Rising seas bring together scientists and tribes

SEATTLE — Last week, a group of environmental scientists, resource managers, planners, researchers, students and elders gathered at the Mountaineers’ headquarters on Sand Point Way to exchange ideas.

The occasion was a two-day forum called “Making Sense of Sea Level Rise,” organized and hosted by the Tulalip Tribes.

The symposium was geared toward combining knowledge from disparate organizations and individuals and looking for opportunities to collaborate.

It was less about revealing new science than it was about finding out how to put what is already known into action.

“Our expectation is mainly just to pull together people working on climate issues, especially sea level rise,” said Terry Williams, the Tulalip Tribes’ treaty rights office commissioner.

The goal was to find out how to bring that expertise at different levels of government together.

“A lot of people (have been) doing a lot of work pretty much independently,” Williams said.

That was apparent from the list of presentations, which included technical analyses of environmental factors contributing to both short-term and long-term changes in sea level over a wide area, case studies of flooding in coastal communities, and different methods of visualization to help communicate technical information to nonscientific audiences.

Because the Tulalips were organizing the event, there was a particular focus on tribal communities, many of which lie in rural areas along coastlines.

Native American communities are often like the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to environmental problems, said Larry Campbell, a tribal elder from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

“Whenever there’s a new epidemic, it hits tribal communities first,” Campbell said, drawing on the Navajo Nation’s experience with the hantavirus outbreak in 1993.

The Swinomish, who live on the coast in Skagit County, became aware of changes in the climate, too.

“We noticed that the 100-year storms seemed to be happening every five years now,” Campbell said.

The observations of a native community were backed by science that has charted the rising and falling of the ocean in coastal communities going back more than a century.

Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, highlighted different estimates for what will happen to sea levels, but also indicated that there were still large areas of uncertainty.

Mote presented data, for example, that showed estimates of sea level rise based upon different levels of carbon emissions control, ranging from estimates of a rise of 16-24 inches by 2100 if the world’s nations succeed in tightly controlling emissions, to a rise of up to 40 inches by the end of the century in a scenario of uncontrolled emissions.

That data accounts for what is understood about how emissions warm the seas, causing what is known as “thermal expansion,” as well as melting glaciers.

There are still many factors whose impact is not well understood, he said.

“Antarctica is the big unknown,” Mote said. Furthermore, he added, local factors such as El Nino weather systems can have almost the same size effect as global factors, and over the span of a few decades.

Ian Miller, a coast hazard specialist with Washington Sea Grant on the Olympic Peninsula, pointed out that having rigorous science is only part of the challenge. The next step is communicating it to people who can take informed actions.

A 2012 National Research Council report, “Sea Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon and Washington,” contained solid and sobering research, but it didn’t get a wide amount of publicity, he said.

One reason, Miller presumed, was that the report took a large-scale view of a lot of effects, such as vertical land movement, the rise and fall of land masses.

“That left questions open at the community level as to how relevant it was to them,” Miller said.

Research he’d conducted along the Strait of Juan de Fuca has projected different outcomes: Port Townsend has a greater probability of experiencing higher seas and extreme flooding than Neah Bay where the land is actually rising in a manner consistent with the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast.

“That’s got planning implications in each of those communities,” Miller said.

“It’s not just about average sea level,” he said. “It’s about changes in patterns of extremes that affect communities.”

The more formal presentations were followed by breakout sessions in groups, giving the attendees the opportunity to compare ideas and explore questions more deeply.

Josh Meidav, the Tulalip Tribes’ conservation science program manager, said the workshop was valuable even though Tulalip had been doing a lot of study and work on the issues surrounding climate change, such as restoring tidal marshes near Marysville.

He said he was especially interested in refining existing models with new data as well as exploring new ways of presenting this kind of data to the tribal community and leadership.

“There’s a sense of being overwhelmed, but that translates into a sense of responsibility and possibility for opportunity,” Meidav said.

“If we don’t plan now, we pay a lot more later, with interest, as a society,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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