmers … shortened ski seasons … drowned highways, waterfronts and tidal marshes … more heat waves, air pollution and disease-carrying insects … none of these outcomes are what we want. Yet all are what we potentially face in the disrupted climate of the next century.

The damages global warming might inflict on the Pacific Northwest constitute a call to action and leadership. Part of the challenge will be adaptation. The Northwest is likely to experience a degree of negative impacts. A range of public policies must take likely climate change into account, from comprehensive water conservation, to increased focus on slide and flooding hazards in land use and transportation plans, to added emphasis on salmon recovery.

But we cannot stop at adaptation. In a way, we are in a paradoxical situation, for our region is vulnerable to circumstances far beyond our control. Yet if we want to save much of what we value about the Northwest, we must find a way to alter global trajectories. Our corner of the world clearly cannot do much to slow global warming, at least on our own. But we can play a leadership role far out of proportion to our numbers or geographic extent. It is said that with a sufficient fulcrum, one might move a whole world. Perhaps the Pacific Northwest, leading by example in and export of practical and profitable solutions to global warming, might tip the scales toward a worldwide response equal to the challenge.

Really, we are not so small. As an independent nation, our economic region would rank as the 10th largest economy in the world. From software to aerospace, coffee to microbrew to music, we are leaders in technology and culture. Our budding clean energy industry is already on the global map. We are also a center for environmental policy innovation. The Northwest has mounted world-recognized efforts in urban growth management and ecosystem-based protection of forest and watersheds, areas with important ramifications for climate change. We possess all the raw materials needed to craft a regional global warming strategy that provides a leading-edge model for the world.

So far, we are not there. To some extent, the Northwest thinks regionally in terms of the hydroelectric system and related issues such as salmon and flood control. But we have barely begun to grapple with climate change on any level. As Ed Miles of the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans Climate Impacts Group notes, “There is now very little regional capacity to plan in response to climate variability and none with respect to climate change.”A warming world and disrupted climate do not give us the option of continuing that status quo.

The first step is to build regional self-awareness of both the perils we face, and the opportunities. For, as the vast issue of global warming and its potential impacts is most readily comprehended on a regional scale, so are the solutions. Though national and global responses are utterly crucial, it will be at the bioregional scale where “the rubber meets the road,” where changes take visible shape:

 Where clean energy sources such as wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels and hydrogen fuel cells are employed.

 Where homes, stores, offices and factories are constructed and retrofitted for maximum energy efficiency.

 Where neighborhoods, downtowns and town centers are revitalized and rebuilt so sprawl is constrained and the need for travel is minimized.

 Where climate-friendly transportation systems emphasize buses, trains, car and van pools, bicycles, walking, telecommuting and clean-fuel vehicles.

 Where farmers and foresters grow carbon reservoirs that lock up greenhouse gases in trees, crops and soils, and harvest biofuels that add no net greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Each of these transformations represents substantial opportunities for economic prosperity as well as environmental gain. In most of these areas, the Northwest already has models on the ground. The foundation is in place for a comprehensive regional climate change initiative bringing together large and small businesses, state and local government agencies, educational and research institutions, labor, and environmental and other nonprofit groups. Pulling together at the regional level, combining our resources, skills and knowledge, we can generate sufficient critical mass to create a Northwest climate change agenda that carries global significance.

For the sake of our future and our children’s future, and all the elements of Northwest nature we have come to treasure and rely upon, we must together consider both adaptation to a changing climate and innovative actions to avert the more dangerous scenarios. If we can clearly understand there are potentially bleak outcomes, we can also become a leader in global warming solutions and help the world navigate one of the coming century’s greatest challenges. With clarity, vision and purpose, this role is well within our grasp.

Patrick Mazza was a staff writer-researcher for Climate Solutions when this article was written.


Bookmark the permalink.