Communicating Sea Level Rise to Coastal Washington Communities: Opportunities, Challenges, and Concerns

-by Diana Perry, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs Graduate and Graduate Certificate in Climate Science Recipient, Spring 2018

The beach on Cape Cod where I grew up exploring looks different—a thinner, steeper backshore and steeper nearshore leading to a larger shallower point—than it did when I first stepped foot on it. In a few decades, it may not exist, or at the very least, will look dramatically different. This is a reality we face along the coastlines we love from Cape Code, Massachusetts to Bristol Bay, Alaska. Glaciers are melting, the ocean is warming, sea level is rising, and coastlines the world over are changing.

When I arrived at the University of Washington, I had a hard science background with a desire to expand my understanding and experience in engaging people on all sides of an issue (stakeholders) in order to create useful and effective marine policy. I learned about the Climate Impacts Group (CIG), their work as a boundary organization, and how the individuals within CIG, who had varied interests, were able to apply that expertise to complete impactful projects related to the changing climate throughout the region. I knew I wanted to work with them in some way before I graduated. The capstone for the Graduate Certificate in Climate Science (GCeCS) provided the perfect opportunity.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded a project called the Washington Coastal Hazards Resilience Network (CHRN), within which is the Washington Coastal Resilience Project (WCRP). WCRP is working with various coastal cities and counties to expand their capacity to prepare for coastal hazards, one of which is SLR. I worked with members of the WCRP team and members of Island County staff to identify gaps in their capacity to communicate SLR to the public. We determined that a Story Map available online would be an efficient way for the county to communicate the science of SLR to their constituents with links that provide easily accessible resources for further understanding and action.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in its 2013 report that the global average sea level is rising. The report also states that the “regional sea level changes may differ substantially from a global average” due to rebalancing of dynamic natural systems.

My project focused on Island County, Washington, which is home to over 200 miles of shoreline around Whidbey and Camano Island along with seven other small islands. Increases in sea level can make coastlines more vulnerable to the impacts of flooding, storm surges, tsunamis, and extreme astronomic tide. While tsunamis are rare in Washington, flooding from storm surges and extreme tides are issues that many residents are already experiencing.

Studies suggest that the impacts of sea level rise (SLR) are both indirect and direct, but will have an overwhelmingly negative socioeconomic impact on local communities. According to Tebaldi (2012), the Puget Sound is expected to rise 0.28m (0.92ft) between 2008 and 2050. The WCRP is working to refine similar projections by incorporating best available science to provide communities in Washington relevant SLR projections. According to an analysis completed by Climate Central, Island County is at a 100% risk of at least one flood (from storm surge) exceeding 4 to 6 feet by 2100. A six-foot flood would expose 2,011 people and $534 million in property to damages. Much of those 6 feet will be observed in the second half of the century. This capstone project focused on SLR impacts within Island County. Specifically, it aimed to create a product that would communicate the science of SLR, illustrate what is being done in the County, and present resources residents could investigate to learn more and be proactive in preparing for SLR.

Evaluation occurred throughout the project to ensure the team would produce a useful and used deliverable to Island County. Ultimately, members of Island County staff and WCRP evaluated the Story Map to improve language and visuals through a survey created with guidance from my advisors. This feedback was incorporated in the final version of my Story Map. I anticipate this Story Map and its visuals to be used for various presentations throughout the Washington coast to improve understanding and to make resources available to a broad audience of residents.

This Story Map is anticipated to be used as a stepping-stone for residents who are interested in learning more about SLR and how they can prepare themselves and their coastal investments for the impacts of SLR. It is imperative to understand the risks that accompany living on the coasts, as SLR will impact people in all walks of life that claim the coasts as their home. It was important to me going into this project that what I would produce would actually reach people and be used into the future. This Story Map will be available for use by the public and provides visuals and resources for those wanting to learn more about SLR.

Throughout this project I learned the difficulties of identifying a specific audience and tailoring science communication for that audience. This project had its challenges and I learned a lot about how to balance many objectives and people, but ultimately feel fulfilled since the project will be utilized in the future. While the SLR projections for this region are not necessarily the same to that beach on Cape Cod, the regions face similar impacts from SLR and now I have a greater understanding of what those impacts will be and how to prepare for them.