Climate change is still debated in some political circles, but leaders in coastal Washington — as well as coastal communities elsewhere — say the effects are inarguable.
The Quileute Tribe on the Olympic Peninsula opened a new school on higher ground in 2022 to get students away from storm surges that regularly breach a sea wall.
The Quinault Nation, to the south on the Pacific Coast, adopted a master plan in 2017 to relocate the seaside village of Taholah upland 120 feet above sea level and away from increased flooding and road washouts caused by storm surges.
A storm surge in February 2006 pushed tidal levels several feet above normal along shoreline areas of the Swinomish Reservation, and a storm surge in 2016 flooded roads and cut off access to and from the mainland. Approximately 178 residential and commercial structures on the reservation are potentially at risk of inundation from sea level rise and/or tidal surge, with a total estimated value of over $102 million, according to the Swinomish Tribe’s 2021 Climate Adaptation Action Plan.
“Vital transportation links and access routes are at risk of inundation, with the potential to isolate the Reservation from the mainland during increasingly high tidal events,” the plan states. “Traditional beach-seining sites and significant shellfish beds along the west shore of the Reservation, areas of traditional tribal harvest, are at risk of permanent inundation and potential loss, as are estuaries and salmon-rearing areas.”
Throughout coastal Washington, rising sea level is partly blamed for saltwater intrusion into aquifers that neighborhoods rely on for fresh water. “Some wells in coastal Washington are now unusable because of seawater intrusion,” the state Department of Ecology reported on its website. Shoreline properties along islands like Guemes and in San Juan County are experiencing increasing levels of saltwater intrusion.
By 2100, coastal bluffs in San Juan County may erode 100 to 155 feet in areas with high exposure to wind and waves, and 75 to 115 feet in areas with less exposure relative to 2000, according to a 2013 study by Coastal Geologic Services. While erosion occurs naturally, and is the natural process of beach building, rising sea levels make it happen faster.
The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly evident here, and communities next to Washington’s coastlines and rivers are taking steps to mitigate those effects and protect homes and businesses — and, particularly in Native communities, access to traditional foods and cultural sites.
Global causes, local effects
Environmental agencies say an increase in greenhouse gases — such as industrial pollution and vehicle emissions — is trapping more heat in the atmosphere, resulting in warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures are speeding the melting of sea ice, causing ocean levels to rise.
A warming climate raises sea levels in two major ways, explained oceanographer Ian Miller of Washington Sea Grant in an article promoting climate adaptation planning:
“First, the volume of water is related to its temperature, and if ocean water warms it also expands, raising sea levels.
“Next, as the temperature of the atmosphere and ocean warms, water that is currently in ice form is converted to liquid form. For ice that is perched on land, like the huge masses of ice that lie atop Greenland or Antarctica, melting leads to increased water volume in the ocean basins — raising the level of the oceans.”
What do higher sea levels mean? An increase in coastal flooding and beach erosion, and saltwater intrusion in wells that produce drinking water.
The sea level in the San Juan Islands is four inches higher today than it was in 1950 and six inches higher than it was in 1930, according to SeaLevelRise.org, a nonprofit that studies sea level rise, causes and adaptation strategies in 23 coastal states; and Washington Sea Grant, which is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is based at University of Washington.
These organizations report that the speed of sea level rise has accelerated over the last decade. It’s now rising by about one inch every five years. “Scientists know this because the sea level is measured every six minutes using equipment like satellites, floating buoys off the coast, and tidal gauges to accurately measure the local sea level as it accelerates and changes,” SeaLevelRise.org reports.
According to Miller, “A 2014 NOAA analysis of tide gauge records from Seattle shows that the average number of days of coastal flooding in and near the city have more than doubled since 1950, and are correlated with a documented rise in average sea level of just five inches.”
SeaLevelRise.org and Washington Sea Grant predict the sea level will rise in the San Juan Island six more inches by 2050 and two feet by 2100.
Photographs of a historic structure at San Juan Island National Park’s English Camp — historically a Coast Salish village known as Pe’pi’ow’elh — seem to confirm rising sea levels there.
The blockhouse — a defensive structure built by British Royal Marines during the territory dispute of 1859–1872 — is seen above the tide line in photos dating back to the 1860s. In one of the earliest photos, a British ship is tied up at a dock east of the blockhouse and Coast Salish canoes are pulled up on ample beach.
The blockhouse is also well above the tideline in a photo taken in 1906 and in another from 1960. The Crook family, which owned the former British camp site at the time, had even installed a doorway and steps from the blockhouse to the beach, arguably something that would not have been done if water were an issue.
Fast forward to a king tide in 2018: The bottom three or four logs of the blockhouse are under water.
San Juan Island National Historical Park is developing a plan for the potential relocation of historic structures at English Camp because of erosion caused by storm surges.
“The blockhouse will either need to be further armored, relocated or moved, but we haven’t started a comprehensive analysis of those alternatives yet,” San Juan Island National Historical Park Superintendent Elexis Fredy said in a text message. Other structures dating to the territory dispute may also have to be relocated.
“Storm surges are creating more wave action that is causing shoreline erosion,” Fredy wrote. “There is a lot to contemplate with regarding moving historic structures. It’s not that easy. We will be developing a whole English Camp plan to address all those issues over the next 10 years.”
San Juan County is engaged with the community in developing a Climate Action Plan to address sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, as well as factors that contribute greenhouse gas emissions that feed a warming climate. The plan includes restoring natural shoreline processes — that is, using natural materials to reduce erosion and flooding and increase habitat.
Shortly after it purchased Fidalgo Bay Resort in Anacortes in 2003, the Samish Indian Nation removed riprap that had been placed along the shoreline by the previous owner to protect against wave action and storm surges. Despite the riprap, the resort was still prone to flooding. The tribe restored the shoreline, and the result was a reduction in flooding. In shoreline restoration, “a gravel berm, native plants and drift logs help dissipate wave energy and reduce erosion,” according to the Northwest Straits Foundation.
The Swinomish Tribal Community near La Conner adopted a Climate Adaptation Action Plan in 2010, updated in 2021, that is designed to protect people, homes and resources.
The tribe has restricted development in groundwater recharge areas; prohibited road and utility construction in areas subject to excessive erosion; built a 200,000-gallon water tank with emergency generator to ensure access to drinking water; elevated and broadened beaches with native material; and removed dikes on Swinomish Channel to convert nearly 120 acres of flats into wetland habitat.
The Lummi Nation implemented a 10-year Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan in 2016 that changes how Lummi regulates land use, transportation, utilities, and emergency services, and protects water resources, coastal resources, forest resources, and fish, wildlife and traditional use plants.
Many more plans have been implemented or are being written in communities in coastal Washington. Experiences in communities elsewhere provide a picture of what coastal Washington hopes to avoid.
In Alaska, melting permafrost has contributed to riverbank erosion, land loss and stream siltation that chokes salmon. Protective barrier islands are disappearing with the melting of pack ice. Without the protection those barrier islands protected, the sea has invaded and eroded upland areas and contaminated drinking water supplies.
Mike Williams Sr. is chief of the Akiak Native Community on the Kuskokwim River in Akiak, Alaska, and has worked with leaders of Northwest tribal governments to advocate for climate change adaptation solutions — and warn the public and Congress that we may be nearing a point of no return.
Responding to a report by Imperial College London that the global average temperature has warmed by about 33 degrees since 1850 — the end of the Little Ice Age and beginning of the Industrial Age — Williams said, “We have to take a look at everything and we need to continue to educate the public on the impacts. And Congress must act. I’ve been telling this story for last 30 or 40 years about the changes I’m seeing and the impacts we have to get ready for.
“It may be too late, but there still possibly is a chance to do something to slow down this erosion of our planet.”
Meanwhile, town and city officials plan for king tide seasons just as they formerly planned for rainy seasons. The La Conner Weekly News reported in August that the town council approved a request by the public works director to purchase ecology blocks, a forklift, sandbags and a sandbagging machine to keep a tide-swollen Swinomish Channel from muscling its way onto town streets.
— Reported by Richard Arlin Walker