Is it weather or climate?

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Windy weather had waves crashing on buildings and streets downtown frequently this January, and while it isn’t unusual for residents of Port Townsend to feel the spray of saltwater while walking down Water Street, it does pose a question for the future: What will happen to downtown’s historic buildings if sea levels rise as predicted by climate scientists?

King tides in December and January are a regular occurrence. These extremely high tides occur when astronomical events amplify the gravitational pull between the Earth and the moon. But high tides can be a window into the future, according to Bridget Trosin, coastal policy specialist from the Washington Sea Grant.

While a 9- to 10-foot tide now only happens a couple times a year during a king tide, sea level rise projections say that in 50 years or less, those high tides could be the new normal.

“In the year 2050, there is a 17% likelihood that the sea level will rise by 1 foot or more,” Trosin said in an interview with The Leader last November. “Things that flood right now in a king tide are only going to get worse as sea level rise continues.”

A report released in July of 2018 by the Washington Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group showed that the coast of Washington is rising, whereas the land surrounding the Puget Sound, including Port Townsend, is sinking.

The report includes projections for more than 150 different sites along the Washington coastline, from all marine shorelines in Washington state. It shows a geology-driven land motion that is causing an uplift at Neah Bay and sinking in Seattle.

The report gave a statewide estimate for about 1.5 feet of sea-level rise by 2100 if the state manages to limit future greenhouse emissions.

The city of Port Townsend’s Comprehensive Plan calls for developing resilient systems where “planning and investment decisions account for changing conditions, such as climate change, sea level rise, natural disasters, technological changes and increased renewable energy generation.”

The plan also compels the city to assess the risks and potential impacts on both the city government and on the larger community due to climate change, including impacts from increased frequency of flooding.

Last year, the Admiralty Apartment building, located on Taylor Street, was damaged during a wind storm and high tide. That damage eventually resulted in the evacuation of residents from the building in May 2019.

“The main work priority in this arena for us this year is a mandated review of the Shoreline Management Plan by June 2021,” wrote City Manager John Mauro in an email response to questions from The Leader. “This is so we can ensure it complies with applicable rules and laws, remains consistent with our Comprehensive Plan and development regulations and considers changes in local circumstances, info and data.”

The city’s Climate Action Committee has recommended that city officials address climate change and sea level rise in the review of the Shoreline Management Plan.

“It’s my view that we need to carefully integrate all our decision-making with the ever-changing climate reality – and this expands far beyond the Shoreline Management Plan update,” Mauro wrote.

The city faces a number of constraints, he added, including resources and funding.

He hopes the city will be able to partner with the Port of Port Townsend, Jefferson County, the PUD and other community partners.

“I see this conversation as a long-term community priority that needs to be elevated from where it is now, and that will take time, effort, courageous action and fierce prioritization with some tough trade-offs to move us forward,” Mauro said.

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