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Report gloomy on Whidbey’s beaches

Two boys play in a tidepool on Maxwelotn Beach. A new report says most of Whidbey
Two boys play in a tidepool on Maxwelotn Beach. A new report says most of Whidbey's beaches could be wiped out by climate change.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

Climate change could submerge 80-85 percent by year 2100

Enjoy Whidbey Island’s beaches as long as you can. Within a lifetime, 40 percent of the island’s beaches could be history.

So says a new report from the National Wildlife Federation, which draws a bleak future for coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest.

“Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest” takes a sharp look at global warming’s profound impact on the coastal habitats of Washington and Oregon.

“We were surprised, there is really some more significant impact on the low lying lands, including loss of beaches,” said Patty Glick, the author of the report and a global warming specialist at the National Wildlife Federation’s Western Natural Resources Center.

“On Whidbey Island that’s certainly the case,” she added.

By 2050, Whidbey Island may lose up to 40 percent of its beaches, Glick said.

Overall, 80-85 percent of beaches are predicted to be lost around Whidbey Island 2100.

Due to the island’s high bluff there isn’t much concern about inland flooding. A sea level rise will play the biggest role in eroding beaches, however.

Dry land on Whidbey Island is high enough to escape much conversion, even in the more aggressive sea-level scenarios, according to the report.

However, the small fringes of wetlands all around the island are subject to change.

Brackish marsh and fresh marsh and a small portion of low-lying dry lands are predicted to be inundated with salt water. Those areas will convert to salt marsh and tidal flats. Beaches on the west side of Whidbey are expected to change the most.

It will certainly impact wildlife habitat on Whidbey, Glick said.

“Beaches are great for people, but even more important as a wildlife habitat,” Glick said.

“You may not think variations at the shoreline impact whales that spend most of their time in deeper waters, but small changes can set off a chain reaction,” Glick added. “When Chinook salmon are threatened by habitat changes, lack of food, and warmer water, orcas suddenly can’t find enough food to live and reproduce.”

While marine and wildlife are at risk, most homeowners don’t have to worry about their house plunging into Puget Sound.

Over a 100-year time span, the report predicts only a 4 percent loss of undeveloped land and no significant loss of developed land.

However, the way islanders use their land may have an impact on what the future holds for wildlife on the island.

“Bulkheads protect property, but they can make the impact on the beaches worse,” Glick said.

“Natural erosion is necessary. Bulkheads will prevent natural erosion and natural replenishment of beaches,” she explained.

Global warming is contributing to a significant increase in the rate of global sea-level rise due to rising ocean temperatures, melting glaciers and ice fields. The study considered a number of scenarios depending on how much greenhouse gases will be emitted during the next century, then used a midlevel scenario.

The report analyzes a range of sea-level rise scenarios detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, from a 3-inch rise in global average sea level by 2025 to more than 2 feet by 2100.

The study also models a rise of up to 6 1/2 feet by 2100 to accommodate for recent studies that suggest sea level rise will occur much more rapidly this century than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models have predicted.

“It really takes into consideration some really troubling science,” Glick said.

The impacts on Puget Sound as a whole will be dramatic:

• Beaches where rivers meet open water will be inundated and eroded for a 65 percent loss;

• As much as 44 percent of tidal flat will disappear;

• And 13 percent of inland fresh marsh areas and 25 percent of tidal fresh marsh areas will be lost.

Glick said the report looked at the bigger picture. The organization will now approach local groups and coastal managers who are more familiar with specific beaches, wetlands and other habitats to find ways to protect them. But the organization also wants to learn more about the areas from the residents.

The report suggests steps for helping coastal resources in the years ahead. Coastal managers must account for global warming in habitat restoration efforts. Civic planners should also incorporate sea-level rise in coastal development plans, discouraging development in coastal hazard areas, moving or abandoning shoreline infrastructure, preserving ecological buffers to allow inland habitat migration, and enhancing shoreline protection recognizing the negative consequences for shoreline habitat.

Finally, public officials must not let the uncertainties of climate change – whether seas will rise a couple of feet or a couple of yards – as an excuse for inaction, the report said.

“Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest” is available at www.nwf.org.

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