What Climate Change Means For Seattle's Waterfront

Jan 14, 2013

On Monday the Seattle City Council announced a new plan to take action on climate change. As global temperatures rise, so does sea level, and some reports predict that by the year 2050 key parts of Seattle could be underwater at high tide.

Over half of of Harbor Island would be under water in a regular high tide event in 2050.
Credit Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons

The council announced the plan on the shores of Elliott Bay, near downtown Seattle.

Council Member Mike O’Brien stood before the wintery gray waters of Puget Sound and pointed to a large map of the Seattle shoreline. He said the effects of climate change will hit Seattle right where it hurts: the industrial shipping zone at Harbor Island.

"Over half of Harbor Island would be under water in a regular high tide event in the year 2050," O'Brien says.

Sections of the South Park, Georgetown, Magnolia and Interbay neighborhoods, among others, are also in the path of sea level rise. Seattle Public Utilities worries about flooding affecting key infrastructure – like the West Point wastewater treatment plant and stormwater outflows around the Sound.

The city council’s Climate Action Plan makes 150 recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change across a variety of sectors.

The recommendations include things like providing incentives for more energy efficient buildings, getting more electric vehicles on the road and promoting urban forestry in the hottest parts of the city.

The report also calls for the state government to tax climate pollution (as British Columbia did) or institute a cap and trade system, (as California did).

Last month, high tides flooded 100 homes along Alki beach in West Seattle. But this city’s not alone in her suffering at the hands of climate change. Nor will she be in the future.

Amy Snover is the director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. She co-authored the Northwestern section of a new federal climate assessment report.

“There’s a large land area that is near and potentially vulnerable to these rising seas," Snover says.

Globally, sea level is projected to rise between one and four feet by the end of this century. In Oregon and Washington over 140,000 acres of coastal land fall below that four foot mark.

That begs the question: Can all these climate action items proposed by the Seattle City Council actually accomplish anything?

“Seattle can do what Seattle can do and it won’t solve the problem but all they can do is what they do," Snover says.

In the absence of federal climate policy there’s only so much any local jurisdiction can accomplish.

In a press release, the Seattle City Council advised people living in coastal areas that are prone to flooding to buy insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program.