October 13, 2022
Rising seas, surging storms put many low-lying areas at risk
Kai Uyehara

Sea levels are rising in the Salish Sea due to climate change, and the combination of high tides and storm surges bring the threat of erosion and flooding along low-lying shorelines in the years to come. Take a look at some Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit county shorelines that have experienced surges and high water in recent years. (All photos © 2022 Kai Uyehara)

October 13, 2022
Rising seas, surging storms put many low-lying areas at risk
Kai Uyehara

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Climate change, rising seas and storm surges have joined the geologic process of glaciation, erosion and accretion that have formed our local low-lying shorelines of beaches and mudflats. Many of these places where people live and recreate will see sea levels rise by 1.5 to nearly 2 feet by 2100, according to the Whatcom County Climate Action Plan’s Climate Trends and Projected Impacts.

Here are some of the places identified in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties as most vulnerable to storm surges and flooding by the Climate Central’s Coastal Risk Zone map and Surging Seas Risk Zone map.

Lopez Island, San Juan County: MacKaye Harbor, Barlow Bay and Outer Bay

Houses line MacKaye Harbor Road along Agate Beach on Outer Bay. Much of the county roads along MacKaye Harbor and Barlow Bay are at very low elevation and the section along Agate Beach is a high-energy shoreline, said Tina Whitman, Friends of the San Juans. San Juan County Public Works and Environmental Stewardship departments are working to relocate a section of the road inland away from the shoreline.

Lummi Island, Whatcom County: Legoe Bay Road

Village Point Marina sits along the low shores of Legoe Bay Road on the west side of Lummi Island. The shoreline faces south, leaving it vulnerable to winter storms that often bring tidal surges from that direction, said Eric Grossman, United States Geological Survey. Any land within half a meter of sea level today is in a vulnerable area, he said. 

Orcas Island, San Juan County: Crescent Beach 

At south-facing Crescent Beach, storm surges in 2016 reached across the road to where the kayak rental shop sits. There are 160 miles of shoreline in San Juan County vulnerable to tidal flooding, said Whitman, based on a sea-rise vulnerability assessment done for the county by Coastal Geologic Services in 2013.

Edison, Skagit County: Cains Court

Restaurants, art galleries and cafes on Cains Court in Edison back up to winding Edison Slough. During a combination of high tides and storm surges, a less-than-one-foot rise in sea level will flood almost all of Edison. “Wherever you’ve got a low coastal plain, all that’s totally vulnerable,” Grossman said. 

Dry and bustling with business now, The Old Edison was surrounded last January by water from Samish Bay coupled with rapid snowmelt. Coastlines facing the west are subject to massive gales that can blow tides inward, Grossman said, as well as winds from the southeast and north which can bring heavy wave action. 

Birch Bay, Whatcom County: Birch Bay Drive

Low tide reveals the elevation of the Bay Breeze Restaurant and Bar and Raintree Vacation Club where king tides coupled with strong west winds brought water up to Birch Bay Drive in January. Recent flooding may become more frequent, Grossman said, as informed by CoSMoS, the Puget Sound Coastal Storm Modeling System that predicts flooding along the coast due to rising sea levels, storm surges and river flooding. 

The residential intersection at Birch Bay Drive and Jackson Road flooded in January and the road was closed. Whatcom County is reviewing the CoSMoS model to assess flood risk for areas like Birch Bay Drive. “CoSMoS is showing that big floods that we see today are going to be happening just way more frequently with just a tiny bit of sea level rise,” Grossman said.

La Conner, Skagit County: Swinomish Channel

Near the mouth of the North Fork Skagit River and the Swinomish Channel in La Conner, less than a foot rise in sea level combined with high tides, storm surges and wind would flood much of La Conner, according to CoSMoS analysis. 

Sandy Point, Whatcom County: Sucia Drive

Sucia Drive in Sandy Point was flooded by surging waves in January, and Grossman said CoSMoS shows that areas like Sandy Point, Birch Bay and downtown Port of Bellingham areas are all predicted to increase in flooding frequency. As seas rise, 50-year floods will become five-year floods, Grossman said, and devastating floods will occur more frequently by the 2080s or even 2040s. “The whole point of CoSMoS is it tells us when in the future we’re going to be experiencing disturbance thresholds that are really critical to operating roads and safe corridors for emergency management, and trains going by, and erosion, and all kinds of things,” Grossman said.

Bellingham, Whatcom County: Squalicum Way

Squalicum Way at Roeder Avenue was covered by a foot of water from a combination of high tides from Bellingham Bay and streams of runoff cascading from Squalicum Creek. The combination of sea level rise and high tides will also trap sediment further upstream, increasing flooding. “It’s kind of a big game changer,” Grossman said. “At some point, people need to start planning for a whole lot more challenges than they’ve had the last hundred years.”

— Reporting and photography by Kai Uyehara

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