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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.

MAP: See where sea levels may rise in Seattle

Jack Block Park seems like an unlikely leisure spot, tucked among railroad tracks and Port of Seattle cranes. But it also provides a panoramic view of West Seattle, downtown and Harbor Island.

In maps created by Seattle Public Utilities, parts of Jack Block Park in West Seattle are colored red. Those are the areas that meteorologist and mapmaker James Rufo-Hill said could someday be underwater as sea levels rise due to climate change.

Climate change warms the oceans, causing water to expand, and melting ice adds to the volume.  

“The most likely amount of sea level rise we’ll see is about two feet — 24 inches — by the end of the century,” Rufo-Hill said.

It won’t be like a bathtub filling up. Instead, it will happen in fits and starts.

“At first there’ll be some waves that will lap up over this wall here, and they’ll cause some puddles for a couple hours,” Rufo-Hill said, pointing to where the park meets Elliott Bay. “And then a decade or so later it’ll happen on a monthly basis. And then, of course, by the end of the century, according to our analyses and those maps, there will be standing water here most of the time.”

And the railroad tracks that you cross to get to the park could see flooding as well.  

“If water’s going to be rising up, it’ll probably follow that path,” Rufo-Hill said.  “So you can see where there’s puddling now; those puddles will expand. Those are some clues as to where impacts might occur.”

Rufo-Hill is a climate adaptation specialist with Seattle Public Utilities. For several years he’s been working with the University of Washington to predict where sea level rise could affect the city’s shoreline.

“We have a pretty detailed set of maps that show where the shoreline will move over the course of the next century,” he said.

Looking at his map, some waterfront neighborhoods have a delicate red tracing along the edge. But on Harbor Island and within the Duwamish, there are solid red areas of potential flooding. Rufo-Hill said these are mostly industrial, not residential, properties.

“ You can see that some of our communities along the Duwamish River, including South Park and Georgetown, are exposed,” he said. “And then there are pockets along Sodo and the waterfront and Interbay and up toward Ballard.”

The maps are available to the public, but Rufo-Hill said they haven’t had many queries from property owners. 

“We’ve had occasional engagement with community members, but nothing sustained,” he said.

Still, Seattle Public Utilities will use the maps to plan for Seattle's future, and for affected communities.

Paul Fleming is in charge of Seattle Public Utility’s climate resiliency group, which examines how climate change could affect stormwater and the city’s water supply.  

“The American Society of Civil Engineers is trying to make advancements in this space," Fleming said. "To help entities like Seattle Public Utilities and others to figure out, how do you integrate sort of the uncertain information associated with climate change into the design and construction of assets that have a 30, 50, 100-year life span? How do you build for tomorrow’s climate today?”

He says every time SPU builds or replaces infrastructure, it will be looking at these maps to take potential new sea levels into account.

And now cities have even more incentive to do this research. In November, Moody’s Investor Services said communities that fail to prepare for climate impacts could see their credit ratings decline. 

“It’s just a new reality that cities across the world, governments across the world, companies, people have to start to get prepared for,” Fleming said. 

Year started with KUOW: 2005