On a recent tour of the Port of Everett, just north of Seattle, Washington, Marla Steinhoff pauses to share her perspective on climate change. She points to a row of barrels filled with industrial solvent, neatly stacked and shielded from the weather by tarps.
Several sites around Puget Sound store oil and other industrial fluids in large-capacity barrels. Photo courtesy of ezioman.
“These materials are being taken care of,” she says, “but I worry a bit that Puget Sound won’t be totally safe in the long run. Some locations where potentially dangerous materials are stored or spilled will be threatened by rising seas in the next several decades.”
For most of us, only time and tides will tell. The effects of our planet’s slowly-but-surely increasing sea level are hard to imagine, and even harder to plan for. But for Steinhoff, the call to be aware of the threats is obvious and immediate. “While most city planning efforts focus on the next 10 to 25 years, we’re seeing the need to think further ahead, say 50 to 75 years out,” she says.
As an environmental scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in Seattle, Steinhoff is accustomed to taking that longer look at things. The “ah-ha” moment that increased the length of her view into the future came while she was enjoying the view of Puget Sound from the deck of a beachfront home. “Even though I was trying to relax, I kept having this mental image of the same deck, 100 years into the future, totally swamped by sea water,” she said. As she thought further, she recognized that losing the deck would be a small issue compared to the environmental damage that could result from flooding of contaminated sites and industrial storage locations around the Sound.
For the past year, Steinhoff has engaged in work that could help people identify and avoid some of the damage that could accompany sea level rise in the Pacific Northwest. She has devoted her energies to developing the Climate Assessment and Proactive Response Initiative, also known as CAPRI.
Puget Sound, Then and Now
The arm of the Pacific Ocean that extends into the state of Washington, known as Puget Sound, is the largest and perhaps the most biologically productive estuary on the West Coast. Its earliest settlers, the First People of the Pacific Northwest, were extremely reliant on the Sound, building villages on its shores, where food was plentiful. Their preferred mode of transportation, the dugout canoe, could be loaded and launched easily, for fishing trips and journeys to other village sites.
By 1900, structures along the waterfront in Seattle had begun displacing large areas of natural habitat along the shores of Puget Sound. Photo by Anders B. Wilse, courtesy of Museum of History & Industry.
In the 1800s, European settlements replaced Native American villages, initiating a new relationship with the Sound. Although the region was settled more recently than San Francisco Bay or Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound shares many of the characteristics of these older bays—notably that development originated along the shoreline and continues to shape the identity of the region to this day.
“The fast, largely unregulated pace of growth throughout Puget Sound brought some less-than-desirable changes as well,” says Steinhoff. “All those new sawmills, shipyards, smelters, and homes essentially wiped out some of the Sound’s waterfront habitats and degraded many others.”
Today, Puget Sound is home to an expansive urban metropolis, major military bases, and areas that support economically valuable wildlife and recreational activities such as hiking, kayaking, and birdwatching.
Puget Sound as viewed from the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. Photo courtesy of Buphoff.
Steinhoff and her coworkers at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in Seattle, Washington, collaborate with others to protect and restore coastal and marine resources threatened or injured by releases of hazardous substances. One part of the group’s work is to respond to oil spills—since April of 2010, the office has been very involved with efforts to assess damage resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During cleanups of large-scale waste sites led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or state agencies, the group helps people assess the risks to fish, marine mammals, and other ecological resources. As its name indicates, the Office of Response and Restoration also assists in developing cleanup options and restoring habitat after damage has been done.
Federal and state agencies have already made considerable progress in addressing large-scale cleanups in Puget Sound, but much remains to be done. Recent projections on the effects of climate change, notably sea level rise, have added a sense of urgency to this mission.
“Scientists predict that the effects of global warming will pose serious threats to both land and water across Puget Sound,” says Steinhoff. “Sea level rise—projected to be anywhere from one foot to five feet in the next century—will change the shoreline significantly. In Seattle, for example, much of the land lies just a bit more than three feet above the current high water mark. As such, there could be significant flooding in several places —including the land around Safeco and Qwest fields, where the Mariners and Seahawks play.”
Even conservative estimates for sea level rise could put many of the Sound’s contaminated sites, chemical storage tanks, oil storage facilities, and gas and oil pipelines in grave danger of being swallowed by seawater.
Heavy rains can saturate soils, leading to landslides such as this one that occurred in Seattle in 1987. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
“And rising sea levels aren’t the only things that climate change will bring,” offers Steinhoff. “Projections of warmer winters suggest that we’ll receive less snow and more rain, so we can expect to see some rivers overflowing their banks. Flooding that previously occurred once every 100 years could become a once-in-10-year event. As soils become saturated from heavy rains, mudslides will also become more frequent. We‘ll also need to deal with increased coastal erosion and more instances of seawater seeping into freshwater aquifers. We could be in for a real mess, with the impacts of climate change jeopardizing homes, businesses, public parks, and wildlife habitats throughout the Sound.”
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