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Climate change report shows major impacts for Northwest

Bjørn Giesenbauer photo

Imagine a future in which major areas of Seattle’s waterfront are flooded because of rising tides.

Businesses that front on Elliot Bay, including the famous Edgewater Hotel, or parks such as Myrtle Edwards or Golden Gardens, would have to adjust to storm surges more than six feet higher than we’re used to.

According to a new federal report on climate change, that future is just a few decades away. 

Warming oceans mean sea levels are rising. And that has all kinds of consequences. A 1,200-page report from scientists at 13 federal agencies lays out the latest findings. And this 3rd Draft Assessment on National Climate Change has a 37-page chapter on the situation in the Northwest.

Susanne Moser is a coastal climate change expert with Woods Institute at Stanford University. She says though it’s a preliminary report, there’s no denying anymore that we are seeing evidence of climate change.

“Changes in extreme weather, changes in temperature, changes in rainfall and snowfall, changes in species distribution. You name it,” Mosure says.

The chapter on the Northwestlooks at everything from forest health to fire danger to ocean acidification. It covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. And there’s lots of detail on sea level rise along the coast, including a detailed study of Seattle’s Elliot Bay, with color codes predicting six foot storm surges that cover most of the Port of Seattle.

‘So, it goes very far inland. And a lot people, a lot of infrastructure, a lot of business establishments would be affected by such a sea-level rise, plus storm surge.”

And the consequences aren’t just about physical infrastructure; they affect the economy as well. Because, as the timing of runoff from snow pack into  rivers and streams changes, that affects water available for agriculture and energy. The report predicts that sixty years from now, it could reduce hydropower production by as much as 20%.

“Which is a really important economic issue, not just for Seattle and not just for the state of Washington, but Washington does export some of its hydropower, for example to California. So, it’s a good thing we’re working together,” Mosure says.

Seattle officials are holding a news conference later this morning  to talk about the projections for the next 40 years and what people can do about it.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien chairs the city’s Energy and Environment Committee. He says he was shocked to see projections showing up to 80 percent of the Port of Seattle’s Harbor Island inundated.

Other areas around Elliot Bay that could be flooded during high tides include big parts of West Seattle, Georgetown, South Park, Interbay and Golden Gardens. O'Brien says scientists have been collecting data and tracking weather patterns for the past several years. And their projections are shifting.

"Based on what we're seeing on the ground today, we think that even the kind of high scenarios in here may be more conservative than we thought," O'Brien says.

The draft report from the federal government is open for public comment through April 12th.  Then scientists will make changes and issue the final assessment about a year from now.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to