Add Rising Ocean Levels to the List of Climate-Related Risks

By Gordon Williams

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The University of Washington Climate Impacts Group does highly-respected research into every aspect of how the climate affects the Pacific Northwest. The goal of that research is to stimulate smart decision-making by those who must deal with the consequences of climate change.

Given the pernicious effects of global warming on the regional climate, the group often finds itself the bearer of bad news.

Earlier studies by the Group warned that hotter, drier conditions would worsen the outlook for wildfires in Washington State. Now a new study from the Group offers the most detailed research to date on how the melting of polar ice will keep ocean levels rising along Washington’s coastlines well into the 22nd Century.

CoastlineThe title of the study is Projected Sea Level Rise for Washington State—2018 Assessment. You can find it at https://cig.uw.edu/resources/special-reports/sea-level-rise-in-washington-state-a-2018-assessment/www.cig.uw.edu/resources/special-report.  There have been earlier estimates of the rise in sea levels, but scientist Harriet Morgan, co-author of the report, says this one is more comprehensive than anything that has come before. This wealth of detail, she says, will better equip communities to plan their defense against higher water levels.

Taking all these climate warnings together, this much seems certain: The impact of climate change on our region poses new perils for Washington residents and puts new demands on government agencies and disaster responders.

Among those responders, is the American Red Cross whose mission is to bring relief to those displaced by disaster. As the incidence of climate-related disasters increases, the pressure on the Red Cross to fund and staff those relief operations becomes more acute.

A State of Knowledge report from the Climate Impacts Group on Climate Change in Puget Sound sums things up this way: “We know now that the earth’s climate is changing, and expected to continue to change in ways that will alter our local environment… and the risks and opportunities facing our communities.”

beachThe most obvious driver of climate change has been the nearly universal rise in temperatures. While temperatures have risen the most east of the Cascades, the heating-up has been particularly ominous in the normally cooler and wetter Puget Sound region, where fires have been comparatively rare. “The Puget Sound region warmed in the 20th Century,” says the State of Knowledge report. “Additional warming for the 21st Century is projected to be at least double that experienced in the 20th Century and could be nearly 10 times as large.” In other words, the region has already gotten warmer and is likely to get warmer still—possibly much warmer.

Warmer, drier summers get much of the blame for the more frequent and more destructive wildfires. A 2013 study titled Climate Change in the Northwest, sees the situation only getting worse. That study says fires in the Northwest burned an average half-million acres a year between 1980 and 2006. That loss is projected to rise to 2 million acres a year in the 2080s. Smoke from these fires worsens air quality across much of the region.

 

One consequence of rising temperatures is that more precipitation falls as rain and less as snow. “Snow is stored water,” says Morgan. With less stored water around, the land becomes drier and more fire prone. With more water coming down as rain, the risk of both floods and landslides in winter and spring is increased. The State of Knowledge report warns, “Future occurrences of heavy rainfall are projected to be more frequent and more intense. This will exacerbate flood risks in many watersheds.”

And now comes that warning of rising sea levels. The new study, by the Climate Impacts Group and Washington Sea Grant—which does research on ocean and coastal issues–estimates the projected rise in water levels at 171 sites along Washington’s coasts. Taking the state as a whole, the sea level is projected to rise by between 1.5 and 7 feet by 2100.

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What you really want to know is how high the sea will climb where you live. One key variable is that Washington state is in a tectonically active area—with the coastline rising in some areas and sinking in others. Morgan explains that this study factors in up-or-down land movements in estimating how high the water will climb at each site. Thus, the study projects the maximum potential rise in water levels by 2100 at 3.3 feet at Tacoma where the land is sinking, but only 1.7 feet at Neah Bay, where it is rising. That degree of location-specific detail should help coastal communities plan how best to plan for rising ocean levels.

NisquallyObviously the greater the rise in water levels where you live, the greater the risk of coastal flooding and the greater the damage coastal storms could inflict. Couple higher sea levels with heavier rainfall and the flood risk becomes that much greater. Morgan says that with sea levels higher, storms could leave some coastal communities stranded.

The primary aim of these studies isn’t to alarm but to drive home the need to work on slowing the pace of climate change. “Future sea-level rise is inevitable from the amount of greenhouse gases already emitted,” says the study, “but longer-term estimates depend on how much we will be able to limit future emissions.”

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The aim of these reports is also to help communities plan and prepare for the impact of climate change. Says Heidi Roop, a scientist who heads communications for the Group, “The question is how we can best prepare to create a future where everyone can thrive.” The Group’s own mission statement says, “Reducing climate risks requires robust and reliable information that people can use when making decisions.”

As for what individuals can do, the first step is to understand the risks your community faces—fire or flood or higher ocean levels–and learn how to manage those risks.

There is lots of preparedness material available—from the Washington Department of Emergency Management, the state’s Department of Natural Resources, your county emergency management office and the American Red Cross.   Once you have identified the risks, learn all you can about managing them. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to face wherever climate change and its aftermath brings to your community.

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