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WC Retro: Environmental Restoration in the Age of Climate Change

By Alex Steffen, posted on March 31, 2006.

Puget Sound is hurting. Almost embarrassingly bountiful until just a few decades ago, it now seems to be sliding towards an ecological tipping point: salmon and orca are on the endangered species list, estuaries and wetlands and near-shore habitat have been destroyed, and on a whole, it is teetering on the brink of collapse.

It's not too late to save it. While a variety of factors have played into the decline -- past overfishing, invasive species, and especially the growing population around Puget Sound and the large amounts of toxic chemicals we slough off as part of our daily lives (oil and other chemicals from our cars, lawn fertilizer and pesticides, even sewage) -- the real key to saving the sound is shorelines.

"Puget Sound's shoreline is made up of over 2,300 miles of sandy beaches, rocky shores, eelgrass beds, kelp forests, salt marshes, and mudflats. These shoreline habitats support an abundance of life in and around the Sound, such as sea and shorebirds, herring and smelt, shellfish, salmon, and seals and whales. ... More than one-third of Puget Sound shoreline habitat has been destroyed due to bulkheads, piers, docks, and other structures."

If we're going to bring Puget Sound back to health, we need to bring those shorelines back to health. To do that, People for Puget Sound, the Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land have teamed up to announce the Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines, an effort to raise $80 million over the next three years to "restore and protect Puget Sound's ecologically rich shorelines and ensure they're available for people to enjoy for generations to come."

This is good work. The challenge, though, is that the shorelines themselves are becoming moving targets. Already, global warming is changing Puget Sound, causing the water to warm and the sea to rise. Predictions for the future are even more alarming. "Business-as-usual will yield warming of 6 to 9 degrees F by the end of the century and... sea level will rise. The last time it was 5 degrees F warmer than now sea level was at least 80 feet higher," says James Hansen, NASA's chief climate scientist. Other studies suggest that without drastic action, we may have already committed ourselves to as much as a twenty feet of sea-level rise. Studies suggest that melting ice sheets alone are already causing the sea to rise at about a millimeter a year.

To get a sense of what sea-level rise means, map it. You can use the FloodMaps site to give a fair representation of what a certain sea-level rise will mean for the place you live (the image with this article is a map of what Seattle's shoreline will look like if the sea rises 7 meters -- in other words, what it could look like by the end of the century). When we map rising seas to Puget Sound, we find that much of what is now shoreline may well be underwater by century's end.

This is clearly a place where some climate foresight is called for. People For Puget Sound's Mike Sato acknowledges that when it comes to the Sound, "Climate change isn't top-of-mind at all."

The biggest problem, Mike says (and here I should acknowledge that years ago I consulted on projects involving both PPS and TNC), is that it's been very difficult to even get policy-makers and funders to acknowledge the importance of doing the basic restoration and protection work whose need is well-documented, much less get them thinking about the implications of changes which may still be decades off:

"If we have a 24 inch rise in sea levels, what would the implications be? People say 'We can't really take that into account,' but don't you have to? the shoreline's going to be quite different -- and we're not even talking about what happens on a dark December night when the wind's blowing, and the rains are pouring down and a full tide is coming in. We're thinking along those lines, but given current political reality, how do you even approach it?"

Does that inability to plan for climate change impacts undermine the usefulness of the Shorelines alliance's work? No. Many of these things are things we'll need to do whatever our eventual strategy, just to stabilize a collapsing ecosystem. And $80 million is not much in a state with 6.3 million people and a $250+ billion economy -- indeed, we probably need to be thinking about spending much more, in much more innovative ways to find solutions which allow us to protect against rising seas and larger storms, while promoting the health of estuarine and marine habitat. Taking care of what we have while we learn to plan ahead is sensible.

The two may not be unrelated. From the Southeast Asian tsunami to Katrina, we've seen that places where estuaries, wetlands, tidal flats, mangrove forests (places where land and ocean interpenetrate) have been destroyed get hit harder when the ocean turns angry. Thinking seriously about ecological health and public safety in an age of sea level rise and weird weather may well mean not just seawalls and dikes, but intelligent use of saltwater wetlands which can act as buffers and sponges, as well as keep ecological balance.

But here's the thing: we're still learning what to do and how to do it. We don't know as much as we should about the world in which we live. We don't know how, for example, to do shoreline restoration in a way which will give benefit now and be adaptive as the seas rise farther. We don't know how to integrate living systems -- like tidal marshes, mudflats and kelp beds -- into a system of hardening protections like bulkheads and seawalls. We're navigating blind.

This is a local story, but the moral is global. No matter where we live, climate change is upon us, and its impacts are growing quickly. Tackling emissions is important, but we have to face as well the fact that climate commitment is a reality, that we live in a rapidly-changing world and that every decision we make about our interactions with the natural world, for the foreseeable future, must be made not looking back, but looking forward.

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