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Seattle leaders have been making a big promise for more than 15 years: that our city will lead the nation in fighting climate change. And yet, Seattle is polluting as much as it was 25 years ago. What went wrong? How can we do better? Explore the stories in our new series, The Burning Question, below. our reporting team: David Hyde, Amy Radil, John Ryan. Editor: Gil Aegerter.

'Water in the streets': a glimpse of the Northwest's watery future

Tom and Marie Cawrse live on the far east side of Port Townsend, on the northeast point of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, right on the beach. 

Since their house was built three decades ago, ice caps have been melting and the ocean's been expanding as it warms up.

The Cawrses got a taste of just how close the sea might come to their home in March 2016, when a massive storm blew into Port Townsend at the same time as an extra high tide known as a king tide. 

"We probably had 4-to-6-foot waves coming ashore here," Tom Cawrse remembers. It was just before dawn, and 60 mile-per-hour winds were pushing the high water towards the Cawrses' house. 

"There was a lot of spray hitting the east side of our house, and you could feel vibrations coming through the house. I got out of bed and came out and looked, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, if this goes on a lot we're going to have to move the house.'" 

This story was produced for KUOW's The Burning Question, which explores the question: What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like?

Across the Pacific Northwest, the sea's already at the doorstep of homes, businesses, infrastructure, and habitat - and the problem's only going to get worse as the sea continues to rise. In the winter, king tides give us a glimpse of what might be at risk. 

In Washington and Oregon, nearly 40,000 people live in homes that are likely to get flooded during the next few decades. And it's not just houses that are at risk; it's billions of dollars of infrastructure.

Sewage treatment plants in Olympia and other cities could be destroyed by salt water unless they are modified or moved. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Water spills over a set of stairs that typically lead to the beach during a King Tide at Alki Beach Park on Tuesday, December 5, 2017, in West Seattle. ", "fid": "141918", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201801/MF_KingTide02_1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer"}]]The Port of Tacoma and other highly contaminated SuperFund sites could soon be underwater. And hundreds of miles of roads might get regularly flooded.

"The implications of sea level rise are more expensive than we could ever imagine having budget to cover," says Guillaume Mauger, an expert on flooding and climate change adaptation at the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. 

Even if we stop emitting carbon tomorrow, he says, "We're virtually guaranteed to get six inches of sea level rise in the next 50 years." 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Water spills over a set of stairs that typically lead to the beach during a King Tide at Alki Beach Park on Tuesday, December 5, 2017, in West Seattle. ", "fid": "141903", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201801/MF_KingTide04.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer"}]]

That's more than a foot above where the sea was in 1900, which is when a lot of our infrastructure was built. 

One way to get a glimpse of the future is to look at a king tide today. That's why I headed to Olympia during one of January's king tides.

I met Eric Christensen, who does sea level rise planning with Olympia's Public Works Department, at Budd Inlet, the very southern end of Puget Sound.

"We've got a tide coming in that should hit about 17 feet, which happens a few times a year here," Christensen says.

"With a foot of sea level rise, we could see this happening maybe 30 times a year. A few times a year, we'd see water creep over the shoreline and flood up to 20, 25 square blocks of downtown." 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Tom and Marie Cawrse live right on the beach in Port Townsend.", "fid": "141909", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201801/010918EO_TomMarieCawrse2_c63h6y.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW/EarthFix photo/Eilis O'Neill"}]]

Christensen says a tide like today's, plus that six inches of sea level rise scientists say we're guaranteed to get, could mean "you'll begin to see water in the streets. This corner here will flood. Columbia Street, the next block over, will flood. The parking lot that you parked in, you wouldn't want to walk to your car." 

Christensen estimates it will cost 60 to 65 million to protect downtown Olympia from a rising sea, but, if the city did nothing to prepare, the damage would cost billions. 

Olympia is ahead of most other cities in terms of sea level planning and preparedness; many communities that could face grave threats have yet to get started. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Water spills over a set of stairs that typically lead to the beach during a King Tide at Alki Beach Park on Tuesday, December 5, 2017, in West Seattle. ", "fid": "141906", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201801/MF_KingTide05.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]"Sea level rise is inevitable, and sea level rise is going to change the landscape," Christensen says. "This is my community, and I feel very strongly that I'd like to protect it." 

Back in Port Townsend, the Cawrses' short-term plan is to keep building the berm between the beach and their house higher and higher. 

But long-term, Tom Cawrse says, "These houses will probably have to be moved. That's probably the final outcome but it won't affect Marie and myself because we'll be gone."

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Sea Level Rise On The North Olympic Peninsula", "style": "wide"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "Within the next 12 years, annual flooding during coastal storms is expected to reach areas of the Northwest it hasn’t before. By 2100, the potential damage grows significantly. These maps show the likelihood of flooding during the annual extreme storm scenario. The darker the blue, the more likely it is to flood.", "fid": "141998", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201801/floodzones.png", "attribution": "Credit Tony Schick, OPB/EarthFix. Sources: North Olympic Peninsula Development Council; Ian Miller, Washington Sea Grant. "}]]

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