It’s a particularly stormy December day. Waves roll onto the beach near the Point Wilson Lighthouse at Fort Worden State Park.
Usually, they would stop right there. But not this time.
The mixture of high tides and strong winds cause the surf to push past the beach and through a trail leading to a visitor parking lot.
“The tide came through, it came all the way and hit the road, and then it kind of came down below and puddled up; all the shore pines are dead because it got exposed to that much salt water for a couple of days,” said Brian Hageman, Washington State Park’s Olympic View area manager.
Hageman oversees all Port Townsend–area state parks and has been stationed at Fort Worden for three years. He expected this to happen.
The trail cuts through a sand dune, which protects native plants and the parking lot from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, part of the Salish Sea. Foot traffic has worn the trail down throughout the years.
Prior to the December 2015 storm, the trail was about 6 feet wide. The waves washed sand away, opening the trail to about 20 feet, Hageman estimated.
Wind builds the sand back into a hill, but it can’t keep up with the number of people passing through, Hageman said.
Another section of the park affected by the storm was Knapp’s Loop, which has a parking area and lookout to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s less than a quarter-mile from the lighthouse.
The loop is situated atop an embankment, and a wooden fence separates visitors from the drop. A new fence was built this summer after the last one (installed after a storm undermined some of the area in 2006) collapsed during the storm.
The storm occurred during a so-called “king tide” period, making waves higher than usual, causing water to breach and erode the dune as well.
“It’s much lower; potentially all really high tides and storms could continue to flood that area, and we want to save our little road and parking lot,” Hageman said.
The area that flooded is covered in shore pine trees and grass.
King tides are the highest yearly tides, typically happening three or four times during winter, said Ian Miller, Washington Sea Grant’s coastal hazard specialist. Washington Sea Grant is part of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. Miller is based in Port Angeles.
King tides occur when the earth aligns in a certain way with the moon and the sun, Miller said. They’re not much higher than normal high tides.
“We don’t even notice them, unless there is a storm that bumps them up,” Miller said.
In extreme events, these astronomical tides can reconfigure shorelines.
Hageman believes climate change is a contributing factor to the high waves
eroding the shoreline.
Globally, oceans are rising, Miller said, which is most likely caused by climate change warming the water and melting ice. It’s expected that water levels will continue to increase, possibly even faster than they are now, Miller said.
“We’re talking about most likely seeing an observable change in the rate at which sea level is rising during our lifetimes,” Miller said.
There is a gauge at the Port Townsend Ferry Terminal tracking the tide’s height. Each year, it has increased between 1 and 3 millimeters, Miller noted. If this pattern continues, this area of Puget Sound could be from 4 to 12 inches higher within a century.
“[The increase] is most likely due to land level changes; Port Townsend may be subsiding just a bit, but it’s also attributed to climate change,” Miller said.
Sea level increase is probably similar at Point Wilson, according to Miller.
Washington State Parks in 1989 added sand, riprap rock and dune grass in an effort to limit erosion in front of Battery Kinzie and Knapp’s Loop parking lot. In the mid-1990s, more rock was added. There was even a proposal to build a solid wall, which was deemed too costly and environmentally unfriendly.
In 2005, the U.S. Coast Guard spent more than $250,000 to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “armor” the shoreline around the historic Point Wilson Lighthouse (1913), which had been getting hammered by waves. But after only one winter, that riprap began showing faults, and water crested the barrier during several storms. It’s typical for small rocks and gravel to be tossed over the barrier and against the lighthouse.
“With Mother Nature and the way the currents are going, if it wasn’t all armored, the point would probably curl into a hook,” Hageman noted.
Ten years ago, the federal government estimated it would cost at least $3 million to relocate the lighthouse away from the shore. At one point, Washington State Parks was keen on acquiring the federal property, but not anymore. The federal government is seeking a tenant to lease the site, and is negotiating with the U.S. Lighthouse Society, which is talking to the Fort Worden Public Development Authority about providing hospitality services. The property includes the lighthouse, the lightkeeper’s house, and the home once used by Coast Guard personnel stationed in Port Townsend. The large-vessel traffic radar system remains Coast Guard property.
In the winter of 2005-06, the point was well protected, but storm surge created a 10-foot drop-off just feet from the parking lot in front of Battery Kinzie. The state had to remove two of the lot’s 13 parking spaces and replace part of a fence. During the winter of 2015-16, more erosion took place, requiring another section of fence. The breached dune, between the access road and the lighthouse, puts lighthouse access at risk.
In an attempt to protect the sand dune and Knapp’s Loop, Hageman has requested Washington State Parks help with an armoring project. If the sand dune goes without restoration or protection, water could keep coming through and potentially turn Point Wilson into an island, removing the parking lot and beach access.
“We’re working on permits to maybe add sand back to the primary dune, and looking to maybe put a small retaining wall right against our road to kind of help that road, just in case it does breach through there again,” Hageman said.
He hopes for soft armoring, which is natural and better for the ecosystem than installing large rocks, Hageman said. Soft armoring is made by planting vegetation and adding smaller rocks.
Washington State Parks has begun the permit process, Hageman said. The permit would require a number of reviews from multiple agencies determine whether the project has merit and how it would fit in the budget, said Virginia Painter, Washington State Park’s communications director.
“It’s no small matter to do a beach restoration,” Painter said.
The state park’s budget comes from Washington’s construction account and grants.
Near the large trail, visitors are beginning to create “social trails.” These are formed when people walk through the sand, over the hill, to get to the beach, killing grass in the process.
Although it may not look like much, the dune grass is saving the hill from erosion. The roots hold sand in place against the elements. In some social trails, the grass is gone and the ground is already being worn down, creating more vulnerable spots for water to rush through.
Park guests can help by staying on the main trail to the beach, which is the large one blown out in the storm, Hageman said.
“We’re always going to loose the battle to Mother Nature,” Hageman said.
(Leader Staff Writer Patrick J. Sullivan contributed to this story.)