OPINION | Climate change impacts local shorelines

What an odd winter it’s been for Marysville. Thanks to La Nina, we got a little of everything but warmth through February. Instead of the usual leaden gray skies dripping chill moisture we witnessed wild oscillations between brilliant blue skies and monster storm-cells thousands of feet tall.

Wherever the Puget Sound Convergence Zone decided to converge, the landscape was hammered. On Feb. 22 we were treated to thunder, lightning, snow, hail and the promise of a deep freeze for the evening. TV meteorologists were as excited as NASCAR reporters during a multi-car smash-up.

The fluky weather had left a thinner than usual snow-pack in the mountains. Ski runs were bordered by open-running creeks that, in past years, had been frozen solid and buried under six or more feet of snow. Then the snow god awoke to dump a couple of feet in two days and nights, causing ski bums to complain not of too little, but too much.

Yes, too much snow in a short time can mean bottomless powder, more like mashed potatoes on the Cascades’ western slopes. The trouble is that if you take a spill, you may plunge in so deeply that there is a real chance of drowning or suffocating in the stuff. Barring that dire extreme, locating scattered gear and getting it back on when standing thigh-deep is a long and exhausting task—if you can find your stuff. In the best outcome, fallen skiers tromp post-holes until a firm platform is leveled for mounting skis again. A not-so-good outcome has a disconsolate skier trudging downhill packing a single ski after fruitlessly searching for its mate.

Meanwhile, on soggy lowland flats, non-skiers have been assailed by snail and frog, those meteorological combos of snow/hail and rain/fog. It was as though one face of the weather couldn’t turn away fast enough to let the next take its place. At the time of this writing, towering storm cells were bordered by blue to the north and east while a black mass to the east said that Granite Fall was getting hit hard.

PNW weather and climate are changing. We used to count on settling in for winters of glowering gray skies with ceilings so low that you could reach up and puncture them with the tip of an umbrella causing yet another leak. Schools suffered only a snow-day or two. Golf courses remained open for hardy souls through most of January and February. It’s usually the perfect expression of elements for steelheaders and duck hunters—but this year is something else. This new weather isn’t to be trusted.

Weather is, at worst, a momentary irritation. Something to gripe about, like hospital food. But now there’s a long-term worry about decreased run-off from dwindling snow-packs and rising sea levels. My brother who owns beach-front property in the Whidbey community of Lower Clinton would love to leave it to his kids except for one problem: High-tide floods that historically struck every 50 years or so have become annual events. At each flooding, the beach road that serves as a low dike is increasingly subject to erosion that will wash away one day, leaving a stretch of homes inaccessible and exposed to lesser floods. Hat Island’s Spit along with dozens of other low-lying waterfront developments are in the same boat.

If this were unfounded balderdash written to get a rise out of readers we could turn a blind eye and bumble along with business as usual. It isn’t. The city of Olympia, having taken note, is one of the first cities in the nation to pursue a new protective seawall project. Downtown Olympia averages one to three feet above the high tide line so if the Puget Sound’s level rises even a few inches, storms could drive water into the city while storm-water drains run backwards, flooding streets and buildings.

My brother’s place in Lower Clinton is up for sale but given the growing threat of flooding, the buying public is passing up its easy beach access and stunning view. The predicted six-inch rise of Puget Sound by the year 2050 dims not only the long-term attractiveness of that vacation home but the nature of waterfronts all along the Sound. Even in this depressed housing market high-demand beach property won’t sell if front porches might soon double as shallow-draft moorages.

I can’t know how skiing will fare in the Cascades in 2050 nor, given my age, do I care. But since we Puget Sounders choose to cluster along shores, we should care about that strip of shoreline that helps to define us as a culture. As in Olympia, local studies will figure out what has to be done but it can’t stop with studies.  The next decade should be the time for action.


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